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  • Reina Tayyibji

In Visibility

1

Walking the streets of the old city in the mornings feels like making small creases in the taut fabric of its hectic mundanity: I am just getting in the way of someone who is getting work done. Walking with a camera feels like tearing through that fabric — suddenly, everyone and everything feels seen by me, by my camera. The fact of being seen changes all that is being seen. The camera is looked at, even by those it isn’t pointed towards. In an ironic moment, something which had always allowed me a certain kind of invisibility — being in possession of the camera — makes me embarrassingly visible.


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I constantly behave as though I’m being photographed. When I stand in the mirror, I stand frozen. I’ll even try different angles — my mirror image becoming mirror images. When I laugh and talk and move, I do it in a way that wouldn’t make for bad photographs, even with the full awareness that there is no camera on me. When I look at photographs of myself, I do not completely believe in the fragmented, frozen version of me that I see. And yet, I can’t see myself as anything but fragmented and frozen images. I create an image of myself, I dress like that image, I behave like that image, and then I become that image.


3

A guilt has started to build up in me every time I hold the camera. I don’t know whether this guilt builds from its object-ness – that holding it is, in itself, such a distinction of my economic status – or from how the camera establishes another kind of status: I am able to frame, capture, document. Perhaps it comes from the knowledge that I am impinging upon a certain layer of ‘reality’ that I have removed myself from. How can an object grant me that kind of (narrative) power?


 

How does one negotiate between this position behind the camera and the constant feeling of being seen that our image-filled world puts us in? And why, still, does the desire to want to be seen, the urge to represent and to narrativise oneself remain?


We seem to believe that visibility in media allows for empowerment. It makes logical sense that increasing representation would create a larger scope for heterogeneity, wherein the representation is that of a certain identity (group). Which is to say, limiting media portrayal to that of only a particular class, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender results in a homogenous media geared towards those already-represented identity groups in that others remain invisibilized. We may be able to put this into question in two ways: first, by thinking about the extent to which visibility operates only in/for the position made visible by the camera, and second, by reconsidering how visibility may perform the function of empowering, given the complexities of the articulations and ideas about ‘representation’.


In thinking about visibility through the camera and representation as a function of the photographer’s power, it is crucial to consider what happens to the photograph once it becomes ‘a photograph’, seeable. There must be a visibility beyond the sight of the camera itself, a visibility accorded to the viewer of the photograph beyond or distinct from that of the lens. The photographer’s power is a narrative one, by virtue of its capacity to represent. Then, the fact that this narrative is seen — that is, as a frame within which the representation is seen — means that the photographer-narrator is allowed visibility. This visibility is privileged over that of the literal being seen in the image. 


We first see what the photographer allows, prompts, and directs us to see, and then we see the ‘thing’ in the photograph. The photographer produces a particular gaze before we can see something through ours, whatever that may be. Seeing the photographer’s gaze, we are able to see something of the photographer.


The representation allowed by the camera, then, relies on the one being photographed as becoming the ‘object’ of a gaze. This is not to say that this position of being represented is not necessarily an empowering one, but that its implications must be employed to complicate how we figure power in the dynamic(s) between the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer. If we are to consider the material conditions within which these photographs operate, on social and other media — as souvenirs, advertisements, methods of proof and verification, and data — we may suggest that the ‘object’ of the gaze in the photograph becomes a literal object in being photographed and, in some ways, is commodified.


In returning to the assumption that visibility is something empowering, we now account for how visibility is also (if not first) that of the photographer. But then, to what extent does this visibility allow for empowerment if it already comes from a place of power? To be able to have narrative visibility in the photograph, one must be able to afford the camera — once again, economic status. Who gets to be able to photograph is directly linked to the material consideration of who has access to the camera. Narrative power becomes completely derived from a position of socio-economic power. So, despite the supposed ‘heterogeneity’ offered by representation within a photograph, the media-driven, image-filled world we live in maintains the hegemony of a certain group, privileged across identities, of their gaze as primary.


The act of taking a picture zooms out into a much larger dynamic at play: one in which we may see how the camera’s frame casts its subject as object, that visibility and power within the photograph is vested in the photographer, even when they are not present in the photograph, and that this power may derive itself from an already existing economic power.


If representation is the preoccupation of the photographer, then, is the responsibility to their subject that of representing their reality? Usually, we talk of photoshopping, for example, with great disdain for the act, as something that tampers with the reality of a photograph, as a manipulation, a disingenuity. Is it that we forget that the very act of producing a photograph is a manipulative act? It is only a disingenuity in that the reality of the photograph is not absolutely congruent to a reality outside the photograph — that is, operating on the assumption that both these realities must be congruent. However, this is true only if we believe that a photograph captures any true ‘reality’ at all, that is, outside and not vested in the representation (the aesthetics of the photograph) itself.


I am urged to ask, given the way in which we are so preoccupied with photographs capturing and representing reality, how much of reality —  as seen in, as well as outside, the photograph — is reconfigured by the act of capturing it? Reality itself seems to be deeply transformed by the constant presence of photographs, present even as they are absent, making one stop in their tracks as they become suddenly conscious of the camera. It constantly impels us to ‘pose’ even as we walk and stand and laugh and talk, endlessly demanding that we live as if in an image of ourselves. 

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