Exercise: The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic

The Brief:

Read the article ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’ by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

In what ways does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography? What are the implications of this for your practice? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

I really get so frustrated when reading journal articles that refer to a plethora of images, discuss them in great detail, but don’t bother to show them in the article – as this one does. Having just finished reading the resource that OCA had made available as a download, I tried a Google search to see if I could find the photos that are referred to in the article. Lo and behold – I came across an online chapter with a notation scribbled across it citing The Photography Reader by Liz Wells as the source and yes it is there in the book complete with the photos. Wish I had known that from the start!

Lutz and Collins first cover some different traditions of analysing the gaze. The “inter-ethnic looking” that occurs in National Geographic magazines is concerned with the gaze as a means of control. A quick summary of the traditions follows below:

Laura Mulvey

  • gazes are focused in the patriarchal society
  • “split between active/male and passive/female” (Lutz & Collins: 1991: 135)
  • Position of spectator = male and allows for construction of femininity

Reference: Mulvey, L. (1999) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ In: Braudy, L. and Cohen, M. (eds.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press. pp.833–844.

John Berger

  • men = active doers/women = passive presence
  • men by what they do to others/women by their attitudes towards themselves
  • “the surveyor and the surveyed”
  • “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”
  • “the surveyor of woman  in herself is male”.

Reference: Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Jacques Lacan

The gaze is something distinct from the eye of the beholder and as distinct from simple vision. The gaze comes back from the other who is the self in that looking, but the gaze the self encounters “is not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of “the Other”.

Reference: Lacan, J. (1981) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.

Homi Bhabha

Gaze is crucial to the colonial gaze. Ambivalence and an unsettling effect must accompany the colonial gaze because mirror = problematic because of self recognition. Looking at the Racial Other places the viewer in a position of both recognizing him in the other and denying that recognition.

Michel Foucault

Close observation of the subject allows for a “normalizing gaze”, which is a surveillance which makes it possible to qualify, classify and punish. Visibility -> differentiates -> punishes.

Reference: Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish | The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Sheridan, A. (s.l.): Vintage Books.

National Geographic’s gaze = international power relations which allow for surveillance or control of non-Western people.

In the article Lutz and Collins mention that National Geographic filters the looks for the reader via its own gaze. According to them different types of gazes intersect in a National Geographic photograph. They list seven of these types of gazes:

  • The Photographer’s Gaze: the eye of the camera, what Daniel Chandler refers to as “the way the camera itself appears to look at the people/objects depicted” (Chandler: 1998). For the most part the photographer’s gaze overlaps with that of the viewer’s gaze.
  • The Magazine’s Gaze: this is the editorial gaze – the whole institutionalized process which involves the editor’s decisions regarding location shoots, the editor’s choice of pictures, the editor’s/designer’s decision to crop/juxtapose certain photos with others, the caption writer’s text.
  • The Magazine Reader’s gazes: with a magazine subscription like National Geographic, the reader has certain expectations about he/she is going to see in each edition, there is a sense of anticipation that accompanies the handling of the physical object (photograph/magazine). “The reader’s gaze … has a history and a future, and it is structured by the mental work of inference and imagination” (Lutz and Collins, 1991:138).
    • structured by cultural elements
    • informed by the way each individual regards the images taking into account his/her own cultural, personal, political background or interests [Barthes’ concept of authorship]
    • on the one hand the photograph allows for participation in a non-Western scene; on the other it turns the reader into a passive viewer as they are not able to see/hear/smell the environment depicted in the image
    • this changes the person/people photographed into an object
    • the way the viewer is encouraged to connect with the figures in the photograph is termed “suturing” (a metaphor used by Victor Burgin in ‘Photography, Phantasy, Function’ In: Thinking Photography).
    • Suturing takes place in two ways:
      • voyeuristic look = this requires and promotes a distance between viewer and subject
      • narcissistic identification = creates the illusion that the photograph is a mirror.
    • This gaze is structured by the context of reading which includes the cultural notions about the magazine itself.
  • The Non-Westerner’s Gaze: how and where the subject looks determines the differences in the message a photograph can give about intercultural relations. There are four types of gazes of the other:
    • direct gaze
      • acknowledges the photographer/viewer
      • might be confrontational
      • facial expressions help determine subject’s attitude
      • creates an illusion of communication and intimacy
      • frontal shot breaks down language barriers
      • is not candid
      • permits examination
      • racial/age and gender differences affect perspectives of this gaze
      • historically used more by the “rougher classes”
    • look at someone/something within frame [the internal or intra-diegetic gaze]
      • historically this gaze has been utilized by the “superior classes” symbolizing themselves as being less available or inclined to deal with the photographer’s agenda
      • this creates an “index of interest, attention or goals” from the reader’s standpoint.
    • look off into distance [averted gaze/divergent attention]
      • this out of frame look creates implications for viewer identification with the subject
      • can convey two very different types of personalities
    • gaze absent altogether
      • occurs when figures are very tiny in photo, in a crowd of people, image is dark, person’s face is covered by mask or veil.
      • These images tend to be read as landscape or as an activity being represented rather than about the people.
  • The Direct Westerner’s Gaze
    • represents intercultural relations between West and other countries. There is a validating function present if a Western is in the photograph – lends authenticity. This makes indexing of the individuals possible, as well as seeing the contrasts and similarities between the Western and Other.
    • A gaze that lacks reciprocity is a colonial gaze – it views the Other as an ethnic object.
  • The Refracted Gaze of the Other:to see themselves as others see them
    • I.e. the native with the camera
    • Mirror and camera are tools of self-reflection and surveillance
    • Psychoanalysis
      • Infant -> mirror = ego formation -> first time as other (Lacan’s theory)
      • Self-reflective capacities; mirror = possibility of self-awareness
      • Mirror’s placement in non-Western’s hands -> interesting photo for Westerns -> perception of non-Western = child-like & intellectually immature. Lack of self-awareness = lack of history
      • Mirror is sometimes used to create narrative about national identity formation
    • The camera is a form of power and when the non-Westerner is holding the camera, this violates the Westerners prerogative.
    • In a similar fashion, National Geographic magazine acts as a historical, cultural, political mirror.
  • The Academic Spectator
    • Sub-type of the reader’s gaze
    • All the gazes/looks are filtered for the reader by way of the academic’s own gaze
    • Intent -> critique of images not aesthetic appreciation
    • Aim is to make pictures tell a different story than originally meant -> more about the makers & their readers than the subjects in the photos
    • Alternative gaze

The profusion of gazes surrounding and within any image is the root of its ambiguity.

With regards to my own practice I have been aware of the different types of gazes and their subtle nuances since doing the Identity and Place module. What this article has really highlighted for me, is the interplay of the different types of gazes that are present in a photograph. It has, likewise, made me more aware of the power or control of the gaze and how much can be read and misread in attempting to decode these looks. I’m also all too aware of how quickly a facial expression can change and how slow a camera’s shutter button can sometimes be in capturing that change. What is sometimes captured as a scowl or serious expression actually becomes a grin or laughter a couple of fractions later. Going forward though I will bear the significance of the gaze in mind and consider my intent regarding the narrative I am trying to create.


Chandler, D. (1998) Notes on The Gaze. At: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/gaze/?LMCL=lbIDqI (Accessed  22/12/2019).

Lutz, C. and Collins, J. (1991) ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’ In: Visual Anthropology Review 7 (1) pp.134–149.

Exercise: ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’

David Green begins his essay with the caveat that Foucault’s writings are difficult to understand – no kidding! Neither is Green’s essay easy. Thankfully I have a Dummies guide to Foucault’s work which provides great succinct summaries about his different books. The aim of Green’s essay is to lay out the main components of Foucault’s work with reference to his book Discipline and Punish, present the flow of his arguments and then to consider Foucault’s conclusions in terms of contemporary photography. Green only touches rather briefly on the photographic aspect on the last page and a half of his essay, the preceding pages attempting to encapsulate Foucault’s 333 page tome.

  • All Foucault’s work (all his books) can be ascribed to the history of sciences, the historical focus being during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
  • Two interconnected themes:
    • a philosophy that views ‘man’ as subject and object of knowledge
    • the intricate relations that connect power and knowledge which are essential to this philosophy
  • Pre 1757 power took the form of gross torture, drawing & quartering as forms of punishment
  • Post 1837 punishment took the form of regimented schedules and activities.
  • Power cannot be seen as a negative force only, but can be viewed as a positive force when it enhances knowledge.
  • Power is seen to be truth and each society has its own set of truths; ways in which the discourses are accepted and disseminated:
    • ways of distinguishing between true/false statements
    • ways of sanctioning
    • ways of acquiring the truth
    • the status of those who are tasked with verifying the truth
    • who/what governs statements determines what is accepted as truth
      (one just has to watch the circus of the ‘impeachment hearings’ taking place in the USA at the moment to see how desperately the Democratic party is trying to grab Power – all the abovementioned points are covered in their pursuit).
Disciplinary Power
  • Once society did away with the system of torture as punishment (punishment as retribution) a new form of punishment emerged i.e. a system of reform. Violent bodily punishments were replaced with the ‘correction … of the soul’ (Green 2005). This new form of power was known as the disciplinary society.
  • Discipline is a form of power with its own techniques and procedures
  • It was a more calculated form of punishment involving:
    • Spatialization (a place of everyone, and everyone in his place)
    • Minute control of activity (strict schedules)
    • Repetitive exercises (sufficient repetition creates automatic reactions to stimuli)
    • Surveillance (detailed hierarchies -each level keeps watch over lower ranks)
    • Normalizing judgements (as a form of power laws are usually set out in negative terms – stating what is unacceptable behaviour, but do not specify what is desired. Disciplinary power also punishes, but rewards good behaviour)
  • The ideal model of surveillance = the Panopticon
    • central tower within circular building
    • cells open on inside, illuminated by perimeter lighting, visible to tower
    • guard in tower (observer) = unseen
    • Observation & comparison of individuals in cells create a formal equality, but also enable viewer to see differences
  • Panopticism has been absorbed into society in schools, hospitals, factories, prisons.
  • Power and knowledge are interconnected. The surveillance, documentation and administration of these individuals constitute forms of disciplinary power and the outcome of these connections is new knowledge about man and social sciences. (I guess this really comes down to the fact that the more someone know about you, the more power they have over you).
The Politics of the Body
  • Another consistent theme in Foucault’s writings is the form of power which is directed towards the body.
  • This form of power is a not a physical one, but has more to do with the subjection of the body and the means to extract knowledge from it.

But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex reciprocal relations, with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination  but, on the other hand, its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection (Foucault, 1995:25).

  • The emergency of the discipinary society was the result of a grown in population and the rise of industrial capitalism. This necessitated regulatory controls at the social level (politics of the population).
Photography and Power

Historically photography has been used in the discourse of disciplinary power: police mug shots, expeditionary surveys of aboriginal peoples, physiological records, records of race, class and gender and of course surveillance. What role does the camera then play – that of the Panopticon perhaps? The photographer is “invisible” behind the lens (sometimes), so too is the viewer in the gallery (always). Both gaze upon the subjects in different ways, but what of their intentions? Is the photographer just recording the subject as an interesting person he/she came across/a moment frozen in time, or is there an ulterior motive, e.g. a PI investigating a client’s spouse’s infidelities, CCTV camera in a store to detect theft? What of the viewer in the gallery – is he/she satisfying a hidden fetish.  The amount of photos that are out there on the internet these days really bring it home that the power of the image is extremely pervasive. The use of certain surveillance equipment can be for a good cause, as mentioned above, CCTV is a deterrent for shoplifting and for home invasions. Dash cams, Go-Pro and even cell phone video footage have been used as forensic evidence in court cases. Just as there is a plethora of positive uses for this kind of photography, so too there have been negative instances. But Foucault insists that wherever there is a potential for power, there also is the potential for resistance. There is no single way of dealing with opposing cultural politics in photography. We have to find different forms and alternative strategies of dealing with the varied photographic contexts.


Fillingham, L. A. (1993) Foucault for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing Inc.

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish | The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Sheridan, A. (s.l.): Vintage Books.

Green, D. (2005) ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ In: In the Camera Work Essays. pp.119–31. At: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/onfoucault (Accessed 6 December 2019)