Letting the side down

I’ve long felt that I am letting the side down. I am a predominantly self-portrait fine art photographer who is middle aged and disabled, yet neither of these fundamental parts of myself are reflected in my pictures. Instead, my images portray me as a young, healthy woman.

I entered a competition recently from the makers of the software I use for my portraits. I sent in a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot to show what a brilliant job the software did of making me look 30 years younger and how it changes my features to be more traditionally beautiful.

Unedited image straight from camera
Edited image

But the whole premise of my entry made me uneasy. Why couldn’t I be considered beautiful the way I am? Admittedly the photograph on the left needs a little work as it is unedited, but I shouldn’t have to be heavily made up, or have to make my nose more dainty or remove my wrinkles and freckles, and my skin shouldn’t have to look like feature-less alabaster to be considered acceptable. However, if I’d entered the unedited image this photograph wouldn’t have won me a thing, whereas the edited photograph has been one of my most successful to date.

One only has to Google portrait photographs of women to discover why. I typed in “portrait photography woman” and chose the ‘fine art’ category’ and these were the first 14 images I saw:

All, I would guess, are under 35 and flawless. Not a wrinkle in sight, not a skin pore in sight, not a blemish in sight and without exception the models are thin, wearing make-up (even under water) and have long hair. They are also all Caucasian.

Next, I Googled fine art “portrait photography men” and these were the first 14 images I saw:

Image number two is of a middle aged man and the photographs also included two older guys. There was grey hair, no hair, wrinkles and pores, and only 1 male image showed bare flesh (arms) in contrast to 9 of the female, although they were admittedly still all Caucasian.

The situation for disabled women is much worse. These are the top images on Google for “portrait photography female disabled fine art”:

Only 8 of the images were recent, 3 weren’t even photographs and out of the first 12 pictures only 2 actually showed someone with an obvious disability. The only saving grace was that 1 of these disabled photographs featured a woman of colour, although they were both showing bare flesh and every woman still has long, silky hair.

This was what Google uncovered for “portrait photography men disabled fine art”:

Two of the images are paintings and 1 photograph is of a bird for reasons I can’t work out, but 7 of the first 12 photographs are of obviously disabled men and of these 7 images two contain non-Caucasian subjects.

It demonstrates what we have long known, which is that men are allowed to be their natural selves but women are not. Not in photographs at any rate, where women are expected to be young, thin, healthy, preferably white and baring naked flesh and they absolutely must have long, silky hair (that’s me scuppered then). In other words, they have to effectively be of child bearing age and conform to male sexual desirability, whereas men face no such obligation.

So, as a middle aged, female, disabled photographer I’m left with what to do in respect of my own images. Portray myself as I am and the pictures never seeing the light of day, or tow the sexual party line. Art is meant to be seen – it’s pointless creating something which isn’t shared – but at the same time pictures should be authentic and mine absolutely are not. I haven’t come up with an answer to the dilemma but it’s something I will continue to wrestle with.

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