Photographing Women in a Sexual Manner: Are We All Guilty of Objectifying Women?

Photographing Women in a Sexual Manner: Are We All Guilty of Objectifying Women?

Glamour photography, fine art nude photography, lingerie photography, swimwear photography — all of the above involve nudity. Sex sells — no explanation needed here. Or, at the very least, it will get you more likes on your page or your Instagram account. Is the sexiness in itself a problem? This is a recurrent debate. The #WomenNotObjects campaign, launched by Advertising Executive Madonna Badger, is calling on the advertising industry to put a stop to objectifying women for marketing purposes. As photographers, do we have a responsibility in this controversy?

Badger, co-founder and chief creative officer at New York advertising agency Badger & Winters, was inspired by a Google search and decided to raise awareness on the way women's bodies were used to sell pretty much anything. The loss of her children in a tragic house fire in 2011 made her see her industry in a different manner: "I want my life to have a purpose."

The video of the campaign has been released and it's going viral. UN Women tweeted about it and it got support from Ashton Kutcher, Alanis Morisette, and George Takei. Will it have an actual impact on the advertising industry? Unless Congress passes a bill to that effect, I doubt it. The goal of campaigns is not only to get results, but also to start a discussion. So, let's chat for a second here, because ignoring the problem is part of the problem.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21vOSVojv8o

Sex is in every visual genre: conceptual art, film, and photography. It is not an underground current; it is in your face on a daily basis. The campaign focuses on the problem of using sexualized women's body parts in a commercial capacity. But what about the norm of sexualizing women in imagery in general? Why would we frown upon Burger King implying oral sex with a seven-inch sandwich and not frown upon the fact that when a woman gets into a bikini, we photograph her on her hands and knees looking up, whether it is for a swimwear catalog or a personal series? If we want to show respect to women, does that mean we should not shoot them in a sexy manner at all? Are men's bodies just not sexy enough to become objects? Or maybe retouching male hair on torsos, thighs, and calves is too big of a deal?

We might fully agree with the precept of equality, frown on sexism, and generally treat women with respect in our personal lives. And yet, when we are editing our last shoot, don't we choose the image of the girl with a slightly open mouth and a lascivious pose to post on social media? 

It would be easy for me to point an accusing finger at all the male photographers out there. Yes, the photography industry is dominated by the male human species, and it is a common assumption that men think about sex every seven seconds, so adding the two together could lead me to heated arguments.

Yet I am just as guilty of using sex in my imagery in order to get more traction. Hey, I am a photographer that loves skin and curves. Sexualizing has become an industry standard to the point where I am anesthetized. When I see those billboard ads that are accused of objectifying women, they do not shock me, or even worse, they do not get me thinking of all the possible implications that they could have. In that sense, I might be more of a photographer than a woman. 

What does that say about the standards we commonly accept in our industry and keep reproducing without even being aware of them? As image makers, don't we have a responsibility in the way we portray the world, even if it is for a commercial purpose?

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157 Comments
Charles Lynn's picture

People are so oversensitive these days, and so easily offended by everything and anything.

Alex Cooke's picture

You're reducing literally centuries of gender inequality and objectification down to the question of what people are subjectively offended by in the present. This has nothing to do with that. It's a question of whether the female body is degraded to the status of being an object of sexual gratification or desire without regards to the human form, intricacies, and nuances that give rise to the person that inhabits that body. And frankly, the answer to that question is quite objectively "yes." It's a huge issue that continues to be accepted without question by modern society, and dismissing it under the generalized umbrella of "everyone is too easily offended" only perpetuates the entitled and apathetic attitude of those who are not affected by it and continues to marginalize those who are.

Pho To's picture

Sorry, but I have to agree....everyone is so overly sensitive and offended, we are breeding a nation of overly PC Puss-bags....enough already! Don't we have bigger things to worry about like our safety and that our freedom is being constantly destroyed by these overly sensitive posts?
Plus I don't see an inequality towards women happening here....I know a ton of women that are heads of Corps and CEOs...and even Models making a shit-ton-O- money....so please...knock it off! ......and yes, last time I checked, women are there for the satisfaction of a man and man is there for the satisfaction of a woman....otherwise our race would cease to be...You fema-nazi morons!

Alex Cooke's picture

How is your freedom being destroyed by people vocalizing disapproval of a behavior? Isn't that exercising the most fundamental freedom of all in this nation, the freedom of speech? "Freedom" does not mean freedom to do as you please without consequence or, at the very least, discussion.

Pho To's picture

Seriously?....that's all you got from my post?...I mentioned a plethora of thoughts, and that's the only thing that stuck out?....See, that is exactly the problem....people zero in on one thing and one thing only ...beat it to death, and NEVER look at the bigger picture....Unfortunately because of this ADD type of behavior, this argument is no longer valid, until it can be discuss from a multi faceted point of view.

Alex Cooke's picture

You edited your post to add all that extra content after I replied, and then, acted as if I hadn't responded to you, when in fact, I had. If you're going to resort to such games in addition to calling names, I'm not going to engage with you.

TJ Jackson's picture

His point was lost after "PC Pussbags" ... And moving on ...

Anna Dabrowska's picture

What is PC by the way?

Bill Chase's picture

"Personal Computer." He's referring to how the current generation is cloistered in their rooms on smartphones and computers, getting their information from media sites rather than actual experience.

Or "Politically Correct". I like my version better though, more original. ;)

Thanks for continuing to add to this discussion, by the way. Glad to see you contributing your thoughts throughout and not leaving the comment section to fester.

Tim Foster's picture

I also think people tend towards over-sensitivity at the moment, but your response smacks of it at least as much as the post does. You're whining about your freedom being destroyed by a viewpoint that isn't politically correct to YOUR sentiment. Get over it and appreciate the fact that we are all constitutionally guaranteed the right to be as offensive as we want to be, Puss-bag.

Pho To's picture

"Get over it and appreciate the fact that we are all constitutionally guaranteed the right to be as offensive as we want to be, Puss-bag."

Still missing the point....I dont care about being offense...I'm actually stating the opposite you single celled organism....I'm saying people like Alex up there, are too sensitive and PC..I'm not the one who's saying "this isn't right or that isn't right"

Tim Foster's picture

I never said you cared about offending others, genius. You took the time take issue with the article and I'm calling you out on the fact that YOU were clearly offended by its content and what you see as some general trend away from your personal ideals, which makes you both girly and a hypocrite.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Girly? Really?

Michael Sneeringer Jr's picture

There is one simple word in the English language that is available to these female models, "no."

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Mr Sneeringer, you mean to say it's the model that bears all the responsibility for the way women are portrayed in a society? Wow!

Michael Sneeringer Jr's picture

I mean that if the model does not like how she may appear in the photoshoot, she can turn down that particular job. Everyone has free-will and can choose not to degrade themselves. It's called self-respect.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

But it's not just about the way the models in those ads feel. It is about the way millions of women seeing the ads feel.

Michael Sneeringer Jr's picture

Now you are bringing up self-confidence and that is an entirely different subject. That to me, is a personal issue.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

HUH? What does self-confidence have anything to do with this? If you prefer not to acknowledge the power of imagery on society we have no common ground for a discussion here.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

There are many women who love to be in front of the camera. There are billions who hate it. One camp sometimes doesn't understand another. But it doesn't mean that the first camp needs protection just because the second thinks that they are discriminated.

Michael Sneeringer Jr's picture

I did not say imagery has no effect on society. If that were the case, what would be the point of photography or art for that matter? You brought up the point of how it makes someone feel and I believe that is a personal issue. I don't disagree with you about the power of imagery. However, I do feel that individuals have a responsibility for their own actions and that includes artist, photographer's and model's.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Wait I'm lost, You acknowledge that a photographer has responsibility for their actions (aka what and how they shoot it - meaning the message behind it) but that a viewers emotion to it is just their own problem? Definition of responsibility: the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone

Michael Sneeringer Jr's picture

If you want to put it that way, then yes. I thought your article was about the responsibility of the photographer.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

It is...with a big question mark. What is the extent of that responsibility in this matter? I don't have an answer and was curious to know what other people thought. Sadly the majority of the comments don't answer that they just dismiss that there is a controversy, thus dismissing the idea of responsibility all together. So I am not more adavanced in my opinion...

Bill Chase's picture

Ugh, this comment box is thin...

Anyways, I agree that the commentary has gotten quite off topic. Which is a shame, because the issue of the photographer's role seems much simpler. They do what they're hired to do, or they don't eat. ;)

Michael Sneeringer Jr's picture

As I always told my kids, trust your gut. It will always tell you right from wrong.

Karin D's picture

They're just working with what they've got. There is demand for their beauty, but that demand is generated by the system we're living in.

Of course they're going to use it to their advantage to earn money with it if they can get (obviously) rich with it.

Prefers Film's picture

Alex, it's easy to tell from some of the comments which posters are single, without children.

I'm proud that my daughter has chosen to dress modestly, which is not an easy choice for a 16 year old, when her cousins wear outfits that are far too revealing.

Elias Hardt's picture

Let's let math solve this one. In your comment, you used 14 words. The comment against you, pro-feminism, used 145 words. Going by characters, you used 90, while the other comment used 889. An average ratio of 1:10 words or characters. Using this ratio, we can tell that feminists would love all to much if that same ratio was used in man:woman format, and that their current reaction force uses the same methodology; one like on a bikini photoshoot leads to ten feminists' downvote. I agree with you, Charles (and even more with Leon Bokhove below me, managing to fight an impressive uphill battle). A shame we are out numbered.

Leon Bokhove's picture

Yes, girls have certain physical attributes that men like.
Yes, sex sells and therefore many images take advantage of the above statement/exploit it in a plethora of ways.
No, I will have none of your feminism/pc culture gripes.

This comes from a "white privileged 28 year old male" from The Netherlands, so all you safe space and trigger warning idiots can take my comment with a grain of salt, or obsess over it.
I hope this mental disease and intellectual dishonesty never reaches our mainlands...

Alex Cooke's picture

The only "intellectual dishonesty" going on is the attitude that gender inequality is a "feminism/pc culture gripe." This is not a question of opinion or "griping." There are hard statistics that mathematically quantify the existence and pervasiveness of the many issues associated with gender inequality. Refusing to acknowledge objectively provable facts is "mental disease." If you want to be intellectually honest about the issue, educate yourself on it first: http://www.makers.com/blog/21-facts-you-never-knew-about-international-g...

Two of the main points that you very quickly highlighted with your attitude are the issues of entitlement and reduction of identity. First, a women's body is not there simply for the satisfaction of a man. Advertising that takes advantage of purely physical attributes perpetuates that attitude. Second, when we make a woman's body not only the main focus, but the only focus, we are completely censoring her as a human. We should not be teaching young children that the only things they should be attracted to and respond to are a woman's overly sexualized body parts.

Leon Bokhove's picture

We can certainly agree on quite a few things, I'm sure. The article you linked however is not to be taking serious when they are still willing to smear this discussion with the pay gap myth. I said myth because this has been debunked by virtually every economist and even several highly respected feminist organisations. This has to do with a factor of things. I'm am of course referring to the mainstream western civilizations, as I'm sure woman, children and men alike are exploited in other parts of the world.

There is however a huge pay gap happening between races in the US that can be addressed, but that is an entirely different topic to touch on.

I can agree on the first point when you say that a women's body is not there simply for the satisfaction of a man, except when it is. If a woman decides to use her body that way, being an erotic model or dancer for example, she willingly does this without anyone forcing her to do so. Do not leave consent out of the equation here, it cannot be overlooked.

As for your second point; It kind of goes hand in hand with my response to your first point. We often overlook who someone is, or that it is actually a person, when our main focus is mostly on what a person embodies, this is certainly true when we're discussing photography. We can state that a surgeon is often perceived as someone who performs surgery and saves lives, while he or she obviously also has a personal life... Yet we proceed to perceive the surgeon as a life saver and we often depict him or her as such without taking into account who he or she actually is as a person.

The part about teaching young children is actually a third and separate part, with which I can only agree on. However, this is to be taught through ethics and by the guidance of their parents. Blaming certain images or videos isn't a fair position to take in this situation. Not one child is pre-configured to focused on female body parts beyond their natural biological needs or instincts, no matter how emphasized.

I will apologize upfront for any faults in my grammar or the way I construct and/or shape my sentences. I try to get my points across as clear as I can but unfortunately English is not my native language.

Wolf Roberts's picture

There is a gender pay gap: 4% to 8% that is "unexplained" when economic factors are accounted for. Yes, it's complicated, but here's a breathless explanation with LOTS of citations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it0EYBBl5LI

Bottom line: there is, without a doubt, economic discrimination based on gender.

Leon Bokhove's picture

Interesting video! I have a few of my own that I can throw at you but riddle me this then... Why isn't the workspace full of women if they are cheaper to employ? And if women are getting paid below minimum wage certainly someone would have intervened by now?

Kian McKellar's picture

I'm sure you can find a lot of scientists who debunk global warming too. I'm going to go with the vast majority of studies.

Bill Chase's picture

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a financial expert and you shouldn't necessarily take much stock in what I say. However, the inexplicable 4-8% pay gap raises some questions. The video mentions that much of this may come down to women working fewer hours to focus on family matters. I'll avoid talking about that one, because that's a discussion that will never please anyone. Another contributor to the gap is much easier to talk about, and that is negotiations. Men are more assertive, on average. More testosterone equals more aggression, and that's going to lead to taking risks. Negotiating raises, or more importantly, switching jobs, requires a degree of risk. Many women aren't as comfortable taking these risks, and they effectively pay to avoid this discomfort by accepting their current salary and nominal raises. While I'm completely against discrimination, I'm also against trying to force people to take on the stresses of job hopping if they'd rather not. Unfortunately, there's no middle ground there, and I sure as hell don't suggest that women start taking testosterone to become bigger risk-takers.

Prefers Film's picture

I've been at my job ten years. My female counterpart has been with the company three years. We both supervise in the same department (she got half my team as we have quickly grown). Two people doing essentially the same job, yet I make at least $20k more than her. Is that fair or not?

Bill Chase's picture

I disagree with that, I think that salaries should be merit based. However, I don't think this has anything to do with gender - I would expect that if a man had been hired instead he'd still be paid less than you due to having less than a third of your experience at the job. If you both started at the same salary, have a job that started paying at $40-80k, and get 3-5% yearly raises, the difference would naturally be around $20k.

Michael Comeau's picture

There is a major pay gap in modeling. Women make way more than men.

Bill Chase's picture

Alex, thanks for posting that list. There are tons of horrific abuses of women going on across the globe, and anyone with a shred of decency would support helping them. Which is why we need to focus on the women who are being oppressed and physically harmed, rather than the cultural issues in the West that may cause disgruntlement to some. Let's deal with that later, and put our efforts into people who don't have the luxury of basic freedoms. Then we can come back and think about how photography messes with people. Until then, our discussion is merely a distraction, taking our time away from more pressing matters.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

I totally agree. So what are you doing for that precisely? Because I would want to participate but have no idea how to. And in the meantime while I am trying to figure out how I could change the world, I can start a discussion on something that is definitely not life threatening but that can be done now and here and has its relative importance. Example: When I travel to certain non-western countries I am often met with unrelenting sexual proposals. When I refuse them I am met with surprise and anger. I am a white blonde: I should like to engage in sex with strangers, after all that is the image that those men have of western women that come through ads and porn. Always ready to oblige. Women living in these places are thus faced with 2 options: being obedient and discreet or being stigmatized and treated as a whore when they want to have a more "western" type of life (that includes non-married sexual relationships). So why can't we help the people that are starving and by debating on less crucial topics start a ripple effect that might have a positive outcome outside our borders? If people are sheep, imagery is the shepherd and we are the cane. Why not steer it in a new direction?

Bill Chase's picture

Haha, touché. Only thing I'm doing is trying to elect government officials who can make a difference - outside of that I have no idea how to change a culture.

Interesting point about sexual proposals in different countries. I would argue that those aren't caused by photography's influence on perception, however. Women will be approached for sex because men like sex, and people in a poor situation with nothing to lose will be less reserved than others. Plus, there's some bragging rights for a poor guy who can joke to his friends about the Westerner he approached, especially if they consent.

I will admit that I've not been in that situation though, so that's my best guess. In my travels I'm also approached by people looking to have sex, but it's primarily prostitutes looking to make extra money from tourists, rather than simply for enjoyment and a story to tell. I don't think either of these situations are caused by pornography and photography from the West tainting these cultures, but is rather simple human nature. We need money, sex, and entertainment, and tourists can provide this (with little risk of getting in trouble, since most tourists don't want to get bogged down in policework in a foreign country).

Now, that's not to say that photography doesn't have power. It does. But can it ever change basic human nature? I don't think any of us are that good with a camera.

Forgive me for getting off track there a bit. The main topic is whether we can create positive change in this world, even slightly, with photography. And that's a goal I applaud. And while I don't think we can change attitudes towards sex with it, I do think that we can be more mindful of what we're trying to accomplish with our photos. Using sexual imagery in a campaign for children's apparel, for example, should definitely set off some alarm bells.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Yeah good points on congrats on having found one way to contribute to society. I am still looking. And yes photography will not change the world but it does express the way we view the world and we should not forget about it.

Lara Pape's picture

Thank you Alex Cooke for your intelligent and well thought out responses, and for restoring my faith in humanity.

Mr Blah's picture

Feminism is just the political view that men and women should be treated equally in all aspect of social life.

I still don't understand who would oppose that kind of statement.

1958 Don Draper perhaps?

Leon Bokhove's picture

No one in their sane mind would oppose that as it is exactly what feminism used to be about. The first wave feminists got the equality that they longed for, and rightfully so.

These third wave feminists are born out of their own insecurity and are offended when they see something they don't like. Dare I say we all see things we don't like from time to time? Do we all cry about it and start a movement because we might feel uncomfortable with ourselves? "Being offended" by itself is not a legitimate point, something to take serious, let alone start a debate over unless those words are elaborated upon with a follow up statement as to why you're being offended. Being offended nowadays is mostly just codeword for "I don't like it" or "I don't feel good about myself because of it". That is something that you should deal with yourself and not reflect upon others.

Elias Hardt's picture

Quickly, Leon. Go post another photo. I feel the need to Thumbs-up everything you have ever said or done. Good, work, fine sir.

Ben Perrin's picture

BS Feminism is all about womens issues. Feminists constantly deny that men could ever face hardships and the vast majority of them seek to put down men. Feminism is not a synonym for equality.

Leon Bokhove's picture

It used to be a couple of decades ago, but it isn't today :)

Mr Blah's picture

Maybe both of you just have shitty feminist close to you.

Just like I have shitty Christians close to me.

I'm a feminist and I don't see it the in the same "generic" and simple way as you see it.

there can be jerks even in good movement: ecological terrorists are cunts. Just like that girl who gives you shit for opening the door for her.

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