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PORTRAITURE AS ETHNOGRAPHY PART 1: The Ethics of Portraiture

It’s spring 2021, and the slight dip in COVID numbers combined with the warming days has opened the option in Ottawa for cautious patio-coffee visits. It is on one of these occasions that I find myself in the company of my good friend and fellow artist, Tong Shen. We want to hug but we resist, instead sitting in our metal chairs, swapping news and beaming at the presence we haven’t shared in what feels like an unbearably long time. Moments of lowered masks allow us to slip out smiles and sip in hot tea, and when she asks to sketch me, I scootch my chair back, remove my face mask, tighten the lacy wool scarf around my neck. The air is crisp. I breathe. Try to calm my mind. While the tip of Tong’s pen brushes her notebook I resist a screaming urge to brush an errant, ticklish hair from my right cheek. Looking out from my patio chair I see a more subdued version of Ottawa’s once-bustling Byward market. Gone are the fruit stands and the buskers and the tourists, but there is still the odd masked shopper or two scurrying about. Some people are walking their dogs. Stoic as I try to be, it makes my mouth smile. 

Postcard Portrait of Maren Elliott by Tong Shen (2021)

Sitting for Tong I am overcome with a wave of admiration and empathy for all the life models and subjects I have drawn and otherwise recorded over the years. I have so much gratitude for the many people who have been part of my creative journey- in concerning myself with people and stories my work simply couldn’t exist without others. 

The farther I  travel along this path the more I realize just how much of an honour and responsibility it is. I have always had a natural fascination with people, and drawing or recording other people has allowed me to interact and connect in a way that differs from your typical conversation. It is vulnerable, gentle, attentive, mindful, shared. Sometimes there can be discomfort, though I would like to think I do my best to put my subjects at ease. When we chat before and after the drawing or photoshoot, I learn a bit about that person, and I hope they learn a bit about me too. It is a focal point and a reason to connect. A documented exchange. A way of knowing and being rooted in a social relation. But just as with any ethnography, there are ethical considerations, and the artistic depiction of human subjects is no exception. In a recent presentation on community-based arts and art as social practice, creative scholar Dick Averns emphasized that simply involving human subjects in one’s work (such as in portraiture) doesn’t make the work a socially engaged endeavour. Portraiture can be a business exchange, as we see in the many commissioned portraits of political figures, wealthy families, etc throughout art history. 

Eric Gill’s Girl in Bath II, 1923 – the model for which was his daughter Petra

It can also be an exploitative practice of non-consensual objectification. Eric Gill, dubbed one of the “greatest British artists of the 20th century” is known for his contributions to typeface design and the Arts and Crafts movement. His daughters were the subjects of many drawings, sculptures and engravings, yet it is now known that they were also subjected to his sexual abuse. And when I saw the traveling Gaugin exhibit during its stop at the National Gallery of Canada, I couldn’t help but be put off by the power dynamics at play between a traveling white man and these exotic, fantastical teenage muses he depicted in his work. But the abuse of power in portraiture isn’t just something that happened in art history, a relic of a less-woke, colonial past. 

Gaugin “Tehamana Has Many Parents” (1893)

Once, in the very same market where Tong sketched my face, I witnessed something that stuck with me.  How can I describe this moment on this spot of land on unceded Algonquin Territory we now know as the canadian capital region? This was before the pandemic, so the Byward market was operating at its more usual capacity. Tourists meandered from parliament to the Moulin De Provence bakery eagerly seeking out its famous “Obama cookies” before stocking up on postcards and chinese-made canadiana knick-nacks. Businesspeople in suits stopped into La Bottega for a sandwich & espresso to go. And amongst these crowds, wandering the streets and stationed in doorways and corners were the neighbourhood’s resident panhandlers. Once I was walking the dog with my roommate when we saw someone with a big camera refuse a panhandler who was sitting out on the street, cross-legged on a blanket with a few belongings. Miss fancy-camera then walked briskly ahead, turned around twenty paces later and SNAP! Took a photo of the person panhandling. To refuse someone the simplest generosity of a few coins and then literally turn around and take their image without consent was a deplorable, tonedeaf act of entitlement. “What right do you have?” I remember thinking.  

Then again…what right do I have? As an artist so much of how I process and experience the world around me is via creative self-expression. When such a fundamental aspect of this world is other people, how can I reconcile my need to express and process with the fact that not everything and everyone is simply mine for the taking? There is no perfect answer. It’s messy. Maybe that is what keeps this stuff so compelling.

When I was a young art student and I needed source imagery for an idea my first solution would be to do a quick internet image search. Or maybe I would look through newspapers, books or magazines.  Because I am naturally attracted to the human subject, a lot of what I collected would have been photos of people. Who these people were, how they felt about being photographed in the first place…and then turned into a sketch or painting by some teenager..those questions didn’t occur to me. Were they paid for their time? Did they have a say in how they were portrayed?

Nick Ut “The Terror of War” (1972)

I now know, for instance, that iconic images of children from western journalistic pop culture  have been associated with trauma and pain for the complex, multi-faceted, real people who were photographed. There is the subject from Nick Ut’s pulitzer prize-winning photograph “The Terror of War” (1972) who became known as ‘Napalm Girl’.  Kim Phúc was nine years old when the photo was taken. Naked, terrified, and running for her life after a napalm attack. After Ut snapped the image he took her and some of the other injured children to the hospital, gave them water. She was severely injured and they feared she may not survive, but she did. That image changed the world forever–by exposing the horror of the vietnam war so powerfully. It also changed her world forever. Whether she wanted it or not, this traumatic moment of near-death from childhood, captured and made famous, made her famous too:

After I got burned, I had a dream. I really wanted to become a doctor. Then, I got into medical school but then, at that moment, the Vietnamese government rediscovered me. I was that little girl in a famous picture, right? So, many foreign journalists came to Vietnam, and they wanted to interview me. So, because of that reason, I was put out of my school to basically do publicity.

And that was a really low point in my life. I didn’t have any freedom to do whatever I wanted. (The World interview)

When she first saw the photo, apparently she wondered why Ut even took it:

I was naked. It was agony. I was hopeless. It is (an) ugly picture. I didn’t like it,    

 (WPR interview)

Portrait of Kim & Baby Thomas by Joe McNally, 2012

Phuc has now  come to see the photo as a powerful driver for positive change in the world. She is a powerful and inspiring activist who has done incredible work promoting peace and advocating for child victims of war. I am so happy to know that and think of her this way. But it still makes me sad, all the terror and shame and powerlessness that is wrapped up in that image. Because in that moment didn’t she become not only a victim of the war but also of the gaze of the world?   

Then there is the uber famous 1985 National Geographic Cover featuring the image of what became known in the West as “Afghan Girl”. I say ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ because there was little attempt in the original publication to humanize or even name the then eight-year-old student Sharbat Gula. No name or mention of the subject’s story, other than the caption “Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears” and a single sentence in the accompanying article romantically claiming her eyes were “reflecting the fear of war”. But were they?  What they were definitely reflecting was light in a spot she had been escorted to after having been noticed by photographer Steve McCurry and pulled from class. Apparently it had better lighting than the tent-classroom at her school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp, where she lived at the time. But maybe the story would have been less sensational if she was a young girl on a school day. The othering of refugees in the media is a classic trope, after all*.

“Afghan Girl” Steve McCurry

Either way, this image was literally posed, and young Sharbat Gula was used as an object to sell a story. And sell it did. ”Afghan Girl” is glamorous, gritty, iconic. It has been deemed the most famous National Geographic photo of all time, and is one of the most recognizable photographs in the Western world. It is the “First World’s Third World’s Mona Lisa” 

In a 2010 presentation at the Chautauqua Institution McCurry recalls the incident of creating this icon as follows. First, a teacher invited him in to come in and look around a tent that served as the classroom for a group of elementary-aged girls. 

I noticed this one extraordinary little girl with these amazing piercing kind of blue green grey eyes…(she was a bit shy, she was sitting off to the side of the room)..and I thought..this is an amazing situation, an amazing face  and I just thought… If I could find a way to photograph her this would be a great portrait. 

I notice some things in this recounting. First of all, he sees this girl’s beauty, but then acknowledges she was shy. She wasn’t some outgoing kid running up to a stranger saying “hey look at me! Take my photo!!” He saw she was sitting off to the side. And yet…mostly what he describes here is not taking into account her behaviour or apparent feelings, not wondering if she would like to be photographed. In this moment Sharbat is not Sharbat, maybe not even a girl, but rather a ‘situation’, a ‘face’, and he needs to make this photograph happen. He sees her “trying to be modest” and but then a teacher “coax[es] her to relax” so she drops her veil, he snaps the pic, and she runs away. 

But as far as Gula is concerned, when she first saw the famous image she felt “nervous and very sad”. She recalled feeling angry the day that photo was taken. 

The photo created more problems than benefits. It made me famous but also led to my imprisonment.

Clearly there were so many power dynamics at play during the creation of “Afghan Girl”, and it is just one example of the potential for harm when it comes to photojournalism, and more broadly speaking, depicting human subjects. To student me, flipping through National Geographic magazines, pulling pages, dragging jpegs from google image searches…these were not people, or at least, I wasn’t thinking about things like that, they were just images. I wish someone had had a conversation with me about how images of people come from people. Especially when it comes to nude or otherwise vulnerable imagery. I was lucky I had the opportunity as a teenager to draw live models at an artist run centre who were consenting and being paid for their work. But for a student in a more rural setting who is interested in the human form- how can they explore this pursuit online and make sure no one is getting exploited? Look through art history perhaps? But what about those original models? Work from the imagination or anatomical rules? But those things have their own problems. Caution must be taken and it’s hard to get it right. 

My former mentor Adrian Gor once became so frustrated with the difficulty of pursuing doing the right thing when it came to depicting people that he told me he was going to only do self-portraits moving forward. Creating an image from someone’s likeness and using that in the creation of an art object is inherently objectifying. Even if you are depicting this person with the most celebratory intent. There’s just no way around it. But by depicting himself he could be in more control of this process.

Self Portrait in Ottawa by Adrian Gor

But what can we do if we don’t want to be limited to self-portraiture? I do think pulling from media  can be ok- especially for students, technical practice, exploration as long as there is acknowledgement and mindfulness that an image’s full history might be beyond our access. Inspiration is important and as artists we absorb and steal what is around us whether we want to or not. Observing and drawing strangers as a feature of the world around us is also an ancient practice and I think this kind of ‘people watching’ as an exercise can be ok, especially when anonymity is preserved. Toronto-based cartoonist Jillian Tamaki and Vancouver’s Nishant Jain aka “the sneaky artist” both are excellent examples of engaging in this kind of practice. 

Beyond these ideas, how can we (short of resorting to self-portraiture alone as suggested by Gor), practice ethical portraiture that illuminates, contributes to our shared knowledge/discourse/humanity rather than simply objectifies? Like any human science, there is no simple answer and the line between contributing to knowledge and just using people is difficult to navigate at times. 

In the late 1990s photographer Lincoln Clarke shot and published Heroines, a striking photo series depicting hundreds of women living in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside. His interest in this “addicted subculture” began with the loss of a friend due to an overdose, and grew into an “obsession of documenting”. The women in these photos were living in abject poverty, suffering from addiction, and occupying a demographic that was dying and disappearing at unprecedented rates. Being a woman on the Downtown Eastside at the time of Clarke’s Heroines project took place meant being in danger. 

Having left the glamourous world of celebrity and fashion photography, this project was quite the shift of setting for Clarke, but he approached the work in a similar way. In a 2001 documentary that followed the project, he described his process as follows:

The way I photograph one of these women in Downtown Eastside is exactly the same way I would do a photograph Sarah McLachlan or Deborah Harry or Vivienne Westwood…I mean I treat these women exactly the same

From Clarke’s “Heroines” Series

Many people have critiqued Heroines series as ogling, voyeuristic, or otherwise predatory. And the power imbalance between a successful white male fashion photographer and the women he depicted here is undeniable. But the women in the photos seem to have been consenting, active participants. He worked with a female assistant on site, and they brought offerings of snacks, band-aids and cigarettes. They also made a point of giving every participant a photo of themselves as a thank-you. Maybe he should have been paying them instead. But it does seem like an effort to be respectful and humanizing was made. Anonymity was also  preserved unless the model explicitly wished to be identified.  He recognized the invasiveness of walking into these streetcorners and alleyways with a camera as the equivalent of walking into his subject’s “living room, dining room, and bedroom”. 

So many women were disappearing so quickly that Lincoln Clarke felt a sense of desperation to capture their images, for them to look into the camera and say “here I am”. And for the family and friends of some of these women, a photo from the Heroines project might be all they have left of their loved one. 

Without models I couldn’t do the kind of portraiture and figurative art that I so often practice; it is a privilege and honour to use someone’s likeness. Portraiture needs to be practiced with a lot of sensitivity and care. We are taking and using something that is not our own. We need to be aware of our privilege, our status as ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’  and any power imbalances that might be happening. But instead of just using someone, I know portraiture can also be used as a means of consensual ethnography, teaching us and the world about that person and ourselves. It is still something I am learning about and striving towards. 

In my next post, I will be listing some examples of portrait and figurative artists whose practices tell stories and foster connection.  

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