A photographer isn't successful if her/his work isn't noticed. You don't get jobs, commissions, or sales if your images are ho-hum. Anne Geddes immortalized babies as animals, flowers, vegetables and even insects, spawning a million dollar industry of calendars, cards and prints of sweet sleeping faces. Annie Leibovitz made a name for herself with her iconic Rolling Stone cover shots; transcending the work of most celebrity photographers, she's rightfully recognized as an artist with solo exhibitions and numerous awards . One went the sugar and spice route, the other artfully connected with her subjects, and both have achieved their respective versions of success.
Like Geddes and Leibovitz, Los Angeles photographer Tyler Shields is trying to find his own unique style as a photographer. Unfortunately, a recent photo shoot with Glee star Heather Morris may have pushed the envelope too far and inadvertently glamorized domestic violence. Earlier today at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote about Tyler's photos which include shots of Morris with a simulated black eye, bound at the wrists by electrical cord, and brandishing an iron. Emphasizing the edgy props and theme, Shields wrote on his website:
Even Barbie bruises. We have been talking about shooting for a long time and we finally made it happen! Some magic, irons, and bruises later it was complete.
The above statement puzzles me. Is Shields saying that Morris -- as the quintessential perfect all-American blonde -- can be hurt, and that his idea was to violate that Barbie-like image? Or is he objectifying her, reducing her to nothing more than an insensate doll that he can manipulate, control, and even abuse? And should either the photographer or actress be cognizant of -- or sensitive to -- the the millions of tween, teen and even adult female fans of Glee who associate Morris with Brittany, the not-too-bright cheerleader she plays on the show?
In appearing on camera this way, does Morris somehow unwittingly communicate tacit approval of partner abuse by agreeing to participate in the theme of the photo shoot? Thousand of tweens who are self-confessed Gleeks are seeing these images and getting mixed messages because it's so stylized and features someone they recognize.
I know I'm not alone in asking these questions.
In her Salon commentary, Williams notes that survivors of abuse and national groups that work to end domestic violence are up in arms about the photos and cites an interview with E! News in which the head of the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence notes the bruised face photo is disturbingly similar to ones of pop star Rihanna after being beaten by then-boyfriend R&B vocalist Chris Brown. Yet Williams ends up coming to the defense of the photographer:
...[A]n individual photographer, solely pursuing his own vision, has every right to dream up whatever scenarios strike his fancy. This Shields guy is into blood and pain and "Star Wars" characters. That's his thing.
Art isn't always easy or safe or unthreatening.
I agree with Williams that art is often meant to provoke intense feeling or start a dialogue, but is this art? Did Shields come into this particular project with the intent of examining the intersection of love, power and violence, or was he trying to break out of the rut of photographing yet another not-that-famous celebrity? Was he honestly trying to shine a spotlight on a significant social issue, or is he merely looking for attention and notoriety? As one commenter on his site posted:
I do.not.get.it. Why do you keep producing photos glamorizing violence against women? There is absolutely nothing new or revelatory about pics like this. Take a look at the women being fed into a meat grinder or on a dog leash on the cover of Hustler in the 1970s. These photos are mere replicas of that antiquated sensibility. They no longer shock, and they never enlightened. They just perpetuate images of battered women. Can you please explain why you're so stuck in the dark ages?
She brings up a valid point. Over time, a civilized society evolves and gains a heightened awareness of what's culturally acceptable and what's not. We're going through some growing pains when it comes to the depiction of violence against women, but for us to move forward we have to rethink our response to these images.
It may be hard to believe today, but as recently as the middle of the 20th century lynching was a commonly accepted practice. In many cases it even served as family entertainment. Dr. David Pilgrim of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University quotes historian Phillip Dray on the subject of lynchings:
Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic.
Accompanying Dr. Pilgrim's article on lynchings is one such commemorative photograph. In it we see approximately 24 men -- some smiling -- posed behind the charred and still smoking corpse of a black man with his back arched over a pile of burning rubble. It's a gruesome photo that reminds us of a past no American should be proud of.
We've come a long way since then, thanks to the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the efforts of the famous and the unsung, from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to countless nameless protesters of every color. We don't hang and castrate and burn black men or show depictions of these acts in fashion spreads or on museum walls. We've moved beyond that.
So how long will it take before we see domestic violence in that same light? Both are acts of aggression, power, humiliation, and subjugation. Both are attempts to control a segment of society that was once perceived of as "property." If we can't acknowledge that it's wrong to "have fun" with images of domestic violence -- especially when the abused female is a cast member of a hugely successful TV series that's proven influential with pre-teen girls -- then how can we presume to think we can educate girls and young women that partner abuse is wrong, or end gender-based violence?
More on domestic violence and teens: