Gendering Portraits

On the 4th, I saw this awesome photo in my Twitter timeline:

Harnaam Kaur by Brock Elbank

The tweet linked to a Daily Mail 1 article on Harnaam Kaur, the only female subject in a series of epic beard photos by a photographer named Brock Elbank.

After being bullied as a teen, the teaching assistant tried waxing, shaving and bleaching to hide her facial hair.
Once baptized Sikh, a religion which forbids cutting body hair, the 23-year-old decided to embrace her body as it was.
‘When I first started growing my beard it was for religious reasons but as the years have gone by I’ve kept it for more personal reasons.
‘It makes me feel like a brave, confident woman who isn’t afraid to break society’s norms,’ she added.

So great, right?

From a photography standpoint, it’s interesting to compare Kaur’s portrait to those of the men which the Daily Mail included for comparison:

I have very little in the way of formal photography education, and what little of that there is, was mostly dedicated to retro technicalities like darkroom work. But one of the things that I found fascinating (and not a little disquieting) was the centrality of gender in standard portrait lighting and posing.

The photography program in question is of the trade school flavor, and so the focus habitually was on workaday commercial representations—actor headshots, for example, or photos of business folks businessing. In those applications, representing the gender of the subject in a way that makes them appealing and hireable is one of the main considerations.

That gender is something actively constructed and performed is something I’ve understood for a long time, but until I was actually being taught portrait 101 stuff, it never occurred to me that a photographer has to play an active role in gendering a portrait subject. In my habitual way of thinking, another person’s gender identity and expression is primarily their business, and aside from not misgendering them, not something I need to do anything about.2

So this idea that before I could start working through a portrait of somebody, I’d have to make decisions about what sort of masculinity or femininity I would be building for them was super, super weird. I could (and did) question a lot of what the instructor had to offer in terms of received wisdom for what women and men should look like in portraits—but there’s no easy alternate wisdom to swap in. One can make different choices about this, but one cannot not make choices about it.

  1. Not normally a source of awesome things. 
  2. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best default stance; it’s just how I’ve processed this stuff for as long as I can remember.