What was the first thing you learned about art and/or photography?
For me, it was that, as an artist or photographer, there was one thing that you never, ever did…you never made a person look monstrous in any way. I was taught that portraits are created at 3/4 size because life-size makes people look monstrous. There are things that make us readily recognizable as humans rather than say, mice… the nose is as long as the index finger; the ears are as long as the space between the outside corner of your eye to the corner of your lips. There are other rules like that which help us, as artists, to create work that is representative and to help us create human forms that “read” as human. Imagine drawing a person playing soccer whose fingers are 3 times longer than their nose. They would not be viewed as normal humans. All sighted people would recognize that this figure has some deformity. Caricature is a way of getting past the rules. And this is where “intent” comes in.
While artists may be tasked with shaking things up by creating work that is challenging or thought provoking there are certain rules that are not the ones to be broken because they help to establish us as humans in the eye of the beholder. Another important rule is that teeth are the same color as the whites of the eyes…(for those of you whitening your teeth, that’s a good one for you to pay attention to) because if the teeth are too dark, the person looks ill. If the teeth are too white, they look monstrous and our instinct kicks in seeing a predator. Seeing predatory teeth (or teeth that are too white thus claiming our visual attention) creates an instinctive reaction and causes our brain (and body) to commit a series of actions that keep us safe. This is an instinctive reaction that can save our lives. When we are faced with a predator, without us even realizing it sometimes, we react in ways that keep us safe.
A few years ago, while I was waiting for an elevator in a hospital where I was visiting a friend, a fellow rushed up as the doors opened. He was flushed and a little sweaty, his pupils were huge and when he smiled his extremely white smile made my blood run cold. I let him take the elevator and I waited for the next one. It was days before I realized what I had reacted to, and why I didn’t want to be in the small, closed space alone with him. His physical state appeared the same as one who either had, or was about to, commit a crime of some sort. Now, he was probably just a new dad on his way to see his new child…. but then again….maybe not.
Another example are the images of animals horribly injured due to abuse, neglect, etc. With the Australia wildfires currently happening (at the time of this writing) more and more burned animals are being shown across social media. I understand that the people posting are trying to show the horror of this event to get more help as quickly as possible. But I cannot see those images. I know animals suffer unconscionable horrors (as do some people) but I can’t unsee it. The result is that I have nightmares for weeks that disrupt my sleep; for days, my eyes will be swollen with tears and my sinuses will be stuffy from crying. No one has the right to put me through weeks of sleeplessness and a sorrow so deep it affects everything in my life. The same goes for people, I can’t see those images either. I feel them too deeply.
Personally, I have unfollowed many people who insist on posting those types of photos without benefit of any sort of warning. I don’t need to see those images to know how tragic and urgent the need is…and I think seeing them should be my option. If the artist/photographer would issue a warning that the next image may not be suitable, I could decide to not scroll further. Instead, I now no longer see anything they post which is also kind of sad because so much of their content was valuable and I’m missing it now.
Let’s look at Instagram, with which I am most familiar. Instagram allows for multiple image posting so that you must scroll sideways to see the next photo/image. If the first image read, “May not be suitable for everyone” I’d not scroll further. Other people might be intrigued and be more excited to look. But, as an artist, you would’ve done everything in your power to keep your viewing public safe. For those who opt to go further down the proverbial rabbit hole…well, they were warned.
As artists, we know what we’re trying to create. However, we don’t know the age of every potential viewer, their personal experience, their mental health, their emotional well-being, etc.; therefore, we cannot know if our intention is obvious to every member of our audience. They may see it as something totally different than we intended. While we aren’t in complete control of that, we do have a little control. Read on 🙂
Are you thinking, “Well, yeah, but if they don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it?” That used to be the case…but not anymore due to Social Media.
With Social Media we self-publish. We decideif it’s appropriate to viewers of all ages. And….we are usually sitting alone in the privacy of our own home or office making those decisions. Usually, it seems there is little thought given to who will be viewing our work. We assume they will be people like us. But we truly have no way of knowing who will be seeing any piece of work we put ‘out there’. I say “we” a lot because I do the same thing. I look at how centered an image is, how bright, black balance, color balance, etc. I want people to find it pleasing to look at. I hope to touch them with a spirit-to-spirit communication, to let them know they aren’t alone in the world, that there are things of beauty no matter how grey their world may look now. But…I rarely have thought about it any deeper than that. Lately, I have given it more thought, but not at first…and not even every post now.
There is no one readily available to give us their opinion or to caution us that what we are about to post might be offensive to children, the elderly, the mentally unstable, the emotionally fragile, etc. There is no gallery owner to caution us that this might be better hung in a side room off the main gallery. There’s no editor who says this image would be offensive and possibly damaging to children under the age of 13. There’s no agent who says this image might cost you viewers who block you because they choose not to look at this type of image.
Just as we cannot control who views our creation on Social Media, neither can we take back anything they may have already seen. There is no way to unsee things no matter how much you may wish there were.
Even if you are the only person on the planet who finds it shocking, is it really anyone’s “right” to put that in your line of sight? My vote is no, it’s not okay to put something in plain view that might be upsetting or offensive to even one person on the planet. When it comes up in the stream, you can’t scroll past it fast enough to not see it. And once seen, it is impossible to unsee.
This is why it was so helpful to have an agent, a gallery owner/staff members, an editor, etc. because there was a second opinion we could rely on to keep us from offering anything objectionable to part of our audience. We could still exhibit it, but in a way that limited who had access to seeing it. There is a big difference between seeing an image and being assaulted by an image. As artists, it increasingly falls to us to be aware of the difference and to make sure we don’t post certain images in the public purview.
As an example, I have a friend who is nearly 70 years old who gets faint if she sees “blood and gore.” As a massage therapist, I have anatomy books that depict bones and muscles so that I can educate my clients about their bodies and why I was using a specific treatment. She cannot look at those pictures without getting very faint. I have every right to have and use those books, she has every right to not see them. Moving the books and their images to a different bookcase and a lower shelf took care of the problem.
Artists of all genres have been gifted with a different way of seeing the world. We have an ability, or perhaps more accurately, a need, to express our creativity. Whether we paint, photograph, write music, perform…whatever the way we create…we need to express it. However, the rest of humanity has the right to not be assaulted by our creations.
Self-publishing has developed over time, mostly since the Internet has become so mainstream. Some of the first works I noticed that pushed up against the rules of creation (that’s what I’ll call them) were the human/animal Photoshop style blends that were very different from any previous created visuals, and many were quite lovely. Again, this is where “intent” comes in….They were mostly designed with the goal of sales in mind. Whether it was the product of a design crew hired by a corporate advertising agent or whether it was advertising for the Photoshop software itself is irrelevant. What matters here is the concept that the initial creations were designed to be visually attractive, that the skill with which Photoshop and its ilk were applied was every bit as important as the actual images created. It was designed with a purpose and that purpose was to be attractive and saleable.
Somehow though, now human forms are being handled differently. I’ve seen any number of human bodies with animal heads or flowers put on where the human head should be. No attractive blend, just a harsh reality. The result is, to me, a stark and unpleasant image that whispers of the themes covered by Ms. Shelley 202 years ago. Now, I’m not saying these are bloody images, there’s no blood, it’s just manipulated photos, but the result is still the same for me.
As artists, we must ask ourselves, “What do we want our work to convey? Who is our target audience? Is our platform going to take us strictly to our target audience?” or is it possible that an unwary child or senior citizen will be forced to see something they cannot unsee? We truly need to consider the appropriateness of our chosen Social Media. For example, I am not going to post the photo of the lovely rare steak I had for dinner last night to a vegan thread or website. I can think of no good reason to do so.
About 202 years ago Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published. Shelley wrote that tale after losing her firstborn child. In an era of scientific experimentation; grief and wishful thinking fueled her creation event. Throughout the book, we see that the struggle between right and wrong, life and death, desire and potential have a disastrous real-life effect. The creation, born of a natural desire, became a monstrous reality. The monster quite literally assaulted the community members and even, in the end, its own creator. Here we are, 202 years later, and the moral lessons of Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus) are still relevant. That the learned leading character of Victor represents intelligence without depth, morality without feeling, and ambition without foresight are still just as viable and just as dangerous today as they were then. We haven’t come that far in human understanding and as artists, we need to be aware of that.
No matter how good the intentions may be, Social Media does not supply any filter that can prevent psychological or sociologic damage from occurring when the wrong person sees something that is not good for them to see. Social Media is limited to what it can control so it falls to us, as artists and inhabitants of this planet, to apply some discretion to what we post and where we post it.
Another image I recently saw, that bothers me still, is a photograph of a woman’s torso with her hands in her lap, but the photographer cut the image off at the top of her shoulders and just below her knees. Now, whether it be man, woman, or child…there is so much psychologically troubling about fragmenting humans. I scarcely know where to begin. We live in an age of fragmentation, our political structures are fragmenting, etc, etc, etc. Still…fragmenting a human image is not acceptable for general publication.
Think about the response a military veteran, who left his arm on a battlefield somewhere, might feel. Or how will a young person who was born without a forearm or a leg feel when looking at this image? Please consider posting these images with a warning that they might not be suitable for everyone. Several Social Media outlets make this easy to do.
Perhaps the artist(s) intended to depict the cost of war, the sadness of human lives being traded for oil fields, or other excuses that wars are started for. Maybe it was a statement about how someone missing a limb is still a valuable and beautiful being. Since we don’t know the intent we must look at the most obvious psychological effect this human fragmentation can have. It desensitizes us to visual cues that should elicit a healthy self-preservation response or a healthy compassion for someone who has been injured. Our world is being run by increasingly larger numbers of sociopaths and psychopaths, they are in our government, our CEO’s in corporate America, our legal system and beyond (supporting documentation is listed at the end of this article).
These monsters look like you and me. They do not show their monstrosity with tentacle heads or 12 eyes, or rusty bolts where their ears should be. They are often attractive. Their thoughts, the desires hidden in their minds, and their total lack-of-empathy are what make them monstrous. The very fact that they could kill you without a moment’s hesitation and feel no remorse is what makes them monstrous. The only way to see it is in their lack of normal emotional responses and the lack of “soul” in their eyes. It is a very subtle difference. If you think I’m stretching it a bit, just look at the many serial killers who have come and gone throughout history.
However, if we are so inundated and used to seeing “monstrous” humans, we will not be able to see the small and subtle differences between us and the true monsters amongst us. If for no other reason, this should be reason enough to show that we need to set these creations up for viewing in a location that is not readily accessible to everyone.
I am most certainly not telling you to stop creating whatever you feel the need to create.
I am calling on you, as an inspired being with artistic talent, to use your talent wisely and to share it with the world, not assault the world with it.
Recently, I have found, and joined, Smugmug.com. It is a site designed for images. It is easy to use, intuitive, provides great tutorials and info. Here, you can create folders to house galleries and each folder and gallery can be named. There are probably other websites that are similar. I am not an employee of SmugMug, I pay a small membership fee for the gallery space I hold there. They do not know anything about what I am saying here. Okay…I did contact them and they gave me a coupon code (see end of this post) which will give you a discount for a year.
Please, consider putting the more questionable works on your own gallery page and not on social media. If you have it on your own site, and if you’ve labelled it to accommodate those people who might be adversely affected by viewing specific works, then no one can ask more than that.
So Please….join me…. Let’s make a promise to each other as artists, as creatives, as fellow cohabitants of this beautiful planet, let’s keep anything that might be questionable off Social Media and put those works where people can choose whether to look at them. Help your followers, viewers, clients to make informed viewing decisions rather than slap-shot, hit-or-miss viewing. Let’s not traumatize the sensitive individuals of the world.
Suggested Reading List (as promised above):
The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout PhD
Without Conscience, Robert D. Hare, PhD
The Psychopath Inside, James Fallon
Psychopaths and Love, Adelyn Birch
202 Ways to Spot A Psychopath in Personal Relationships, Adelyn Birch
The following is a link that will give you 20% off for a year. No excuse for not setting up your own private gallery where you can post those images that might not be suitable for every viewer.