Reading Images

Human beings are not natural born hunters. Unlike say; the tiger or the lion we are not born with sharp teeth and claws. Our senses of smell, touch, taste or hearing are neither heightened or enhanced from birth. Sight is probably the most developed sense in humans, and the majority of us have the privilege of being born with the advantage (or mayhap disadvantage) of being able to see the world exactly as it is. A cat may be able to see in the dark and be able to detect movement with a higher sensitivity than a human but it cannot perceive the the full spectrum of colours in the world as they are meant to appear.

Humans are not meant to be natural born hunters, in fact in the objective food chain we are more often than not considered prey and an easy one at that. But that’s not to say that humans are not predators either. Predation is by definition the act or practice of plundering or marauding (1). Whilst there are numerous forms of predation that human beings engage themselves in on different scales of aggression and/or violence, the type of predation I am referring to at this time is visual predation. Even Freud considered the pleasure derived from the act of looking to be a regular instinct in the development of a child from childhood and hence the impulse to ‘hunt’ for images to ‘devour’.

The female body is quite often the chosen prey for this sort of visual predation from both sexes not just the male and I’d like to now focus on some images from my favorite photographer Zhang Jing Na as an example of visual consumption and the reading of images.

But first a short introduction, Jing Na was born in Beijing in 1988, she moved to Singapore at the age of 8 and it is there where she found her passion and talent for photography and she has produced fashion editorials for magazines such as Harper’s BazaarElle and Flare. As her range of work progresses and evolves her clientele now includes companies such as Mercedes BenzCanonPond’sOgilvy & Mather Advertising and Wacom.

Redemption by Zhang Jing Na (2007) (Image Copyright)

of the Night: A Dream Of You by Zhang Jing Na (2008) (Image Copyright)

Porcelain by Zhang Jing Na (2011) (Image Copyright)

Zhang Jing Na’s is famously known for her distinctively ethereal, tranquil, emotive, dreamlike and sensuously charged portraits of young beautiful women. In each of the images the centralised female figure is depicted in various submissive poses and every element inside each image including the environment, the costume (or lack thereof), make up, props and of course; the direction of their gaze as well as their facial expression are used to highlight and enhance their femininity. The overall effect is each graceful image is both haunting and mesmerising.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome – men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger 1972).

The female form is a favourite among all artists be it male or female to explore and experiment with. But while the subject matter is the same, the execution and final image produced is significantly different depending on whether the artist is male or female. Women are vain yes, and for the most part we enjoy admiring our own beauty and being admired in turn. But we also enjoy admiring each other. As a woman I am attracted to the images of these beautiful women as they are portrayed very differently from the atypical portrait of a woman taken by a man. Women may enjoy being admired but not all women enjoy being portrayed as sex objects no matter how flattering or subtle the sexually suggestive pictures may be. The big attraction that Zhang Jing Na’s work has on me is how her subjects be it man, woman or object are portrayed with grace, elegance and respect. Her female models are occasionally bare or nude and are often posed in sensuously and can be interpreted as a show of submission of the female object. But I feel that this is a submission born of compliance. The subjects willingly yield to Jing Na because they are assured that she will not use her position as the photographer to exert dominance over their femininity. They know that she will make the most out of their beauty and not just of their physical body shape. She has a talent for showcasing not only the physical beauty of woman but of the inner humanity as well and that the end result are images transcends the norm and transforms her subjects into earth bound angelic and ethereal beings.

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