PEOPLE in cultures that did not have cameras sometimes feared the power of Westerners’ early lenses. Some even refused to have their image taken for fear that it would take their soul, too.
The Platonist philosophers of ancient Greece held that the soul was located in the whole body. Catholic schoolchildren probably still have drummed into them the notion that the body is the temple of the soul (and that there’s to be no toying with the temple, but that’s another story).
A camera can steal something from its subjects, rendering them seemingly spiritless. It’s usually the person behind the lens who has the power to choose the composition, the image, the impact. Take the cover photo of the current issue of the fashion magazine Australian Style.
The models are three 14-year-olds. They sit with their legs open, uniform-like skirts and tunics hitched way up on to their bare thighs, their hair thick and tousled. Their faces have the clinical-depression blankness of catwalk chic; their long, long legs finish in lace-up school shoes. The caption reads: “Class Acts: 14, sexy and … exploited?”
Inside, a photo spread features the girls in the stuff of paedophiles’ fantasies: little-girl-style underwear. The girls sit as a sullen threesome, again with legs spread, in nothing but cotton briefs and singlets, braless.
They wear the same in every individual shot in which they are featured. One wears a charm bracelet with what looks like a teddy bear hanging from it.
It is not their bareness that is troubling; they’d reveal more in bikinis. What is disturbing is the schoolgirl costuming, an attempt to sexualise them while simultaneously emphasising girlishness and childlike vulnerability; the studied manufacturing of Lolitas.
The magazine’s editor, Wendy Squires, writes in the magazine that she expects to be “crucified for promoting kiddie porn with our cover shot”. (Translation: “This should score us some free publicity.”)
She blusters that she won’t apologise for putting 14-year-olds on the cover because “these girls have hot careers. They have agents and parents. They have a right to make their own decisions. They were not forced to pose for us, nor were they made to do or wear anything that made them feel uncomfortable”.
But Squires does not address the issue of her decision to undress the girls, or how she justifies portraying them only as smouldering, sexually available nymphettes. There are no photographs that portray them in the glitzy clothes they presumably aspire to model.
Alongside the magazine on newsstands this week were newspapers reporting on a serial rapist with a history of assaulting teenagers. His current alleged offences included targeting and pursuing teenage girls whom he had seen photographed in a newspaper story on table tennis.
If something as innocent as table-tennis pictures could have such a powerful effect on a disturbed mind, you wince to think how such deviants might employ the suggestive images Squires has seen fit to promote.
The camera did steal something from these girls. It rendered them empty vehicles for male fantasies. It turned them into toys. Informed consent notwithstanding – and how informed can consent be at 14? – the images give an overwhelming impression of passivity and lack of agency.
Do you think would-be glam girls would choose to be pictured in school clothes (not to mention the kind of undies their mums probably made them wear when they were eight?)
Sex-and-the-camera is a game for big girls. SBS newsreader Indira Naidoo plays it with verve and assurance. Sunday night’s episode of Good News Week had some delicious flirting between her and male comics Mikey Robins and Andrew Denton.
It began after she purred out the words “Victor Chernomyrdin”. Her velvety voice had made the Balkans crisis sexy, said Robins; Denton asked whether she had ever thought of doing a 0055 newsline for SBS.
Then he asked, “It’s not a hard one, but it means a lot to me. Could you say the word `Minsk’?”
Naidoo moved from helpless laughter to sudden steely poise, producing the required sultry expression and breathy enunciation, followed by the wry raising of an eyebrow and the tiniest of pouts. The audience exploded and Denton mopped his face.
This was body and soul; Naidoo brought her whole being to the encounter with the camera, and she was in charge of the image projected.
That was fun. The photo spread in Australian Style is not.
It’s not fair to play a game in which one side is too young to understand the rules.
First published in The Age.