Shame, Empathy and Looking Practices: Lessons from a Disability Studies Classroom co-written by Lisa Cartwright and David Benin raises a lot of issues for further discussion not just because of its theme but also its style of writing.
The vivid description of the class almost reads like a screenplay of a film describing the scene, which is one of the reasons why I would think this piece to be an extremely visual writing. Apart from this, getting quick access on the Internet to the photograph being discussed definitely makes concrete what was only imagined in my mind through the description, and emphasizes the visual character of the article. Also the beginning creates a sense of suspense, setting the stage for the kind of effect the photograph was aimed to achieve in the class and probably also in this paper. The article draws one in into the debate of looking through words like ‘awkward’, ‘moment’, ‘feeling’, ‘gasp’, ‘look’, ‘breathing’ all referring to a very human experience as opposed to an esoteric understanding of things.
As a reader/participant one question that came to my mind was if shame was felt in the act of looking or in being caught in the act of looking? Is the photograph really the primary elicitor or is shame felt precisely because the spectator is aware of the presence of the professor and the teaching assistant, therefore subordinating the photograph (keeping in mind that is an object not human) to a status of only a factor facilitating in this feeling of shame? Can it be broken down to a three-step process of 1). Looking 2). The realization of being looked at, in the process of looking 3) shame. One incident that comes to my mind that helps in exploring these questions is when I caught myself looking at a person in a wheelchair waiting to be pulled up into the bus in which I was sitting. My curiosity was more in the mechanism of the bus to be able to pull in a wheelchair but I was ashamed to have been staring all this while. This feeling didn’t arise due to the presence of a third person or the person on the wheel chair but as a self-reproach. Therefore answering my own question shame may not be necessarily felt in the presence of an onlooker. Interestingly H.B. Lewis distinguishes between shame, which according to her is about the self, and guilt, which she says, is about action related to another. She argues that shame is produced by the events to be found in the mind of the person experiencing it. While she suggests that what causes shame in a large part is the loss of approval others, the sources of shame is one’s own thoughts about oneself. Thus according to Lewis the elicitors of shame appear to be located in one’s evaluation of the negative evaluation of others or of one’s self. The focus of the self on the self’s failure and an evaluation of that failure is what leads to shame. And in the case of me being caught looking at the person in the wheelchair by myself and feeling shame was to an extent due to the failure or an inability to conform to the cultural/societal norms where ‘one looks away’. In Practices of Looking discussing images, power and politics Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken use the photographer Arthur Felling a.k.a Weegee’s photograph The First Murder (1936) to talk about the act of looking at the forbidden and in some ways I think it is related to my looking at the person in the wheelchair, something forbidden socially.
To look at this photograph taken out of the context of the disabilities classroom and placed in an art exhibit as a photo-performance will create a completely different set of meanings for the viewer. The lady could be assumed to someone posing sitting in the wheelchair instead of an owner of it. Such a displacement would completely eliminate any shame from this discussion. Because as an artwork it offers the viewer the power/privilege to look at the photograph that is being presented to one for the primary reason to be looked at. It is interesting how in the affect spectrum if one may call it so, the dislocation of the context of the photograph can create the surprisingly wide disparity between the two, power and shame. And such a re-contexualizing can also generate different sets of meanings than the earlier.
Though both the looking at say an art gallery and a classroom as authorized public looking like in the article, the authors write, “It is as if we are ashamed to be caught looking even in this context where looking is authorized…”
I would argue that is because in the context of a classroom where there is already a definite power relation between the instructor and the students where the student by being a student is already in a position to be judged and evaluated and is therefore conscious of conforming to certain accepted social behaviours. Secondly, the fact that is not an art/photography class but a disabilities studies class also shapes the way one may read a an image such as this. The authors note the aim of such an exercise.
…during the process taught new ways of looking, at photographs of people with visible physical disabilities, as they experience a range and mix of affects that include surprise and shared shame in context of authorized public looking.
Therefore the knowledge of “photographs of people with visible physical disabilities” changes the way one responds to these photographs.
Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken discuss the difference between seeing and looking in the book, Practices of Looking where seeing is an arbitrary process of observing and recognizing the world around as opposed to looking which is a more active and involved process of meaning making which I think is important to mention in the context of this discussion of looking. Coming back to the photograph of the woman in the wheelchair showed in the undergraduate class interestingly connects to some of the issues raised in the book as well. If one were to consider what this photograph does, is it mimesis, a reflection of reality, a representation, a symbol with meanings? As they write, “ a photograph is often perceived to be an unmediated copy of the real world…it is not”. One can assume that the lady in the wheelchair doesn’t wear a mask everyday and therefore this photograph doesn’t represent her everyday reality. Quite clearly it is staged almost as a photo-performance where again affirming that there are decisions a photographer takes before taking a photograph that may alter things. This leads us to the discussion of photography as a performance of power. One is familiar with both colonial and contemporary use and misuse of power in the context of power relations, representations and exploitation. A google search on Diane Arbus the photographer in question, offered a little biography mentioning how she was fascinated by taking photographs of transvestites, twins, midgets, people on the streets and asylums. “Arbus's pictures are almost invariably confrontational: the subjects look directly at the camera and are sharply rendered, lit by direct flash or other frontal lighting. Her subjects appear to be perfectly willing, if not eager, to reveal themselves and their flaws to her lens.”1 Interestingly I also happened to read something Diane Arbus writes about the subjects of her photographs. She says, "What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's.... That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own."2
Interestingly, the use of a child’s mask that the old lady wears in the photograph can be seen a sort of a temporary getting out of the skin not in the sense of empathy that Arbus talks of but as a probably a release or subversion. There is as Cartwright and Benin point out a certain playfulness in this masquerade because the mask is a concealment of probably the real, ageing self only by a mask of a witch (who is also an old woman only mean and cruel) and this resistance to ageing is both by concealment of what is behind (maybe we worse, who knows!) and by the use of a child’s mask. The metaphor of masquerade is played out both by the mask that the old lady is wearing and at the same time at the hide and seek relationship that spectator has with this photograph as a result of both awkwardness and curiosity that one feels while viewing it.
As a conclusion I think it is apt to quote the writers as to their answer to what the purpose of this photograph/exercise is:
What is offered to the spectator is not a stable truth about disability or about this woman’s subjectivity, but a joke about what we ask for when we look at an image of the body for meaning about disability subjectivity and identity.
- Cartwright, Lisa and Benin, David (yr) “ Shame Empathy and Looking Practices: Lessons from a Disability Studies Classroom” Journal of Visual Culture
- Berger, John (yr) Ways of Seeing, Penguin
- Cartwright, Lisa and Marta…. (2001) “Images, Power and Politics” Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford University Press