In Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she introduced the term “male gaze” as a scholarly term. Mulvey explains that the male gaze is a framed point of view that sexualizes women and empowers men. In this point of view, the woman is portrayed as purely an object of heterosexual male desire, while their thoughts, feelings, and own character development are ignored.
While the term “male gaze” was originally introduced in the context of narrative cinema (Alfred Hithcock and Josef von Sternberg are classic examples), its influence can be seen within still frames as well. For example, it is widely popular to pose female superhero characters in uncomfortable positions to highlight their physical form, while this is unseen for male characters.
However, the influence of the male gaze is removed when there is a female behind the camera. Popular movements on Instagram include #womenphotographingwomen and #femaleportraitists. Here are six female portrait photographers that are empowering the female form from behind the lens.
Kate Woodman (@katewoodman_photo)
Kate Woodman plays creatively with colors and lighting to portray women in visually fascinating ways. She often captures her subjects in empowering positions, or in movement, treating them as holistic human characters, rather than just physical bodies to pose beautifully. Behind each picture, the viewer can infer a story.
Bella Kotak (@bellakotak)
Bella’s photographs look like they leaped straight off a fantasy story book's page. Not only do her photos tell a story, but they are incredibly detailed and intricate. Yes, her female subjects look beautiful in the photos, but this isn’t because they are posed in overly sexualized ways. Instead, their beauty is enhanced by incredibly creative costume and art design.
Monica Lazar (@lazarmonica)
Monica’s photos are distinguishable by one thing to me: her subject’s eyes. The way she lights her female subjects really highlights the emotion within their eyes, transforming them into fully formed characters. Her subjects are never posed uncomfortably, and most of them appear timeless and fantastical.
Sanjida Bintekamal (@sanjidawesome)
Sanjida’s photos are gorgeously colored and lit. She photographs a diverse array of subjects, celebrating their cultures while also empowering the women that are photographed. Her subjects are never traditionally poised and “ladylike” way. Her subjects’ beauty comes from the photographer empowering the subjects and celebrating aspects of them (internal and external) that they want to feature.
Felice’s photos are edgy, beautiful, and hilarious. She plays on traditionally sexy female stereotypes, and subverts them to empower female sexuality. Sometimes, her subjects will be positioned in sexually, except the art and costume design that surrounds them transforms the image into a critique on traditional photos framed with the male gaze. Her photos never fail to entertain.
Annegien Schilling (@fetching_tigerss)
Annegien’s photographs are stunning for a number of reasons. Not only are they visually imaginative and out of this world, every single photo contains a deeper meaning that expands the viewer’s understanding of the subject’s mindset. For example, the photo displayed above was captioned “overthinking.” With one word, the photographer has furthered our understanding of the subject’s mental state.
After thinking about the male gaze, it is nearly impossible to revert back to your previous viewing of portrait photography. The next time you see a movie, or a billboard, or an ad next to your Facebook feed, think to yourself: how is this portraying the female form? Is the female subject merely a physical object, bent and molded to seem appealing? Who was behind the lens?
If this phenomenon frustrates you as much as it does me, be sure to follow these incredible female portraitists online, and support film debuts with female directors and cinematographers. If you’re curious about which female cinematographer/directors to keep an eye out for, I recommend looking at this IndieWire Article for all of your badass female filmmaker needs.