INSIDER/OUTSIDER: PHOTOGRAPHING THE OTHER

By Abbey Hepner
Published October 19th, 2017


This article is taken from a paper that I presented at the 2017 Society for Photographic Education national conference. In 2015 I set out to make a project about the dawn of the nuclear renaissance in a small town in Georgia and came to realize that the more significant and unavoidable issue was that of environmental injustice. I grew increasingly discouraged with my photographic practice and fearful of my examination as an outsider. I turned to classic photographic theory books to try to analyze the questions I had about power dynamics and photographic morality, and I thought I might never make another photograph. Recognizing that my peers in the photographic community were asking similar questions about our roles as creators and the complexity of examining the world from an insider-or-outsider position, I spent a year traveling and interviewing them about their process. I collected more modern materials that explored ethical questions in photography, with an awareness of the scope of the medium and technological changes that have taken place. I was searching for a reason to keep making photographs and to say what I knew needed to be said.


We are asked deep and probing questions about our personal connection in an attempt to better understand our work. The emotional impact, the personal attachment, the ability to deeply affect people- artists often act as the translators through which we can safely examine a world that is at once thrilling and simultaneously frightening. It is not abnormal to want the translator to allow us deeper access through a personal relationship. While assumptions made about authenticity and truth tend to be granted to insiders in the art world: those speaking about themselves or their communities. Culturally, we continue to plant objectivity and truth in exterior conditions: those speaking about people or places less familiar to them, through the work of journalists, for example.

 Questions about identity, agency, and the translation of our social location to our audience are territories for in-depth exploration in the atmosphere that embodies the educational institution. Depending upon the democratic makeup of peers and faculty, these conversations and elevation of the insider or outsider perspective may change drastically. But many of these questions persist throughout a life of art making, though they may change both in form and with an increase in confidence and deliverance on the part of the artist. Within the context of this brief article, this exploration is far from exhaustive. It serves primarily to share theory that has been written about the insider/outsider perspective and share Ariella Azoulay’s call for greater spectator participation. As we examine shifts in contemporary art and the questions being raised, we have the opportunity to investigate how they are both a reflection of and a reaction to changes in our broader world. In the timely examination of truth and fiction, we combat the world at large, not with ignoring all information, but through enhancing our critical thinking skills. The producer has always held a heightened responsibility, but now we re-engage with the fact that the reader—the interpreter of information—must also have some responsibility. For photography, this is equally salient.

Two texts I reference are Linda Bolton’s book: Facing The Other, Ethical Disruption and the American Mind and Ariella Azoulay’s book: The Civil Contract of Photography. Many publications address the insider/outsider position of the photographer without extensive discussion regarding the subjects being photographed or the responsibility of the spectator viewing them. Azoulay’s book offers us a framework to explore this and to engage within her invented contract, to redirect and re-examine photography in an interesting way. It is relevant to our political sphere and its potential to reinvigorate a dialogue about photography that might better reflect changes and growing global access to technology.

Although this is not the primary focus of this article, it is essential to talk about the apparent complications in approaching a photographic project as an outsider. “Photographing the Other” is a provocation not to obliterate the fact that photography has been used historically to evoke the materiality of appearances, in an attempt to convince of European superiority. Remaining conscious of this history and not naïve in the approach to creating from an outsider perspective, recognizing the political tactics in labeling the Other, and avoiding Othering; which is any linguistic-discursive action by which a group or an individual is labeled as “not one of us.”[1] The use of the term “the Other,” references philosopher Emmanuel Levinas term “Other,” from Bolton’s book, as the other person that we encounter. Levinas uses the singular “other” to highlight that we meet others individually, in a face-to-face relationship. “Face” meaning the human face encountered as the living presence of another person. In this face-to-face encounter, another individual is vulnerable and exposed to us, and we cannot reduce them to an idea or stereotype in our head. Levinas wrote, “To face the Other is to recognize an exteriority that is not reducible… to the interiority of memory.” Nor, as Bolton points out, to a historical narrative created by the subject. “When man truly approaches the other he is uprooted from history.” [2] Facing the other is in the moral and civic acknowledgment of another individual beyond the superficial gaze that we may adversely attach to the photograph.

One complication of making work about others is that speaking about others is often viewed as speaking for others. According to the philosopher Linda Alcoff, from where one speaks from (their “location”) affects the meaning of what one says, and therefore, one cannot transcend their social location. Also, certain privileged locations are dangerous if privileged persons are speaking for a less privileged person and reinforcing oppression. This might suggest that one should only speak for groups in which they are an insider, but this does not inform us how these groups themselves should be demarcated. Identity is complex, and this demarcation could create communities composed of single individuals, leaving many unanswered questions for persons of mixed ethnicity. Believing that one should only speak for oneself removes any responsibility to speak out against oppression.[3]

What Alcoff calls the “retreat response” has also been popular among academic theorists, this means that one is only permitted to assert their own narrow individual experience and they must avoid all practices of speaking for. The belief that one can only speak for themselves is the self in Classical Liberal theory. This declaration allows one to avoid accountability for their effects on others as if we can exist in this world completely autonomously and separate ourselves to the extent that we avoid affecting others entirely.[4] The retreat response is often driven by the desire to make one’s work resistant or immune to criticism. Alcoff poses, “Surely it is both morally and politically objectionable to structure one’s actions around the desire to avoid criticism, especially if this outweighs other questions of effectivity.”[5] One may also choose to retreat in order to avoid errors, but errors seem inevitable in these academic inquiries and in the quest to find peace amidst political struggles. A retreat from speech permits the continued dominance of current discourse (and may thereby reinforce oppression). It seems to me that the choice to not speak is one of particular privilege and violence. When we do not speak we are not merely avoiding criticism but we are perpetuating the harm that we have witnessed against others. Silence is not the default; it is an active and moral choice. 

While there is no simple solution for making work about others, the damage can be reduced. One should have an awareness of the power relations involved and should create, wherever possible, a place where dialogue can take place. In this way, we can create a practice where we speak with others rather than for others.[6] There is an increase in photographic work examining social justice issues that have done this very successfully. We must be accountable for what we say and equally when we choose to remain silent at the cost of others.

 

 
Brown, N. C. (2017). Studies in philosophical realism in art, design and education. Switzerland: Springer.

Brown, N. C. (2017). Studies in philosophical realism in art, design and education. Switzerland: Springer.

 

 

Around the middle of the 20th century in art and literary theory, New Critics emphasized the “Aesthetic fit between experience and work is constrained by the necessity of referring only to aesthetically causal parts of a work to the strict exclusion of neurotic and other aesthetically ‘irrelevant’ properties.”[7] In representational terms, three fallacies should be constrained in the theoretical approach to the fit between the “functions of artists A, beholders B, the world represented W, in their causal relation to artworks P.” [8] The “intentional fallacy”: judging a work of art according to the meaning intended by artists, “genetic fallacy”: focusing on the origin of aesthetic production to validate the work and, “affect fallacy”: confusing emotional feelings expressed in the art with how the artwork makes one feel. The philosopher Monroe Beardsley outlined these fallacies to illustrate that an aesthetic object is a function of the beholder’s ability to not reduce the objective qualities of a work to its affect or existence to truth. When meaning is constrained to a particular ontological condition, we narrow the scope of artistic understanding and art is reduced to a politics where one must be authorized to view or create work. Beholders must navigate between the different points of view in order to broaden artistic understanding and not threaten an artwork’s very existence.[9]

We can keep in mind Beardsley’s theory and the genetic fallacy when we navigate through the examination of the insider/outsider approaches to photography. Photographic histories, as Fred Richtin wrote in his book Bending The Frame, tend to divide the documentary and artistic approaches without exploring overlapping strategies. In the 1978 survey Mirrors and Windows at MOMA,

“The most interesting photographs were those that the curator could not place either in the category of art (inward looking mirrors) or documentary (the outward-looking windows..), but that belonged to a third, hybridized approach—acknowledging the ongoing dialogue between inner and outer states that has always made photography, like writing, much more than a mere recording.”[10]

 

Nan Goldin. (1973). Ivy in the Boston Garden. Harvard Art Museum

Nan Goldin. (1973). Ivy in the Boston Garden. Harvard Art Museum

 
 
Matthew Marks Gallery & Nan Goldin. (1991). Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in the bathroom, NYC. Harvard Art Museum

Matthew Marks Gallery & Nan Goldin. (1991). Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in the bathroom, NYC. Harvard Art Museum

 

While Azoulay’s book deals with aspects of a documentary approach, she is also examining artistic discourse. The questions proposed remain relevant to a broader examination of photography as we straddle messy lines between fragments of truth in representation. The use of the word "truth" runs counter to postmodernist beliefs but its use is not based on a guaranteed transparent account of representation but on a need to rely on the distinction between variations (better or worse) that it operates on. If we overlook the ways that we address some version of the truth, we are in danger of remaining blind to the operations of legitimation that function within our work.          

Abigail Solomon-Godeau wrote in her essay Inside/Out, that Martha Rosler and Susan Sontag see the outsider photographer approach as committing acts of violence against the subject because they only see partial views of them. The placement of truth on the inside raises the question: Is it true that insiders objectify people less?[11] Nan Goldin’s work is produced with deep personal involvement in the subject matter. She examines the fringes of society and she claims she can’t be a voyeur because the people in her photographs are her self-subscribed family. Many would agree that understanding Goldin’s relationship to the subjects is a part of what makes the photographs feel transcendent. Solomon-Godeau examines Goldin’s work The Other Side, stating that it:

“Resemble[s] fashion photographs of the time and show no structural difference from such photographs. The style of photographs change later in the book from monochrome to colour and they become more informal, still ‘Insiderness… can be seen to be more about access and proximity, but whether one can argue a nonvoyeuristic relationship in consequence of the photographer’s position is another matter entirely.”[12]

Solomon-Godeau later asks in her essay, “Does a photographic representation, however sympathetic, of drag queens and transsexuals constitute an effective intervention against the political and ethical problem of homophobia?” She suggests that if it is possible that insider-based photographic practices cannot reveal the inside or the “truth,” then it is also possible that outsider photography reveals it’s own kind of truth.

 

 
Robert Frank. (1955). Trolley, New Orleans from the series The Americans.

Robert Frank. (1955). Trolley, New Orleans from the series The Americans.

 

 

When photographing The Americans Robert Frank, who is Swiss, produced what many consider to be one of the authentic portraits of 1950’s America. The very nature of Frank being an outsider gave him the ability to see that which had become invisible, or common place to insiders.[13] The saying “A fish doesn’t know it’s wet” comes to mind. The outsider approach, if an artist is thoughtful and works from a place of integrity can be advantageous. Many artists are called to take part and given a platform to share precisely because of this outsider status.

I sought out artists who are fearlessly working as both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,' if we are still determined to label as such, and I asked them to address that. I include a few small clips from interviews that I recorded between 2016 and 2017. Though these discussions are incomplete and unable to express the depth of their impressive work adequately, I hope that the integrity and confidence of these artists inspire those of us who are struggling to say the things that need to be said and to create the work that the world needs us to create. I have chosen to share these interviews rather than summarize them, heeding Linda Alcoff’s call for us to speak whenever possible with others rather than for them.

 

 

Like Fred Ritchin, the Magnum co-founder George Rodger saw the perspective of the photographer who is both an insider and an outsider to be a potent place to create work. One who feels a deep affinity for what they photograph while remaining removed enough to see it more objectively. Working as both an insider and an outsider allows a photographer if they are open-minded and approaching with integrity, to create in the space where the two worlds overlap.[14] The notion of outsiderness is not solely about a place, other cultures, gender identity, or socio-economic class, but also to political, religious, and ethical beliefs. Many photographers use the camera as a tool to engage with a broader world and sometimes as a prompt to deeply explore their beliefs, fears, and desires.

 

 

 Azoulay is concerned that we are applying the wrong users’ manual on photography, one that reduces it to the photograph and the gaze in an attempt to identify the subject. It hinders the viewer’s understanding that “every photograph belongs to no one, that she can become not only its addressee but also its addresser, one who can produce and disseminate its meaning further.”[15] Unlike Roland Barthe's statement that photography is a testimony that something “was there,” when photographs are watched and not looked at, we insert that they are still present at the time that I am watching them, and the viewing of these photographs are less susceptible to becoming immoral.[16] Sontag’s urge to narrate photographs, something she eventually concluded by the time she wrote Regarding The Pain Of Others, is similar to Azoulay’s call to watch photographs. The concern with narration, however, is that the label of insider or outsider that we give the photographer is another aspect of narrative. We may understand Avedon’s relationship to his dying father in a small exhibition but by the time the images circulate the Internet, the narrative and their insider status has dissolved and we only have the images left.[17]

 

 
Arbus, Diane. (1970). A Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx

Arbus, Diane. (1970). A Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx

 

 

Diane Arbus’ work has been undeniably central in conversations about morality. Sontag claimed that her view was always as a privileged insider looking at society’s outsiders. Critic Gerry Badger pointed out that something is often missed in the reading of her work. That there are many different divisions in society and to be outside of any of the dominant societies is to be an outsider. Arbus, “Focused particularly upon the sometimes grotesque efforts in which we indulge in order to mitigate life’s inequities and inequalities, honing in upon those institutions of mutual comfort: the club and the tribe.”[18] Arbus saw her subjects as forced to adopt the wrong role and be a part of the wrong club. Badger wondered if the criticism against Arbus’ work isn’t also due in part to the fact that she was a woman engaged in the act of staring, something that was a display of masculine power at the time. He asks why someone like Robert Frank hasn’t been accused in the same way. He regards Arbus as both an insider and an outsider, believing that she maintained a level of detachment, but like many of her photographed subjects she existed in the world precariously and could empathize with them.[19]

 Azoulay wrote that Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Jean Baudrillard, fell prey to an “image fatigue” and her book attempts to combat this by adding the photographed subject and their gaze, which is a means for action, into the equation along with the spectator. Inserting the spectator into the equation has potential to redirect the question of responsibility and civic engagement, reminding us that in a conversation about the insider/outsider perspective, we’re assuming the photographer is the one holding all the power. The day after the Women’s March on Washington I spoke with artist Krista Wortendyke about her role as a creator. We noted how interesting it was to be having a conversation about insider and outsiderness, about agency and responsibility, about reflecting on the past and trying to stand up for the vulnerable in the present; in the aftermath of a day that was designed to unite and call for inclusivity.

One aspect of the insider and outsider binary comes from an individualistic culture and allocating ownership to the producer.

 

 
 
Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother. (1936).

Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother. (1936).

 

 

In a court of law, what usually appears is that the photographed individual is not the owner of his or her image. Dorothea Lange, who took the photograph Migrant Mother, lost her right to it in favor of the institution for which she worked when she contested that the owner of the photograph was the woman who was photographed. Had her proposal been accepted, the citizens of photography could have challenged it, maintaining the citizen’s ownership. The concept of property and ownership are ontologically foreign to photography because what we see evades criteria for ownership.[20]

 

 
Southworth & Hawes. (1845). Captain Jonathan Walker's Branded Hand. Daguerreotype.

Southworth & Hawes. (1845). Captain Jonathan Walker's Branded Hand. Daguerreotype.

 

 

In 1845, a photograph of Jonathan Walker’s palm was taken. Walker was tried in Florida for attempting to smuggle slaves out of the state. He was sentenced to imprisonment and was branded on his hand with the letters “SS” denoting “Slave Stealer.” After his release from prison, Walker found the photographers Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes to photograph his hand, which he then proceeded to distribute as an act of protest against the court ruling. He reinterpreted the SS mark in the photograph to stand for “Slave Savior.”[21] Walker and the two photographers, counter to the genre of still-life at the time, photographed a hand that would not stay silent. They hoped that a spectator would be aroused by the photograph and show responsibility towards the ongoing injustice of the time. Azoulay’s civil contract of photography has existed since the very beginning; it is not dictated by a ruling power, even when this power attempts to control photography. This contract is a hypothetical, imagined arrangement and it takes into account all the participants in photographic acts—camera, photographed subject, photographer, and spectator – none of them alone can determine its sole meaning.[22] The insider/outsider label focuses on the photographer as the primary source of power and may be used as a tactic in the face of uncomfortable work, rendering the spectator free of responsibility. Azoulay writes:

“Every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer, neither of whom can, on their own, determine how this meeting will be inscribed on the resulting image... Even when it seems possible to name correctly, in the form of a statement, what it shows—“This is X” – it will always turn out that something else can be read in it, some other event can be reconstructed from it, some other player’s presence can be discerned through it, constructing the social relations that allowed its production.”[23]

 Azoulay suggests that if the subject of a photograph is a person who has suffered some form of injury, then we extend beyond an exercise in aesthetic appreciation, reconstructing the photographic situation and the harm inflicted on others. This is a civic skill that is of particular importance when examining issues between groups that have been politically-rendered as insiders or outsiders: citizens, non-citizens, and those treated as second-class citizens. This skill can only be activated when we understand that citizenship is not a status, but an obligation to recognize the injuries inflicted upon others who are governed along with the spectator. Citizens and noncitizens alike are governed and by that fact, belonging to the citizen group, one naturally takes part in dominating and oppressing noncitizens.[24]

 

Anne Paq. (2007). Jerusalem. http://www.activestills.org

Anne Paq. (2007). Jerusalem. http://www.activestills.org

 

Citizens cannot be equally governed, Azoulay writes, if they are governed alongside others who are not governed as equals. She considers female citizens in Israel and Palestinians living in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. The former are citizens whose citizenship is impaired, and the latter are noncitizens who have been ruled by Israeli authorities alongside Israeli citizens but are deprived of fundamental rights and excluded from the ruling power. The nation-state re-territorializes citizenship, providing protection to those declared as citizens and discriminating against noncitizens who are governed with them in the same territory by the same power. Photography, on the other hand,

“Deterritorializes citizenship, reaching beyond its conventional boundaries and plotting out a political space in which the plurality of speech and action is actualized permanently by the eventual participation of all the governed. These governed are equally not governed within the space of photography, where no sovereign power exists.”[25]

 The civil contract of photography is a borderless citizenship. It is limited, temporary, and never final. For Azoulay, citizens and noncitizens document the ongoing brutality towards Palestinians through photography. We might also consider the increase in mobile live streaming and social media to capture and distribute photo- and video evidence of police violence in the U.S. Even as the photo incriminates, the power that enables racialized police violence seems largely unaltered. When we post, repost, and share, we become involved in the web of gazes and become a part of the public that the live image is addressed to. Here we satisfy Azoulay’s demand to watch the image rather than see it and to read it as a reality of still being there, unfolding in real time. But rarely do the images themselves seem to maintain their status as evidence in a courtroom. Perhaps, according to the media scholar Tyler Morgenstern, this is not a failure of the photo itself, but an asymmetrical encounter between the photograph and the systems of mass incarceration, policing, and structural impoverishment.[26] Still, photography is one of the only practices that individuals can establish distance from power, in order to observe its action and not be its subject. It is, according to Azoulay, “The right to enact photography free of governmental power and even against it, if it inflicts injury on others who are governed.[27]


Abbey Hepner is an artist and educator investigating the human relationship with landscape and technology. She teaches at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and is the founder of Creative Advocacy, an organization dedicated to teaching artists professional development skills. You can see more of her work by visiting her website or by following her on Instagram @abbeyhepner

Thanks to these artists for guidance and sharing their process: 

Logan Bellew  http://www.LoganBellew.com
Kei Ito  http://www.Kei-Ito.com
Paul Turounet  http://www.PaulTurounet.com
Krista Wortendyke  http://www.KristaWortendyke.com
Sarah Christianson  http://www.SarahChristianson.com
Maureen Drennan  http://www.MaureenDrennan.net
Eugene Ellenberg http://www.eugeneellenberg.com/


Footnotes

[1] Zevallos, Zuleyka. (2011). What is Otherness?. [online] The Other Sociologist. Available at: http://othersociologist.com/otherness-resources/ [Accessed 1 Jan. 2016].

[2] Bolton, Linda. (2004). Facing the Other: Ethical Disruption and the American Mind (Horizons in theory and American culture). Louisiana State University Press, p.13.

[3] Alcoff, Linda. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, (20), p. 1-10

[4] Alcoff, Linda. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, (20), p. 12-13

[5] Alcoff, Linda. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, (20), p. 15

[6] Alcoff, Linda. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, (20), p. 16

[7] Brown, N. C. (2016). Aesthetic Fallacies in Perspective. Studies in Philosophical Realism in Art, Design and Education, p. 70

[8] Brown, N. C. (2016). Aesthetic Fallacies in Perspective. Studies in Philosophical Realism in Art, Design and Education, p. 70

[9] Brown, N. C. (2016). Aesthetic Fallacies in Perspective. Studies in Philosophical Realism in Art, Design and Education, p. 70-75

[10] Ritchin, Fred. (2013). Bending the frame: photojournalism, documentary, and citizenship. New york: Aperture. p. 17

[11] Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. (2015). Inside/Out. In Basic critical theory for photographers (p. 126-131). Focal Press.

[12] Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. (2015). Inside/Out. In Basic critical theory for photographers (pp. 126-131). Focal Press. p. 127

[13] Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. (2015). Inside/Out. In Basic critical theory for photographers (pp. 126-131). Focal Press. p.129

[14] Ritchin, Fred. (2013). Bending the frame: photojournalism, documentary, and citizenship. New york: Aperture. p. 51

[15] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 14

[16] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 16

[17] Parsons, Sarah. (2009). Sontag's lament: Emotion, ethics, and photography. Photography and Culture. p. 298

[18] Badger, Gerry. (1998). Gerry Badger » Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus. [online] Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/notes-from-the-margin-of-spoiled-identity-the-art-of-diane-arbus/ [Accessed 14 Dec. 2016].

[19] Badger, Gerry. (1998). Gerry Badger » Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus. [online] Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/notes-from-the-margin-of-spoiled-identity-the-art-of-diane-arbus/ [Accessed 14 Dec. 2016].

[20] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 101-103

[21] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 20

[22] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 23

[23] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 11

[24] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 37

[25] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p. 25

[26] Morgenstern, Tyler, (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://tdmorgenstern.wordpress.com/tag/photography/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2017].

[27] Azoulay, Ariella. (2008). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books. p.105