In her introduction to Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans, Susan Sontag writes:
“The only pictures that do seem salacious – or convey something of the meanness and abjection of a prostitute’s life – are those (eleven in this selection) on which the faces have been scratched out. (In one, the vandal – could it have been Bellocq himself? – missed the face.) These pictures are actually painful to look at, at least for this viewer.”
We don’t know who defaced the negatives, presumably took place some time after the images were made; it may have been Bellocq or his brother. In any case the erasure of the face draws attention to some impulse to make anonymous the women in these portraits, and while we can guess the motivation, we’ll never really know. This act is a violence against the beautiful pictures , which Sontag praises as “unforgettable- photography’s ultimate standard of value”. Notably, the defaced plates were not destroyed outright; was there some expectation that the images might be shown, that they were of value despite the defacement.
The dozen defaced negatives were of 89 that had been recuperated by Lee Friedlander and published by MoMA in the 1970s. The images have since traveled, including to The Photographers Gallery in 2002. Among the other images are ones of women posing with masks, a very different understanding of concealment, terms agreed upon at time of posing.
Some version of this compulsion manifested earlier this month in news about Cann Hall Elementary School in Clacton, Essex. Students pictured on the school’s website appeared with their faces obscured by smileys. The faces were obscured, according to school officials, to protect children from pedophiles who might use pictures on the website to identify children. The images, newspapers reported, appeared without concealment in the school’s printed newsletter for parents.
(Note the sad face in second row)
After papers started picking up the story Cann Hall School removed the smiley faces. The yellow faces were certainly bizarre and drew up comparisons with the acid house smileys ubiquitous in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They replaced the smiley faces with a more conventional photoshop blur. A few days later, most of the pictures were removed from the site, which presented a statement: “The internet is a great learning tool, and a fun place for children to explore if used wisely. Help us to protect children on the web! Please Note: In order to protect our children, we have made the decision not to include any photos of our pupils on this website.”
Now if you go to the school’s site you will see an occasional limb or the back of a student’s head, but few faces, blurred or otherwise.
The school did have good intentions, and they probably could have done it another way. Plenty of schools have pictures of students with unblurred faces on their websites and I would imagine that all schools in the UK have some form of a policy that requires parents’ permission to display or circulate a picture of a child. A password protected section might have worked. (Never mind that the students also had to themselves process why their faces were blocked out. It is a scary world but this must surely be a strange way to be told.)
I don’t think this was the case of “Political Correctness gone mad” the explanation used by so many papers and websites to explain the incident. I think it actually speaks to a strong societal compulsion to display pictures, practiced by both institutions and individuals- facebook users, for example. In the “face” of being unable to show an individual’s face, Cann Hall School persisted in publishing photographs online, some might say to extraordinary lengths.
When a picture is displayed despite being blurred, shopped, cropped into a non-picture then it is perhaps not about the content or subject of the picture as much as it is about the powerful need that there be pictures. Did they think that pictures would make their website look more “professional” or more appealing? Did they feel that they could convey the student life at Cann Hall with pictures (despite the concealment?) It was clearly important that there be pictures. But to what end? Could these pictures, absent of meaningful content, still play some role in realising Cann Hall School’s image of itself?
In photojournalism and documentary photography, something also happens when subjects’ faces are obscured in order to protect them. The concealment is part of the photograph from the start, and part of the story being told, not unlike Bellocq’s models who posed with masks. In some situations, the concealment of identity is part of an active effort to reverse shame and stigma; subjects agree to be photographed in the interest of bringing subjects to light. Sufficient stigma exists, however, that their identities remain hidden.
Then there are the cases where the obfuscation of identity is entirely the point. In Ben Lowy’s pictures of prisoners of war in Iraq, the blindfolds that baffle the prisoners also obscure their individuality (and in some important sense their humanity) from the viewer.
In all of these cases, there is still a compulsion to show something about how the subject looks, to see how they are. Pictures in their particular shape validate the truth of the story the photographer tells.
Yet the defacement of Bellocq’s images feels like a smashing of idols, and this Cann Hall School incident comes to mind as “anti-photography”. Concealment is not part of the reason for the picture, and the reason for having a picture at all is defeated by the picture itself. It’s more like absurdist performance art that satirizes by taking a combination of beliefs and practices and testing their limits. This kind of concealment- even if motivated by a desire to protect – creates and amplifies stigma, fosters shame where there was none.
(I would be interested to hear about the kinds of stories that photographers have sought to tell while hiding the subjects’ identity/identities, and how that consideration shaped the direction and publication of the story.)