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.
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?