Week 6 - Sea of Images

People are adrift in a sea of images these days. We are surrounded by images, partly due to the rise of social media, on a daily basis. The practice of photography as an occasional pursuit of the few has developed over time to become the commonplace method to record and distribute images of the everyday. People see life and the world through the lenses of photographers – professional or non-photographers, via social media, via their smart phones.

A lot of photography is often still seen as showing reality, especially since the rise of lifestyle bloggers/vloggers/social media influencers. People forget that what they see on Instagram, for example, is not necessarily real life. Images seen on a screen are not first hand experiences, they are reproductions of a moment, re-presentations of an often crafted, edited, moment.

 

“Reality is experienced as an endless network of representations”

Mitchell (1996)

Although the above was written in 1996 the sentiment has perhaps never been more relevant. The line between real and not-real has been blurred and people have come to expect life to be as it is seen on a screen, as it is on social media. These, often crafted, images have created and perpetuate the illusion of what life is, or should be.

For example the images of “female surfers” that is has been popularised and is pervasive in social media and brand advertising has crafted the image of the fun-loving skinny bikini wearing surfer-model in the tropics, hanging out in a tribe of other fun-loving skinny bikini models, all with perfectly tanned skin and perfectly tousled hair. Viewers of these images interpret that this is what female surfers are. They believe that this is what they should be, what their live should be, what they should look like. The format of images is reproduced and shared and so the myth is perpetuated.

Through my practice I’m trying to show a different reality, perhaps a more authentic reality to the one seen in magazines – changing the ideology of “female surfer” from the unattainable surfer-model to the, perhaps more relatable, female surfer seen not in magazines, but the beaches of the UK. Instead of perpetuating the myth of the lifestyle/lives of the few, I hope to represent the lives of the everyday surfer.

Whilst this is what I am hoping to show. I am conscious that to date, there have only been Caucasian participants involved in the project. I am aware that this may well perpetuate the stereotype that surfing is not practised by other ethnicities, which isn’t globally true. In the UK I believe the surfing demographic is mostly White – possibly due to higher rates of Caucasian people living in the smaller coastal towns, whereas the urban town & city demographic is more multicultural.

I am not trying to imply that surfing, or the surfing culture, is a “white people” activity. However I do feel there is a risk that the impact of the work I am creating may be read in that way. Indeed there is a sense that although surfing first spread globally from the native pacific islanders it has been ‘conquered’ by imperialist cultures – as much of Hawaiian culture has been appropriated by non-Hawaiian societies (flower ‘crowns’, leis, ukuleles, tattoo styles, etc.).

A quick look at the top ranking competitors in the World Surf League’s World Championship Tour shows that the top 17 female surfers in the world, and the top 34 male surfers in the world, are majority Caucasian (of those 34 they are all from “Western” “developed” nations - except 11 from Brazil and 2 non-Western men; 1 from Japan and 1 from South Africa – although he is also Caucasian). In the women’s tour there is one (white) Brazilian woman, the rest are (also Caucasian) from USA, Australia, France, and New Zealand. This does raise questions as to why there are not surfers of other nationalities and ethnicities represented in professional surfing and in surf brand advertising etc., and therefore if my project does end up showing female UK surfers as all Caucasian it may be received as perpetuating the myth of surfing as something only able to be practiced by Caucasians.

Without knowing with any certainty the ethnicity of every female surfer in the UK I can’t say for sure whether this is, or will be, the case. As indicated above, there are many other issues that could be looked at regarding this; for example the ethnicities of coastal populations in the UK, the reasons why there are not more minority populations living in rural/coastal England, financial wealth or ease of access to equipment, cultural restrictions/expectations etc. It would also be interesting to look at what the populations of non-Caucasian surfers are in other countries and the reasons for any potential differences to the UK. However, I think although this is worth considering in relation to my  project I do not think it is going to be feasible to look at all these areas/issues in the frame of this project.

As previously mentioned I want the project to reflect a more realistic view of female surfers that aren’t shown in the media. But I also want to show the women in my project as the strong and beautiful women I see them as. I don’t want the project to be read as the complete opposite of the beautiful images on social media, I don’t want the images or the women in them to be viewed as antithesis of beauty.

There is a potential conflict here between wanting to show the reality of living and surfing in UK, which is not the glamourous pacific island life people expect surfing to be, and wanting to show that even so there is beauty to be found in this life; in the environment, the landscape, the sea, and the women that surf there. I want to ensure the project is authentic but still aesthetically pleasing. I am wary of overly airbrushing the lifestyle/lives being represented.

I have recently been looking at the Cait Miers book “Her Wave”[i].

An image from "Her Wave", Cait Miers 2017.    Available at https://www.herewith.com/journal/cait-meyers-her-wave

An image from "Her Wave", Cait Miers 2017.

Available at https://www.herewith.com/journal/cait-meyers-her-wave

This is a photo book purporting to be a celebration of women who use the sea as their playground – according to the book’s introduction. It is a collection of photographs, with some interspersed text, of women in the water. The introduction states that it isn’t a book about surfing, although most of the photographs are of women surfing, or are of female surfers not surfing. Of these women they are all sponsored professional surfers and/or surfer-models that are part of the Roxy (surf-brand) family. They are all women/girls mostly famous within the surf culture, rather than non-famous “everyday” women. It is an aesthetically beautiful book, as are the images, but doesn’t really show a reality of being a surfer. It does look more like promotional material for Roxy (surf brand that the women in the book are sponsored by), and doesn’t really give any insight into who they are, what their lives are like etc. – although granted that doesn’t appear to be the intention. The photographs perpetuate the myth of the young surfer, the exotic tropical islands of female surfing, the social media ready Instagram-style photographs with the rather vacuous millennial message of needing to be a woman of independence and freedom who doesn’t care that her “bikinis don’t match” (Meirs, 2017).

I want my project to give an insight into the everyday female surfers; that are not professional surfers, that aren’t paid to surf, that aren’t models. To show a more “real-life” view of the world, rather than what people think the world should be.

Turkle (1996)[ii] said we live in a “culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real”. I want to substitute a representation of reality, for a re-presentation of actual reality. By doing this I want to show, and maybe encourage others to realise, that social media images and brand advertising do not always show real life.

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[i] MIERS, Cait. 2017. Her Wave. Self-published.

[ii][ii] TURKLE, Shelly. 1996. Identity in the Age of the Internet. In MacKay, H. & O’Sullivan T. eds. (2003) The Media Reader: Continuity and Transformation London: Sage