The Enfreakment of Photography

Throughout the history of sociology, it has always been apparent that anything deviating from the constructed ideas of normalcy is automatically vilified as unusual, strange, freakish, or simply abnormal. However, it is not so much how or what one sector of society deems normal, but instead it is how we as a society respond to and treat the images of people different from the constant, as well as how the individuals themselves are treated. In addition to this it is important to address the “us” versus “them” element that so often takes part in the reading of such representations.

In 1932, director/producer Tod Browning, also known for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula, released a black and white film called FREAKS, a film that features real people with every possible physical aberration imaginable, all of which are considered circus sideshow freaks. Although the film does contain some semblance of a storyline, it seems almost secondary, because the film primarily focuses more so on the exploitation of human oddities as opposed to relying on a genuine narrative.

This film is one of the earliest examples in motion picture history that delves into society’s fascination with the so-called “freaks” of nature. Although, this is simply an example it sets the stage concerning the issues discussed in David Hevey’s article entitled, “The Enfreakment of Photography.”

In preparation for this paper the class was required to first read David Hevey’s article and then visit the exhibit entitled Street Credibility at the Geffen. However, the order in which those events occurred were reversed in my case in that I attended the museum first and then went on to read the article.

Although I knew what the title of the article was, I had only my assumptions regarding the content of the article to go on in visiting the exhibit. Little did I realize that I was at more of an advantage rather than at a disadvantage because my experience of the exhibition would have been much more biased had it been done as prescribed. Because of that I was able to come up with my own conclusions of the work separate from the opinions of Hevey’s article that could have prohibited me from having the purest experience.

Upon entering the showroom, one thing that was immediately obvious, which is something that I have become very sensitive to as a result of Visual Culture, was the confines of the white museum walls. However, it is not so much the fact they exist but more so the way in which they sociologically inform the art that is being exhibited. In other words the Greenbergian idea that the white walls are a representation of the bourgeois society, of whom decides what is “high” and “low” art. It became apparent that this concept was especially applicable to the “Street Credibility” exhibit because it addressed two dynamic components in works of its kind. First, that people who are different from what society is used to, are deemed curiosities and should therefore, be put in a line-up and subjected to the prodding gazes of a white walled society. We are in effect “placing them in that great site of bourgeois culture and consumption,”1 according to David Hevey’s article. Second, is the overall general fascination of, what David Hevey’s article refers to as, the “forbidden.” Although Hevey’s article heavily references Diane Arbus’ work as dealing with the “enfreakment” of disabled people, this idea of the ‘forbidden’ extends far beyond the subjects of genuine disability especially in the Street Credibility exhibition. Arbus’s work, although an important component, is only part of an even greater spectrum in the exhibition. Since Arbus’ work was not featured in its entirety in this particular exhibition it is a bit difficult to get the full impact of the message Hevey is trying to communicate. However, Hevey’s theories can be easily applied based on the common thread woven throughout the exhibition. Which returns to the dictum that anything outside of ordinary is considered deviant, a concept that permeates the Street Credibility series.

To expand more on the idea of the prodding gazes of a white walled society, I feel it is pertinent to the argument to explain the experience I personally had in viewing this series. As I previously explained I did not read the article prior to attending the exhibit and because of that I was not initially sure what I was looking for until I neared the end of the exhibition. However my first reaction in seeing the first piece of Arbus’ work called Untitled (1) Down Syndrome Women posing for a picture in front of a building, was, ‘that’s weird.’ Then I thought about the fact that the two women looked so happy and yet unbeknownst to them the people on the other side of the camera, including myself and anyone else that branded their stare on the image, were thinking how odd they were. This particular experience is important because it is a prime example of a pure reaction to these types of images. It is also something that I realized later in the research process that Hevey’s article touched on. The article refers to Susan Sontag’s impression of Arbus’ disability imagery where at one point Sontag remarks, “Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are?”2 This was precisely the same closed-minded perception I too was guilty of, yet it wasn’t realized until it was spelled out in Hevey’s article. It wasn’t until I moved further into the exhibition that I realized I was looking at images that, for the most part, were of people that were, at one point or another, social outcasts and/or images of people that exposed the thing we would all stare at a little longer if it was acceptable to do so.

This leads to another element involved in this processing of information, which is the idea of guilt or the lack of. In society it is a common belief that it is impolite to stare at people with any level of difference. This is because people feel that in doing so they are in some way imposing themselves on the right of such individuals to exist in a “normal” society separate from their disabilities. Ideally society would like to believe it so, however it is not. The Street Credibility series seemed as though it provided an arena where it was acceptable to stare as long as one wished without having to truly confront the guilt of staring. However, as a result of this, society has in turn, as David Hevey puts it, “absented the voice of those at its center-disabled people.” Although this was especially true in Arbus’ work where dwarfs and the subjects with Down Syndrome are concerned, other subjects that Arbus touched on as well including issues of cross-dressing fall under the same sentiment.

This concept also gives way to another dynamic in the Street Credibility exhibition that is true for every image in the series. That is, that because these images are displayed in an arena where a guilty conscience has little to no bearing on the minds of on-lookers, it becomes even more apparent that society uses this in yet one more way to say in effect, ‘You are odd, you are not like us, therefore, I can stare at you for as long as I want, and know that you can not blink an eye nor can you avoid the noose of my unrelenting gaze.’ This was also resonant in works by artists such as Jeffrey Silverthorne. Although his work did not deal with the forbidden in the same light that Arbus’ images do, it none-the-less fell victim to the same concept. Silverthorne’s work, based on what was presented in the exhibition, dealt with death. He photographed images of the deceased on morgue tables and other scenarios which quite frankly, were entirely too close for comfort, although, it is evident that that element was necessary to the energy of his work. However, I introduce his work because it is yet another example of this idea that the subject in the photos, in this case the deceased, are silenced having no ability to relieve themselves of the public stares. “…From a psychological viewpoint, those that appear to have transgressed this commodification of disabled people have only transgressed their own fears of their constructions.”3 In other words, their images have been reduced to entertainment in Arbus’ work as well as a way for society to confront the fears of the unknown, as represented by the other artists in the series.

In short as David Hevey puts it, the “images tell us nothing about the actual lives of disabled people, but they add to the history of oppressive representation.”4 In addition, although I felt Hevey’s article unnecessarily delved into an area of Arbus’s own personal motivations of the images she produces, I felt that the article communicated a broader message that I personally would have otherwise overlooked. Unfortunately, for those who are on the receiving end of society’s scrutiny, the fascination of things not only forbidden but also different from what is common, will most likely remain the same. Although artists like Arbus or Silverthorne may have never intended to “enfreak” their subjects, it is apparent that they have done so possibly in order to make society more aware of their own fears.

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