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March 19, 2007

PTSD cheesecake?

18women6001The New York Times ran quite a good article about female vets with PTSD.

I don't know what to  make of the accompanying photographs by Katy Grannan. The photograph on the left is the largest and most prominent of the images accompanying the PTSD story. The picture shows 21-year-old Army specialist Suzanne Swift reclining on a black, rocky beach with her hand on her inner thigh. The article explains Swift went AWOL to rather than return for a second tour of duty in Iraq.

If there's a message here, I don't get it. What is Grannan trying to say? Why would you get a woman in jeans and a t-shirt to pose like a swimsuit model on a beach in order to illustrate a story about how she got PTSD in Iraq and went AWOL? I'm not saying it's a bad photograph. Actually, I think it's very good technically and aesthetically. It just doesn't make any sense.

Here's another portrait  from the same series. The subject is a naval construction worker whose war-related PTSD in Iraq was exacerbated by the fact that she was also raped by fellow Americans. There's something weirdly sexualized about this image. Look at the angle of the shot. She's wearing a knee-length skirt, but she's positioned so that her bare legs and daintily flexed ankle command as much attention as her face. Like Suzanne Swift, the construction worker is reclining on one arm, this time on a white couch rather than a beach. Her other hand is on her thigh, like Swift's.

Here's another subtle variant on the lounging pose , in which the barefoot Keri Christensen leans back into a corner with one leg slightly bent at the knee and flexed ballerina-like at the ankle.

If you watch the full multimedia presentation you'll find a relatively traditional portrait of the same Navy vet sitting up and looking at the camera. The difference in effect is striking.

I can't find a way to link to the individual stills within the Flash presentation. So, I'll just explain where to find the relevant shots: The traditional portrait is image #3 in the series. Image #4 is a beautiful picture of Army Sgt. Jane Bulson in the door of her camper, but again with the thigh-clutching.

Grannan is well-known for fine art photos influenced by pinups and other vintage erotica--her website is probably not safe for work, but definitely worth a visit. She is internationally famous for applying fashion and commercial photography methods and aesthetics to intricately composed informal-looking posed portraits of non-models.

Maybe in  her assignment for the NYT PTSD story Grannan is parodying pinup photos to make a point how these women soldiers were regarded by their male colleagues. After all, it doesn't seem like Grannan intended to make her subjects appear to happy or comfortable in the positions she chose for them.

Would the New York Times run a picture of conscientious objector Ehren Watada awaiting his court martial like a faun in repose? I'm guessing they wouldn't, even if Lt. Watada was willing to indulge the photographer.

[HT: zuzu]


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I get an error message when I click the links.

The top photo isn't cheesecake.

The pained expression on Suzanne Swift's face symbolizes that she's in pain. The rocks symbolize that she's stuck between a rock and a hard place. The water symbolizes that she was overseas.

If they had wanted a cheesecake photo, that have used a different facial expression, different clothes, different hair, different makeup, etc.

Regarding her left hand being on her leg, it has to go somewhere. If she put both her hands on the rocks, she'd probably be less comfortable. Likewise if she held her left hand in the air.

I guess she could have put her left hand on her side, but maybe she had better balance with her left hand on her leg.

I think I've fixed the links.

These images are weirdly sexualized, given the subject matter of the the accompanying essay. That doesn't make them bad or inappropriate, just totally incongruous.

I mean, this is a portrait of a combat veteran in the U.S. military who appears to be lounging on a rocky beach for no discernible reason in a posture reminiscent of a swimsuit model. You'd never see a male vet posed like this for a serious article on PTSD and sexual assault. Or if you did, it would seem even more bizarre than this picture.

Careful here. Ann Althouse made a hyper-sensitive analysis of a photo of a woman. All that was revealed is how neurotic AA is.

You're giving Grannan credit for talent not apparent. The problem with these photos is that they are awkward and a trace unkind, the assignment being "show depression." They are unremarkable unless you let the ol' "it's the Times" gravitas tweak your view.

Dswift, Ann Althouse made a mean dig at Jessica Valenti based on her picture. Ann was insulting the actual Jessica for her outfit/physique/posture--not interpreting the photograph.

I'm certainly not saying anything derogatory about the veterans in the pictures. Or anything derogatory about the photographer. Katy Grannan is internationally famous for doing intricately posed portraiture of non-models that's self-consciously influenced by fashion photography and various genres of erotica. Her latest book is called Model American.

Perhaps the photos are meant to convey this part of the story:

"''So you have young women joining the military who have the profile of being victimized, who don't have boundaries sometimes,'' Lee went on to say. ''And then you have a male population that fits a perpetrator profile. They are mostly under 25, often developmentally adolescent, and you put them together. What do you think will happen? The men do the damage, and the women get damaged.''"

The photo's definitely aren't telling us that these are strong warrior women. I'm left feeling they aren't accorded the same dignified portrature that a man damaged by war would get.

I noticed the strange sexualization in the photos too. The one of Swift reclining on the beach is particularly odd: yes, she's in a rocky place, as Jaffa reads it, but she's also portrayed seductively. It's jarring---but maybe that's not such a bad thing, in the end.

I noticed the sexualization in a less noble fashion. My first thought was, hey she's kinda hot. Then I chastised myself for thinking such a thought in this context. Now I'm just going to transfer blame to the photographer.

I think that what I find disturbing is that, except in a few cases, they are no longer portrayed as service people. Their military identity is taken out of the pictures and now they are 'young woman'. 'mother' and to a certain extent 'model'. The poses do not get across the point that these women are suffering as a result of their service to their nation. Male military are almost always depicted with some aspect of the military evident- a khaki t-shirt, crew cut, military boots, flag or full uniform but the women get none of that. It is as if their military service is disposable and disposed of in the pictures.

I may be a little naive about this, but it seems to me the point of the pliable poses of cheesecake models is to imply pliancy, i.e., consent. In this light, for the Times to pose these women this way is to editorialize against the clear documentation of the article itself.

Just to continue the thought, there is an equally conventional set of poses and angles that imply self-reliance, autonomy, defiance, etc. If you're not going to innovate (which is difficult, of course), why not choose those?

Vance Maverick -

Did you click the photo for a bigger image, and do you think Suzanne Swift looks like she's in the mood for sex in that photo?

I agree that her face tells a different story. But I share Lindsay's bafflement at the pose. (And I disagree with her implication that this is not an aesthetic matter.)

What's your take on the relationship of the expression and the pose? Do you find them to be in conflict? Or do you simply ignore 99% of the image in favor of the face?

I don't think the facial expression or the clothing are meant to be sexy.

I think this is just the photographer's way of personalizing the subject. Grannan obviously sees humanity in sexuality - maybe that's all she was trying to accomplish.

Eric, I'm talking about the pose. Her clothing and expression may indeed suggest something else, but among the range of possible poses, the photographer and editor chose one with particular associations -- odd ones in this context.

Brautigan, everybody sees humanity in sexuality. What seems to be going on here is a kind of conventional display for the sexual benefit of the viewer -- again, odd in this context.

theres nothing that moves papers like a hot victim.

That is an excellent article. I did not go through anything like those soldiers, but my experiences gave me a completely different take on those photos. For me, that picture at the beach spoke of how the unrest, the anxiety, and the inability to be in the moment that are hallmarks of ptsd can be with a sufferrer everywhere. I know a person who found he was unable to wash the dishes, and the picture of Kathleen at the kitchen counter was an excellent reminder of how the people portrayed are not only soldiers they are also people. And when they try and live their lives whether at the beach or the kitchen counter, ptsd can rob them of that opportunity.

It doesn't make sense to separate the clothing from the pose.

Yes, if she were wearing a bikini, that might be a sexy pose.

But if she were wearing a bikini, dozens of theoretical poses might be sexy poses. She's not wearing a bikini.

The story tells us these women don't feel they can be seen by their fellow male soldiers as anything beyond the usual male projections on female sexuality. ("Bitch, whore, or dyke" are the options according to one of them.) So, the NYT chooses to photograph them in poses more than a little suggestive of cheesecake pin-ups for male consumption. That to me is more than incongruent; its grotesque.

Something else to consider -- the subjects themselves may have been influenced by images of women in advertising and elsewhere, and assumed vaguely cheesecakey poses themselves. If a woman is asked to lie on a beach for a photo, surely she's going to be influenced by every damn bikini photo out there as to how she's "supposed" to pose.

The construction worker looks like she's got some ingrained lessons about how to sit while wearing a skirt, even though her job is construction worker.

Lindsey, Maybe the photgrapher only knows how to do model photos. Models on a beach is what she knows, right? OR Maybe she's not so good at portraying what you think should have been protrayed or should be intended. OR Maybe you are not seeing the photos in all the ways they was intended to be seen. OR possibly you should ..ASK THE PHOTOGRAPHER to find out. Instead of analyzing the photos like they are fine art, and the artist is dead.

i find the photographer doesnt seem to like women. her male shots are attractive as are most of the men she shoots. but the women are shot looking uncomfortable, or make to look unattractive or odd.

I read the Times magazine article on Sunday and like Lindsay I thought the pictures were weird and inappropriate. That's as far as I got, though. Now, thinking a little harder, I think that they express powerlessness and victimhood. They are sexualized because there is an association in imagery betweeen powerlessness in women and sexual availability, and that's the pictorial language that Katy Grannan seems to speak (the link to her website is very helpful in understanding what's being said in the Times pictures.)

I thought when I read the article that the pictures undercut the message, but maybe the message is more ambiguous. One way to read the article is, "isn't it an outrage that this is happening to women soldiers," but another way - the way that is supported by the pictures - is, "women don't belong in the army."

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