Treating a person, an animal, and even (under some circumstances) inanimate objects themselves, as an object or a thing with limited rights is known as objectification. There are plenty of ways in which this is achieved; treating them as a tool for another’s purposes, as lacking the wherewithall to make up their own mind, as interchangeable with someone or something else (lacking “specialness”), as something you can damage indiscriminately, that can be owned or sold, without concern for their feelings. In a sexual context, ignoring the whole and focusing on (body) parts, ignoring anything other than appearance, and treating them as though they have nothing to say.
Photographers, frequently portray their subjects in ways that could be described as objectification. Much ‘glamour’ photography, especially if it is taken without a purpose other than for the satisfaction of the photographer, would be an obvious example. A documentary about a group of people already marginalised by society where the images and text do nothing to advance their interests and condition, would be another.
Therein lies the clue… context is all important. An image in isolation, may appear to objectify the subject, but might be given context by other images and by explanatory text.
One person, in a position of authority and in a situation where I had no opportunity to respond, criticized my street photography claiming that it was voyeuristic. A simple analysis showed that, if it is, then it’s a lot less so than many well known, and highly regarded practitioners of the art. My argument would be that my images always have a context – usually one that is very clear to a casual observer. Occasionally, the subtlety might need to be explained – but generally that would mean that the image has become too complex.
To demonstrate my point, I decided to develop a small project that portrays a subject in two ways – one in context, and one isolated to the point of objectification. I wanted someone or something that was sufficiently commonplace that most people would be used to objectifying them. I soon settled on the letter box. Not the kind you have in your door, but the postal containers present in almost every community – whether cylindrical, on a pole, or a slit in the wall.
I soon realised that I had inadvertently chosen the ideal metaphor as, it seems, many people take pictures of letter boxes, but very few put them in context.
I shall be collating the images into a final set in the future, but for the time being here’s a selection of early examples.