Touch and other feminist visual strategies

“The discourse of Absence is a text with two ideograms: there are the raised arms of Desire, and there are the wide-open arms of Need. I oscillate, I vacillate between the phallic image of the raised arms, and the babyish image of the wide-opens arms.”
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments

As we hail arrival of feminism’s ‘fourth wave’, the old questions about women’s representation in the visual mode persist, energized by digital rapid-fire reproduction, circulation and response. The four photographer who whose work has been selected here show the influence of feminism’s digital (r)evolution while constructing images that speak directly and powerfully to these perpetually relevant and reformulated concerns. Though taking a broad range of subjects and approaches, the photographers share a concern with the women’s privileged relationship to the visceral and the sensuous (especially to touch) in visual representation. (…)
Fabien Marques, Hannah Goldstein, Sara Palmieri and Cemre Yesil, selected out of hundreds for this issue, take a fresh perspective on familiar themes: motherhood, prostitution, and the stories of previous generation of women. The chain of feminine associations in the umheimlich concentrates into the memorable ‘womb-tomb-home’, these photographers bring out the textures of these psychic spaces. The gauzy curtains of Marques’ brothel rooms suggest domesticity, yet the emptiness of these lush bedrooms has an eeriness bordering the funeral. (…)

The images in Der Männergarten are staged in a similarly careful, loving and detailed manner reminiscent of a film set-and perhaps there is a nod to the historical overlap of sex workers and actors. (…)
Fabien Marques’s Der Männergarten captures the rooms in which sex workers see clients in Saxony, Germany, where prostitution has been legalised. His works quietly suggest that men visit sex workers not to satisfy their carnal desires but to assuage a more primal need. Like children, they come to the ‘nursery for men’, hungry for care, love and attention. The gauze curtains, canopied beds, plump pillows and naïve murals speak of imagined and desired childhood bedrooms.
In Carmen, a bucolic mural of rolling hills is bisected by a stripper’s pole. By giving each photograph the name of the woman who uses the space, the viewer takes the place of the client who visits the sex worker and imagines her life beyond those walls. (…)

These four photographers mine the rich seams that run from margin to centre, desire to need, vision to touch, viewer to subject. Rather than speak to the theme of women, they reconstitute it. By foregrounding the haptic, these photographs push against the objectified, demonized or static representations of women that rely on the flattening of the visual field. Rather than overturning these stock images, the photographers capture the moment of their instability, moments in which vulnerability becomes strength or desire becomes revulsion. These qualities transfer from the image to the viewer, an affective overspill in which feminist visual art always delights. These photographs refuse the lie of objectivity and invite a fully embodied response.

Sita Balani, October 2015

Sita Balani is an author and lecturer at King's College London, writing on contemporary literature, national identity and modernity.