If my memory services me right, I have always been an observer. I remember staring at the nude females in the shower room at the public bathhouse where I grew up in Stockholm. My small brown eyes were following the curves of women, they were of all ages. The droopy long breasted elderly, with the thin, delicate skin covering bony shoulders and see-through chests. The older-than-me girls with bodies full of estrogen, creating curves and padding for the next generation. It was mothers, their daughters, and the grandmothers, a visual feast in diversity. It was the beginning of my adolescent female gaze that later on would do just this, create images of, by, and for women. This was like the most important class in school, a display of life itself. And then, of course, it was the external sensory system in the world at the end of the 70s, the start of the 80s which taught all us small girls, something else.
A few decades later I become conscious about the complete impact my parent’s record covers had on me. How moves like Belle De Jour and OKEJ magazine shape my gaze and more importantly, the various porn magazines I managed to rescue from recycling rooms around the suburbia where I grew up. The imagery was echoing through in my photography when I first started in my twenties. This was my own selected visual diet, but as you can see, the ingredients were outdated but still fresh in my subconscious.
In 1977 Jacques Lacan (Lacan’s gaze) acknowledges that “things look at me, and yet I see them”. I was only three years old and there weren’t many years passing until I recall watching Madicken (a fictional character created by Astrid Lindgren) jumping around naked with her younger sister. After all, this was Swedish children’s TV in the 70s. I still remember how I was completely mesmerized by the two girls.
It is kind of ironic, that by the age of forty-five I decided to sit down and write about the girl gaze (the female gaze). I am not a girl anymore, but still very perceptive of gaze. I want to pick apart, what belongs to you, and through whose eyes you have seen yourself all this time?
This text is not about what is right and wrong and how external power structures (media/art, politics, religion) end up determining your gaze (including how you see yourself).
This is a story about how I had to examine my gaze to became self-governing. How the inner prison of structures affect me photographing not only naked women, but also men. I had to find out who imprisoned my eyes and with that awareness, my gaze cleared from external input. I finally found my own, healing eyes. I am still not sure if I have succeeded, but the internal dialogue is forever reminding me, stay awake, connected and present. The connection is fundamental for authentic photography, a genuine relationship between two equal humans. Finger on the shutter, click.
So what is a girl/female gaze?
I guess it is the opposite from the male gaze. If the male gaze represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer, then female gaze should be the opposite. My experience is that women have been so gazed at, that many of us don’t even find our gaze anymore. My gaze was formed by the moves, the visual diet, and the stories that I consumed at the beginning of my life. I started to think, do we even find “our” gaze if it never existed?
What if we are “sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer” and this “view” has been the dominating one, so dominating we even lost our sight?
At one point (at the start of 2000), I found myself doing what the boys did so well, depicting women like objects. Don’t misunderstand me, it was my friends that I photographed, but I remember taking my suitcase to go for a holiday across someone’s bodily landscape. I was enjoying the view: over deep valleys, dark waters, and mountains created.
Why would I be different from Terry or Juergen? I had, just like them, been fed a visual diet directly out of the patriarch factory. Where power is counted in sex appeal and attraction, the only currency suitable for a lady’s purse. Back then, there were a couple of shots that held the map for my visual journey, such as Corinne Day’s portraits of a too young Kate Moss. The ultimate girl gaze, not only because Day was a girl too, more so because Kate’s eyes were entirely connected to Day’s. That shoot on the beach unfolded in togetherness, completely equal.
And then it was Nan Goldin, like a photographer from a dimension beyond our very hierarchic one. Goldin created images of people in the most vulnerable situations and my heart exploded, so much strength, human force, and dignity, a gaze full of humanity.
I left my naked friends and started to explore where my gaze was at. The only way to become aware of sexism/racism and prejudice is to turn your gaze within. To become aware of cultural and socially constructed ideas around humans and their ways. To assess what your visual diet consists of, not only to find out what unhealthy E-numbers you have consumed but also make sure you become aware of what is missing, diversity, perhaps reality? Aversion is the last stop before the gaze is clear.
“The gaze is linked to the mirror stage of psychological development, in which a child encountering a mirror learns that he or she has an external appearance.”
What about if we are all babies once again? We are all beginners of 2020, learning what a human gaze is all about? We lost our vision, seeing “the other” through a pigeon-hole, only a small feather is sticking out. The mother’s gaze got replaced with external relationships, followers, subscribers, employers, potential partners, friends, and the general public. If we see ourselves through the external landscape if our inner is entirely muddled, then who are we?
Can I just see me or her/him, as full humans? Without all the isms? A gaze that permits us to be us. Full of vulnerabilities, hopes, dreams, fears, pains, and human value. Does it sound daunting? I think it sounds like the ultimate rebirth.