Apart from being a photographer, I teach media literacy. According to the Media Literacy Project, “Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. Media literate youth and adults are better able to understand the complex messages we receive from television, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, video games, music, and all other forms of media.”
I teach media literacy because of my love for images and the firm belief that they are powerful enough to influence society. I focus on teaching girls and women to look at media critically and question whether certain images positively or negatively influence their lives. Specifically, given the pervasive threat of violence that girls and women face on a daily basis, it’s important to question whether the images we see in our everyday lives somehow contribute to violence.
Today I want to talk about Tyler Shields. I recently came across his images in a story about the violent exploitation of women in fashion and I decided to take a closer look. I always tell my students that art always has a backstory. Artists almost always have (or should have) a point of view when creating art. While many of his images are beautiful, some of them I think are definitely deserving of media literacy discussions.
Tyler describes himself not only as a celebrity photographer, formally known as the “bad boy of photography,” but also as a contemporary artist. Like many artists, he explores the parts of the human condition. His images tend to focus on “[E]roticism, torture, decadence [which] are all mere mediums that seem to remain eternally the same.” OK. So, he doesn’t particularly have a positive view of the world. That’s fine. He won’t be photographing fields of flowers or puppies.
However, Tyler’s focus on eroticism and torture seem to end up as images that depict violence against women and notably NOT violence against men. My deeper question to girls is:
"Why is this?"
"Why is Tyler focused on showing that erotic subjects are images of brutal violence against women?"
I’m going to try and give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s got some plan to put violence at the forefront in an effort to call attention to gender violence. HOWEVER, without an artist statement regarding the stories behind these images, that’s really hard. All we get from Tyler is this cookie cutter art exhibit statement that “it is the glossy mortality of the space of the human condition that is the only true crystal lens that the world inside and out, can be seen in the creation of a new type of fiction. [He] captures a new type of American life while exploring the fictional nature of the historical and the classic.”
I’m sorry… WHAT? This is the kind of statement you write in art school to impress your instructors or what they put up in galleries to give art buyers something to say at dinner parties. I know this because this is the kind of crap I gave out in art school when I was 22 years old and needed to say something after throwing an assignment together at the last minute. We have all procrastinated, am I right? Anyway, this statement isn’t a real explanation of the inspiration for his work. If it is, then I’d like to be the first to tell Tyler that seeing a first person view of a gun pointed at Lindsay Lohan’s head after bloodily beating her isn’t the “new type of American life” women need. It's actually the same old narrative that needs to change. As an artist with a considerable reach of followers, he should know better than to put this out.
Let’s put this in everyday context. Let’s put a 13 year old girl online surfing for fashion images and she comes across the image of Hayden Panettiere with a rifle in her mouth, or Lindsay Lohan’s seemingly dead body. What kind of message does this send to this impressionable young girl when there’s no artist statement for her to research? She goes onto Tyler’s page only to read about his curiosity with eroticism, torture, and glossy mortality. Or, let’s flip it and put a 13 year old boy in front of these images. I’m not going to say that images like these directly tell boys to go out and beat girls senseless, but they paint a picture. They normalize violence as sexy. Over time, like drops of water that won’t stop, they begin to burrow a hole into our subconscious.
The fashion industry has labeled these images as glamorous and controversial (in the hot new artist kind of way). In the end, images like this are all around. I won’t pretend that these images are going to go away or that artists shouldn’t be able to address violence in their work. My sole goal is to get you, yes all of you, to look at these images and ask yourselves what the artist is trying to achieve with these images and whether these images are harmful to society or do they aim to achieve a positive goal. If you’re a parent, PLEASE have a conversation with your children about how these images make them feel. Ask your kids how they might change them and explore the artist and what, if any, message the artist is trying to send with this work. If you can’t find anything, or the artist gives you some crappy explanation, CALL THEM OUT! Challenge them to do better. Our kids deserve better if they have to encounter images like this in their daily lives.
- For more information on booking Carolina for media literacy education, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org