Not long ago, as I polished my master’s thesis, my reader challenged the word “scopic.” As far as I know, the term is a creation of the psychoanalytic world of theorists like Jacques Lacan. Scopic does not turn up easily in dictionary search engines, though Scopophilia certainly does. As I pointed out to my professors any time there’s an “ophilia” attached (and she’s not floating at the bottom of the pond) then we’ve turned the activity into a disease.
The word comes from the Greek, scopia meaning observation, and is where we get the word scope, apropos when considering the camera. For this discussion, it refers to an urge to see and be seen. Like the sound of one hand clapping, a craving to be observed needs an observer. Lacan’s graphic called the “scopic field” has garnered so much analysis and discussion from students and scholars, because he gave the world of feminism a powerful tool to identify and name the “male gaze.”
In case anyone thinks I’m dismissing my sisters in the fight for equality -- allow me now, please, to disabuse you. The Second Wavers and all who’ve spoken up since, identify a very real often crippling phenomenon where men use their hunger for sexual procurement, feasting through their gaze, and making women into meals. This is the core of sexual objectification. The presumption is: how you (female) look is my objective, and I’ll consume that, welcome or not, invited or not, and that for me (male), the rest of who you are does not exist, much less matter.
Of course, as in the case of every quest for absolutes, the absolutism surrounding pernicious objectification tends to be myopic. The baby goes in the bathwater whether or not she fits in the drain. In Feminism’s Third Wave we have seen a parade of proud women -- fiercely determined to put sexual self expression, sex work and sexuality in general, back on the table; they’ve sought to decriminalize public sexual expression in feminist social terms. The resurgence and popularity of burlesque is a prime example.
Being male, I have to be careful, tread lightly, and question as objectively as possible, my assertions. In truth my thoughts on this are more about a lifetime of observation. In my time, I’ve lived through both the Playboy/Penthouse years and through the Women’s Movement. In blunt terms -- admiring women, respecting and looking up to them, working with them, and for them certainly has not made me wish to create images of them any less. Hearing it said may seem indiscreet but no less true. So I move on.
As I’ve worked becoming a serious image maker, this urge toward portraiture grew, largely unquestioned. Artists have pictured the human person through time immemorial. Young photographers often shy away from portraits out of self consciousness, but as we age a bit, we grow bolder. I explained to someone during a recent excursion to photograph the Montreal Burlesque Festival, that perhaps my most important discovery over the years arose from the urge to photograph people.
Amanda Palmer (luminary, hero, some might say, Saint…) beat me to the punch writing extensively about this in her book, “The Art of Asking.” I discovered some time ago that everything lies in the asking. By deciding to take the risk, by simply asking another person to take part, sets in motion a scopic interaction. In my theory the scopic urge may have always existed in people. I believe wholly that the invention of the camera set that urge free, because the camera enables both parties to fully indulge it.
But history has shown us that in the forging of such a relationship as the scopic exchange, power is everything; who provides it, who holds it, who shares it, who assumes or wrests it away? The ebb and flow of that power -- following it and seeing it clearly, remains my daily challenge. I pursue what I shoot for it’s pure beauty, its surprises, and what it may teach about our preconceptions and our values. I realize more and more deeply that I gravitate to these expressions of power, and seek to capture them. As I’ve watched and photographed Burlesque, (mostly women in this world of small pay performance), I’m convinced that, while the expression of sexuality matters, owning the power in that and defining the terms and details of that engagement is at least as important to the performers.
Within this scopic field, even as some shrug off misgivings, again and again, people have loved to be photographed. I do not doubt that several generations of powerful examples in photo history help to inspire the participants. For me, the gift is nearly beyond measure. I get to make. I get to collect the light bounced from the corporeal spirit of someone who wants to crystalize something new. They reflect, I collect, and in that microsecond, the possibility of a third new entity exists. It would be easy to chalk this up to prurience and vanity (as the judgemental prudes love to do) but I prefer not to so cheapen either party’s motives.
I think this urge to see and be seen, this urge to reflect and collect light, this act of crystallization, when committed with care and reverence, may possibly become profound. The scopic urge shows no sign of abating. Perhaps these urges are rooted far deeper than we once thought, and maybe what we share holds deeper possibilities and meanings. History proves that real dangers exist, as evidenced by hideous phenomena like revenge porn and other similar tragedies. The scopic need not always engage sexuality or gender and often does not. I’m asserting that real glories and possibilities for magic and power and joyful creation also exist in this collaboration. Isn’t that always the way with meaningful exchange between people?