Friday, October 14th, 2011

Celebrities And The "Rape" Of Photography

Johnny Depp took his reputation for eccentricity a little too far last week. Interviewed in the November issue of Vanity Fair, the actor appeared to let his guard down when discussing photo shoots with writer Nick Tosches, a long-time friend and a godparent to one of Depp’s kids. “Well, you just feel like you’re being raped somehow,” the actor said. “Raped. The whole thing. It feels like a kind of weird—just weird, man. Weird. Like you meet people and they say, 'Can I have a picture with you!' And that's great. That's fine. That's not a problem. But whenever you have a photo shoot or something like that, it’s like—you just feel dumb. It’s just so stupid.”

Depp isn’t the first actor who’s had to apologize for comparing photography to sexual assault. Just last year, Kristen Stewart told Elle UK that seeing photos taken of her by the paparazzi felt like "looking at someone being raped." It's an extreme reaction to the medium, and one that Susan Sontag addressed in her seminal On Photography, in which she argued that, while images can be violated, the people on whom those images are based cannot. "One can't possess reality, one can possess images," she wrote. But in Hollywood, a world where image is everything, how do you tell where reality ends and image begins?

The answer is clearly not provided on the big screen. On the contrary. Interestingly, Depp uses the term "stupid" at least a couple other times in the interview. One of them comes when he's describing his opposition to a staged cockfight in the upcoming film, The Rum Diary. Though the cockfighting scene reportedly looks real, the roosters were protected from killing each other with pieces of invisible monofilament (in accordance with American Humane Association regulations), a precaution he appeared to think detracted from the viscerality of Hunter S. Thompson's original scene. "I think it was stupid," he told Tosches. Extrapolating from that comment, Depp use of the term "stupid" suggests his aversion to false representation. Given his stated pleasure at being photographed by fans in his everyday life, it’s the falseness of the photo shoot and the poses associated with it that seem to bother Depp.

In this, Depp brings to mind Diane Arbus' "freaks," who remain some of the most extreme examples of the falsely represented. In On Photography, Sontag refers to the technique used by Arbus, famed documenter of New York’s marginalized (dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists etc.): "Instead of trying to coax her subjects into natural or typical position, they are encouraged to be awkward, that is, to pose. Thereby, the revelation of self gets identified with what is strange, odd, askew. Standing or sitting stiffly makes them seem like images of themselves." In a similar way to Arbus’ subjects—whose real selves are undermined by the images the photographer wishes to present of them—Depp subverts his own persona and projects that of the various fashion photographers who shoot him for magazines. In this way Depp maintains the Hollywood illusion of himself as poster boy for celebrity eccentricity.

The photographer’s power lies not only in determining how his or her subject poses, but also in how the image is ultimately produced (cropping, editing, Photoshopping, etc.); as Sontag put it, “in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.” Small wonder that Julia Roberts could tell American Photo in 2004 that she feels “stupid,” “goofy,” and “nervous"—like Depp—when being photographed and, in the same breath, say that when she handles a camera (as in the film Closer, in which she played a professional photographer), it “instantly makes you the coolest person in the room.”

Other celebs try to wrest control back from the cameraman. When I interviewed Shirley MacLaine a few years ago on the set of the TV movie Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, during our photo shoot, she chose the position in which she sat and dictated the light and filters the professional photographer was expected to use. Using a different tack, Lady Gaga caused a stir in March when she issued a release form demanding that concert photographers sign over to her the rights to all their photos taken at her shows.

Slightly harder to control are the rabid paparazzi photographers that have proliferated in Hollywood over the past decade. Popular targets have taken to disguising themselves, holding up signs (see Scarlett Johansson’s famous “I’m being harassed by the person taking this picture” sign), running from location to location, and sometimes even attacking the photographers who are following them (cf. Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson). But besides the immense danger the celebrities (and passersby, on foot and in vehicles) face in being mobbed, these off-duty stars also appear to be fighting what Sontag refers to as the democratization of their experiences.

“A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir,” she wrote. In short, part of what these stars may be objecting to is their day-to-day experiences being nullified by the paps that are falling all over themselves to snap them for our viewing pleasure.

“Why would I want anything that's private to become entertainment for other people?” the infamously camera-shy Kristen Stewart seemed to ask for all celebrities in that 2010 interview with Elle UK. At the height of her Twilight fame, she was so used to her experiences being captured by journalists and photographers both that during the interview she hesitated before removing an iPod from her car’s glove compartment to show the journalist her music. “You want to be excited about something, normal people can be excited about their lives, and I am too, but it's such a different thing,” she explained of her hesitation. “It comes out as entertainment for other people and that makes me want to throw up.”

Explaining her moodiness around paparazzi, Stewart contended that the public is not often privy to what happens before the pictures are taken. “What you don't see are the cameras shoved in my face and the bizarre intrusive questions being asked, or the people falling over themselves, screaming and taunting to get a reaction,” she told Elle. “All you see is an actor or a celebrity lit up by a flash. It's so… The photos are so… I feel like I'm looking at someone being raped.”

In her book, Sontag anticipated this type of comparison, stressing that photography requires distance while attacking someone sexually requires proximity. “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment,” she wrote. Though the use of “push and shove” does conjure images of photographers clamoring to snap Stewart, the sexual aspect of the action is missing.

In the same interview, Stewart did, however, seem to be in tune with Sontag. “Your little persona is made up of all the places that people have seen you and what has been said about you, and usually the places that I am are so overwhelming in the moment and fleeting for me—like one second where I've said something stupid, that's me, forever." The words conjure up Sontag’s suggestion that “the force” of a photo is such that it allows viewers (including Twilight fans) to scrutinize “instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.” So, one image of Stewart grimacing at a crowd of paps, or a moment in which she says the word “rape,” reverberates across the universe and single-handedly becomes her undoing.

Though the camera doesn’t “rape,” it does “violate” its subjects, but according to Sontag, it’s only a figurative violation “by having knowledge of them they can never have.” Stewart herself cannot be possessed but as the subject of a photograph, an object that can be physically held, she is “symbolically possessed.”

This so-called symbolic possession becomes all the more realistic when you consider the way photography works, which Sontag explained as “never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) — a material vestige of its subject.” Because of this, images can “usurp reality” since it is essentially “a trace, something directly stenciled off the real.” Sontag concluded by stating that the photograph being an extension of the subject captured, the image becomes a kind of means of acquiring the subject.

The statement gives a literal bent to Sean Penn’s comment in Playboy in November 1991 in which he described himself and Madonna as “public property.” It also makes Keira Knightley’s 2007 Crocodile Dundee-style, quasi-spiritual fear of being photographed appear slightly less ridiculous. "I'm not comfortable having to be myself or being photographed as myself,” she said. “Australian Aborigines say that with every photo that is taken, a piece of your soul goes with it. And there are some days when I kind of believe that."

But Sontag's book rebuts the idea that photography has the power to capture a piece of one’s real soul. “It is not reality that photographs make immediately accessible, but images,” she wrote. What’s confusing to celebrities (and much of the rest of the world) is that our era confounds reality with photographs. “Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism,” Sontag claimed, adding that the “true modern primitivism” is not to consider the image real, but to consider reality an image that can only be realized through photographs.

Unfortunately, the only way to combat this primitive behavior, Sontag argues, is to see the photograph for what it really is, not a real instance of power, but merely a weak expression of it—as it is a weak expression of the real Depp and the real Stewart, and as such is no real replacement for the stars themselves or their bodies. “The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist,” Sontag explained. “It will be knowledge at bargain prices—a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom; as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.”

Soraya Roberts is an entertainment writer and editor. She writes about films on her blog, Incinerater. She is also on Twitter, much to her dismay.

Photo of Stewart by Joe Seer, via Shutterstock.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

You can't spell photography without… rap. Close! An easy mistake to make!

Trilby (#3,897)

Cameras don't rape you but they do steal your soul.

melis (#1,854)

@Trilby On a completely unrelated note, I just started reading Trilby the other day, partly because of your username. It is terrific!

Bittersweet (#765)

So wait, Johnny…a posed photo shoot is akin to a major felony and they should've let those roosters kill each other in the name of "truth in art"? Now I'm confused.

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

I had no idea! I can only imagine how traumatic it must be for these Hollywood actors to be filmed and get paid millions of dollars for it, as well.

laurel (#4,035)

Quit making me feel (just a little) respect for Kristen Stewart.

Bittersweet (#765)

@laurel: Here, this will help with that.

laurel (#4,035)

@Bittersweet: Crisis averted.

who me@twitter (#157,263)

I've seen pap videos and how they go about taking the picture before. I've seen really outrageous instances with various celebrities, one of them being STewart. In the stewart one, she couldn't have been more than 18, alone, it was after dark, and the paps were blocking her car while taking pics with flashes. She stopped trying to drive at one point, while putting her head in her lap, then started calling someone on her cell phone while tears were streaming down her face. All the while, middle aged men with cameras are photographing her, yelling at her, and yelling out se xual references, from how big her bf's member was to how good her bf was in the sack(with more explicit words of course). I don't know, when you look at the definition of rape and find that a nonsexual definition of rape is a forceful seizure, and you see these old, male paps like some puppetmasters, forcing a "moment" out of a young girl who is being cornered, I think it's a coerced seizure, both figurative but physical too. Not sexual though of course, but definitely physical, literal.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

Although I'm careful when saying the emotionally laden R-word, it wasn't always so explicit to sexual assault. Seems it is becoming more so, as an armchair etymologist.

grandpa27 (#804)

Ah So "The Rape of the Lock" Now Taboo.

melis (#1,854)

@grandpa27 Not to mention those Sabine women.

kinelfire (#158,823)

@whizz_dumb no, but the archaic definition used to refer to the carrying off off property, at a time when rape was a crime against a father or husband's property. The act hasn't changed, nor has the word. The legal definition has.

grandpa27 (#804)

@kinelfire Then there is rape seed – English is tricky business.

HiredGoons (#603)

I repeat, 'On Photography' is overrated and self-serving; and I LIKE Susan Sontag (most of the time).

She is completely off base about Diane Arbus' process as well, which she would have known had she bothered to do even a cursory investigation – and I know, her premise is that 'the image is everything' which is fine, unless that means your point of analytic departure is a falsity from the get go.

Which it is.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@HiredGoons I quite like postmodernism from a political perspective (Gramsci and Baudrillard are, if not always entirely correct, then good for a laugh) but when it comes to stuff like photography I find it really hard to engage.

freetzy (#7,018)

Can we just all agree that papparazzi are the scum of the earth?

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@freetzy Yes. But hedge fund managers are still Satan's spawn.

TrilbyLane (#1,318)

Looking at that Vanity Fair cover, Johnny Depp should be more worried about The Bukkake Of Photoshop.

LondonLee (#922)

Is that a Terry Richardson shot? Because I'd feel a little unclean after being photographed by him.

mrschem (#1,757)

@LondonLee yep. I had the same thought.

mmmark (#4,458)

Did anyone ask James Franco about this?

This piece seems to overlook a number of things on the way to presenting the quotes of Sontag specifically asserting that photography is not rape. The reliance on On Photography seems inadequate as well. The book presents itself more in opposition to the consumers of images and photographers rather than advocating for the photographed as in Regarding the Pain of Others.

That being said, there's also some minimization by this author of the strength of Sontag's feelings. In one quotation, she says that photography "may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate," (emphasis added). Yet there is much stronger language from Sontag in the words surrounding another quote used in the piece:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

I don't think Sontag could be entirely ignorant of one meaning of the word "violate" and it's still not the strongest word in the larger qoute.

It's true that the human subjects of the photography discussed in Regarding the Pain of Others are nowhere near the photographed of this article. While Sontag may use the word "voyeuristic" in On Photography, the photographed described there are mainly represented as cultures and classes of people.

The idea of someone relentlessly and minutely observed is presented in Foucault's contemporaneous "Panopticism" chapter in Discipline and Punish . But even he is blind (heh) to all of the psychological implications of that concept of discipline, despite concluding in part:

"The ideal point of penality today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity."

(While I did just quote Foucault, I do have some more pointed criticism, so bear with me. For example…)

It's hard to ignore that there's some element of social sanction verging on violence when it's the most vulnerable celebrities who are the most hounded: from men prone to rage, to men with ambiguous sexual identities or a non-traditionally male sexual appeal. The most troubling of all, of course, are the young women. And how does social sanction get expressed towards young women?

It doesn't matter that some invite it via tip-offs from publicists – who hasn't put themselves at risk through a desire to be loved in some strange ways? It's also the thin end of the wedge of rationalization that the gossip business uses: "That's just how things work around here." "They get paid so much, they should be able to put up with a little inconvenience." And the worst: "If they don't like it, they shouldn't have gotten into the business."

Another aspect of "the business" is legitimate publicity. Apparently "Depp subverts his own persona and projects that of the various fashion photographers who shoot him for magazines. In this way Depp maintains the Hollywood illusion of himself as poster boy for celebrity eccentricity." No. That's more social sanction at work, and coming from the author of the piece. While it may be true that a "real" eccentric would shun the hype machine, being uncooperative is a guaranteed way to lose the freedom to choose your work. A photoshoot is too often the one place an actor doesn't get to be himself or a character she's chosen. Since Depp has male privilege, does that mean he's more blameworthy in letting the art department do everything it can to make a man in his late forties look like an epicene teenager? Doing it for over twenty years doesn't mean he has to "get used to it."

To return to Sontag and address both comparisons, why is it acceptable for her to use the intellectualizing term "semblance of rape" and it's not ok for both Depp and Stewart to use "feels like rape?" "Feels" has more than one denotative meaning. And still, it's presumptive to assume it's always said with ignorance. Simple statistics make it unlikely that Depp has experienced it, but it's just as ignorant to entirely dismiss Stewart's usage. That's one right to privacy that should be absolute.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

I'm curious as to whether the people throwing around the word rape have ever actually been raped, or witnessed a rape, or know someone who was raped. It's not only a matter of the gravity of the word. By definition, rape is nonconsensual, whereas becoming an movie actor or other celebrity actually involves a lot of work directed precisely towards the sort of fame which draws the attention of paparazzi. When Mr. Depp is being photographed he may be undergoing some sort of unpleasant wage slavery, but the construction of appearance is part of his profession, his craft. The rape metaphor might more aptly be applied to photographers who exploit noncelebrities, random passers-by, for images. But no one cares about their targets, apparently.

oscarina (#45,226)

I have to admit, I know it sounds like celebrities are overreacting, big babies, saying it feels like a sexual violation, but having been a model, and not having been prepared for it by, say, being considered beautiful all my life, it was a remarkably icky, slimey, violating experience for me, too. I can't explain it. Go ahead and say I'm a big baby, too. But seriously, you feel violated, even if you were being paid for the shoot. There IS something weird about it, just like Depp says. I always felt depressed, and… slimed, afterwards. I was so glad to get out of it and not do photographs anymore. Now, when I model in-house, and someone wants to take photos of me, say, for their catalogue, I react very badly. I get mad, and say, "I don't do that anymore!" I really really don't want to do it. But I have no problem being photographed among friends, like any normal person in normal life.

How to explain it? Hmmmm. Maybe it's easier to say it feels like rape than to say it feels like you just whored yourself out? I just had that revelation just now… Yick.

kayemirandaz (#160,968)

Really like Kristen Stewart picture.

irene @twitter (#141,397)

I won't even waste my breath to try go academic on this, even though I was an art student. I will say a few things though.

1, Susan S is full of …. And I dont agree in the least about Arbus's images. She purposefully made them staged and stiff to show the absurdity in taking an image of someone at the first place. Life is staged after all, photograph or no photograph.

2. Your whole article is so biased that it becomes mute and simple some sort of sycophantic ode to celebrities. Did you research about paparazzi's? Did you even research about what a publicist actually does?

3. Ahhh The master manipulators. They ain't that bright but human beings are so insanely irrational that they have the ability to make their uneducated client-few celebs have gone to higher education-believe that the Paps are psychic (who do you think called them my little narcissist?) and the ability to make the sheep like celeb obsessed public believe that it's those big bad Paps chasing your favorite STAR!!! Ahhhh!!!

Please look up the great and blimming honest publicist Max Clifford, an English man always talking about the absurdity of celebrities and how his clients know a helluva lot more then they let on. Look up Mr Paparrazzi an Australian man based in London who did a string of docs explaining who, ahem, tips them. You may not like it… And lastly, Stephen Huvane publicist to most starlets from Jennifer Aniston to Anne Hathaway. Just google his shennagins. Oh and ever wonder why we EVERYTHING that Aniston does but NOTHING that Hathaway does? I mean, could it be, cough, that you can control, cough, the amount of public coverage that you get?

5. Google hilarious happenings with Tom and Katie orchestrating their 'just taken in the street photos' and the Paps tatting on them, lol. "why are they going back and forth in the same place waiting for us to ake their picture?"

6. Everything about Johnny Depp is fake. But I guess now that your over it? Zzzz…

I've been RAPED……….They have my Blessing to say how they feel. now we all should be helping each other not hurting each other. Peace to all, Jen in Tulsa,OK

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