By Elena Palaiorouta

Representation is a powerful tool that has been repeatedly used to negatively impact communities. Specifically in photography, in order to understand its relationship with representation, we have to see how we are interconnected to that which we photograph, and to accept the responsibility for how we depict a particular subject because, in that way, representation can hold us accountable for our actions, words and perceptions.

Photography as a Tool for Women’s Emancipation

Photography has played a major role in women’s emancipation and liberation, as the so-called democratic medium has developed in tandem with modern society. Photographs form and reproduce social spaces and power structures as the field is attributed a democratising power.

Women have been taking an increasingly larger hold over owning their own narratives. From photography to filmmaking, to politics, to music and so on, women, who have historically been considered lesser have progressively taken the reins back from a society that tries to tell them how they should act and move through life. In the last decade, a movement of women photographing themselves and other women has gained considerable pace. “It’s about claiming the spaces, taking back power, owning our voices and ourselves and our bodies, without fear of being judged,” as Zanele Muholi, a South African photographer, said in an interview.

The Impact of Media Objectification on Women

The media has been credited with making women a spectacle for their sexual attractiveness, as it portrays them only for the male eyes. In other words, media outlets are feeding sexual objectifications of women to the public for male pleasure, but sexualising women does not stop there. Some men think that women are solely there for their (male) sexual pleasure. This is called ‘the male gaze’, and as reported by Psychology Today, it has been noted to have a damaging psychological effect on women who are aware that, through that lens, they are being looked upon solely as an object of lust.

This term was first coined by Laura Mulvey in 1975, attributing its development to the media. For her, women are exhibited and constantly looked at. That being said, women are displayed in order to demonstrate a visual and erotic impact, as if all women want to be looked at solely as a sexual being. Thus, the male gaze sexualises and objectifies women, and positions men as the subject of the gaze.

While the definition of the ‘male gaze’ is a bit more clear cut, the case of the ‘female gaze’ is more complex. One point of it is returning the gaze, as admitting the influence of the male gaze culture, and trying to shift from being the object to being the subject. As Charlotte Jansen in her book “Girl on Girl, Art and Photography in the age of the Female Gaze”, emphasised; the ‘female gaze’ is not about removing power from men and placing women on top, it is abour removing women from being the object of the gaze. Thus, it is less about a question of sexuality or gender and more about a different way of seeing the world. It helps us to question why are women being looked at in a certain way, what we can learn by looking at women differently and consequently, how we can undo their objectification.

The Female Gaze: Shifting Perspectives and Empowerment

The purpose of the ‘female gaze’ becomes to connect with the female viewer via the female creator, coming together in a way that serves them, and upholding the idea that women are powerful and can control their own destiny. That is why one of the most notable differences between the male and the female gaze is intent. The reason, for example, a woman’s body would appear in a photo with the male gaze is to ogle, whereas a woman’s body appearing in a female gaze piece is for another reason, including letting the person enjoy how they look (this enjoyment not limited to mainstream standards of beauty). A good example of this is the work of Jemima Stehli.

The ‘female gaze’ is another way to see and imagine the world. A world more flexible and fluid. An equal representation is the first step to a more equal society. Our voices have more impact than ever before. If we can get people to understand how their representations of reality affect change, then perhaps we can shape a new paradigm.


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Female gaze examples of work:,.