Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2019
Objectifying and Exploiting Women?
An English friend once gave me a really hard time; she said I was objectifying and exploiting women in my photography. That disagreement caused me to spend some time thinking about this issue. Don’t all photographers objectify their subjects and exploit them? Did Ansel Adams objectify and exploit Halfdome? Did Edward Weston objectify and exploit bell peppers? Is the whole argument ridiculous?
Let’s look at both prongs of this argument. Objectifying is a somewhat strange concept, since it means turning something into an object. But, when you think about it, everything we photograph is already an object, or we couldn’t photograph it in the first place. When we photograph something, we’re. taking a three dimensional object and converting it into a two dimensional representation of itself. So in a sense, we’re de-objectifying it. Hmmmm.
No, that’s not what she was talking about. When she argued that I was “objectifying” women, she meant that I was looking at them as objects, specifically as sex objects. Was I? I’d have to say yes to that. After all, the intent of many of my photographs was to create a sexual frisson in the viewer, be that viewer male or female. If I punched the viewer in the libido, I felt that the photograph was a success. So, was I turning my model into a sex object? I’d argue no, that she was already a sex object before I ever clicked the shutter. I didn’t make her into a sex object, God or evolution did; take your pick. Either way, women are shaped the way they are to arouse interest in men. That’s simply a fact. Her rounded form is designed/evolved to attract men. We even say of a pretty woman that she is “attractive,” usually without really thinking of the implications of that statement.
Let me put on my biologist hat for a moment. Whether we like it or not, we are animals, mammals to be a bit more precise. We are advanced apes. Jared Diamond even says we’re the third species of chimpanzee, after the common chimp and bonobo.. If that offends you, skip on to the next paragraph. In our cousins, the gorillas, chimps, and bonobos sexual attraction is a matter primarily of scent. Females have nipples up high on their chests, practically in their armpits. They have no breasts and wouldn’t know what to do with a bra. There is nothing about their chests to arouse or attract the male. At the other end, they have narrow flat asses without bulging buttocks. We humans, on the other hand, are almost totally visual in our sex cues and have de-emphasized our sense of smell, so much so that our females borrow scents from other animals and plants when they want to send a scent signal. The perfume industry has gotten rich off of that.
But what first gets a man’s attention? Its two rounded areas of protruding fatty tissue, either in front or in back. What Americans call T & A (the English say T & B, “tits and bums.”) This fact keeps “cosmetic surgeons” busy, adding breasts where there are none, or those nature provided are considered inadequate, and reshaping behinds, to produce the “perfect” rounded shape. I’ve always counseled my models against “cosmetic surgery” at either end, preferring their natural shape.
But, back to our argument. Do women objectify themselves when they augment their tops and/or bottoms? I’d argue yes, they do. Do I objectify them? No! One of my models was a former Playboy model. To reach her goal of being a Playboy featured model, she had most of her body reworked. She got there, but who objectified her? Basically I consider that part of the argument silly. How can I objectify someone who has already done it to herself?
Now, on to the second point. Did I exploit my models? Damn well, yes, I did! Did they complain about it? No! Why? Because I paid them well for posing with the thought that I’d someday make money from the pictures. Did I always profit? No!!! And sometimes pictures sat in my files and my agents’ files for years before finding a buyer. Some never did. From a business perspective, my images were my stock, and no business person wants stock sitting in a warehouse for years. At the same time, unlike the warehouse stock of most businesses, my photos don’t lose value from sitting there. My overhead is minimal; some filing cabinets and some digital storage devices. I’ve had substantial sales from images many years old. Most of what I shoot never goes out of fashion.
So on the question of objectifying and exploiting women, I plead innocent to the first and guilty to the second.
As I have said before, I photographed my first nudes in 1969 in the woods at Roanoke’s water reservoir. Looking back at those many years later it was clear that I didn’t have a clue about posing a model, but the results weren’t awful. By 1973-4 when I photographed Kathy G. at the old farm/apple orchard where we lived, I’d spent time reading books on posing, and got some pretty good images, images I’d not be embarrassed to show today. It helped that she was a natural at graceful posing. In those early days I found my models by running ads in the school newspaper at Hollins College, a woman’s school (It’s now Hollins University and co-ed), and in the Roanoke Times classified ads. Later, when I had my camera shop just blocks from Roanoke College, I never had a problem coming up with good models, because word of mouth, the best advertising, spread that I was fun to pose for and treated my models respectfully. Was I attracted to these beautiful young women? Absolutely! After all, I was young myself with a full. complement of raging hormones. Did I come on to them? No way! Photographers as a group already had a dodgy reputation, and I cared to set myself apart from the crowd. I’d have no qualms today about facing any of the women who modeled for me from 1969 to 2007. Of course there were none past 2007 because I was in prison!
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348. Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/studio-news-bob-shells-new-book/