Exercise: Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the people she photographs, or both?
Nikki S Lee was born Lee Seung-Hee in Korea in 1970, she adopted her new name in America in 1994 when she arrived in New York. Shifting identities has been a core part of her personal experience and practice. On first reading about and seeing Lee’s work I was curious about her motives and approach not least because in ‘Projects’ (1997-2001) she did appear to be working with some very particular subcultures or cultural groups. But these are not documentary photographs in the traditional sense because Lee was putting herself directly in the frame with each of the groups she was exploring. In fact she was not taking the photographs but giving compact cameras to friends or group members in order to create a particular vernacular. This allowed her to perform each of the identities she was assuming and in doing so to appear to be a part of the group she was with.
At the core of her work seems to be the notion of performativity, which for me makes the photographs one element of a larger ‘performance’ of identity and takes them beyond the consideration of her own personal identity. Although Lee does not seem to refer to a specific theoretical framework for her performativity her work suggests that it is being used in the sociological sense like that outlined by Goffman.
…the self [is] a performed character… not an organic thing that has specific location … [the performer and] his body merely provide the peg on which something of a collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time. (Goffman, 1956: 252-253)
The ‘Project’ performances unfolded over four-month periods where she spent three months researching the group and one month making the photographs. In creating this body of work Lee speaks of exploring the fluidity of identity between Eastern and Western cultures and also considering how the identities of those around us interrelate and influence our own identity. As she points out being Korean meant she was already an outsider to the wider American culture in which she was working.
In terms of her practice she says she did not direct or stage the photographs, they were taken in a snapshot mode as the group went about its usual activities. Lee concentrated on the emotional tone of the group in what she describes as an almost shamanic form. All the groups were aware she was an artist and of the work she was doing, they also had a choice about participating. She went back to the groups and shared the edited selections and says that everyone was receptive to the work. She even talks about one group giving her suggestions for the next group she should think about joining.
It seems to me that the question of whether Lee was being exploitative or even voyeuristic hinges on two things – the nature of the consent given by the participants in her projects and the way they are represented. Concerns about exploitation are nothing new to photography and have ranged from Winogrand and Arbus to Parr and Ballen. Lee talks about having considered the use of model release forms and in fact only used them with the Exotic Dancers Project because of the nudity element.
This selective use is linked to becoming part of the various groups and the disruptive nature of introducing the consent form after ‘hanging out’ with the group and forming relationships over a period of time. It demonstrates for me that she was not using the groups in a deliberately selfish or exploitative sense. Yes, they were ultimately for her work as an artist but the groups were in a position to refuse their participation. That does however surface the issue of informed consent which is something I will pick up in another post.
Lee speaks of working with cliché and using a compositional style that could be regarded as familiar to the viewer (i.e., family album and selfies) but it is also a multi-layered commentary on identity should you choose to look more deeply. I think it is this familiarity of form that contributes to a sense that they are not exploitative images – they could be images from the albums of the participants themselves, they just happen to include Lee as the ‘punctum’ (Barthes, 1999) or disruptive element.
In the true sense of voyeurism I am clear these images were neither overtly or covertly taken for sexual gratification. Nor do they seem to be based on some sordid fascination with sensational objects or subjects. The project on exotic dancers might be utilised by others in a voyeuristic sense which in some ways heightens the multiple meanings available through Lee’s images. Lee’s work does highlight that there is a fine line between exploration and exploitation and as photographers we need to be constantly mindful of these boundaries.
To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. (Sontag, 1979: 15)
Barthes, R. (1999). Camera Lucida. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc.
Goffman, I. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
Sontag, S. (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin.