• Documentation of Gemma Marmalade, Fish Wives (Sweet Science), 2013. Photographs by Will Jennings, Fiona Clarke and Andrew Smith.

  • Documentation of Gemma Marmalade, Fish Wives (Sweet Science), 2013. Photographs by Will Jennings, Fiona Clarke and Andrew Smith.

  • Natasha Caruana, Nero, from the series Married Man, 2008 - 09

  • Natasha Caruana, Penny, from the series The Other Woman, 2005

  • Natasha Caruana, Elaine, from the series The Other Woman, 2005

  • Holly Falconer, from Parade. Taken at Neston Ladies' Day, Cheshire, 2014

  • Holly Falconer, from Parade. Taken at Reclaim the Night, London, 2014

From Issue 22: Ha Ouch Ha Ouch Ha Ouch: On Women and Wit in Photography

Max Houghton weaves a historical and contemporary view through photograph and women photographers who use wit to disarm.

The role of women in photography is vital, yet often discussed only in relation to the work of men, who dominate the medium. I sought a territory that belonged to women in particular, which could also underscore the need to delineate a space in discourse for women about women. I found it in a word: wit. Women have used wit for centuries as a strategy of resistance; a knowing employment of its capacity to, at once, foster understanding and to wound, in its inevitable exposure of the absurdity of the patriarchal balloon it punctures.

Is this a feminist articulation of women and wit? Could it be otherwise? Let’s see … Racist, sexist, fascist. Artist, philanthropist, escapologist. The suffix ‘ist’ means ‘one who’ or ‘that which’ … but looking at these two word groups, it is not so simple. ‘Ist’ seems to convey a notion of expertise, but the first group carries a negative connotation. It is among this group of ‘nasty people’ that the feminist sits in the minds of many.

Imagine her surprise!

Her desire is not for separatism, nor for dominance, but for equality; that essential Enlightenment principle for which women and men have fought and died. This is not an extreme position. By utilising wit to make her point, a woman can leapfrog over the stagnant pools of misogynist outrage, in which lesbian and feminist are synonyms, and, just as deftly, over the more prosaic and prolific structures of everyday sexism.

I have worked in photography for 15 years, during which time, men, to borrow Rebecca Solnit’s phrase, have explained things to me. Much of this has been enjoyable; fascinating; necessary. Women do not often proffer their knowledge in the same way. I have looked at, thought and written about hundreds of bodies of work by women and men, and could not, much of the time, identify its author by gender on a synaesthetic blind-tasting. During the increasingly frequent gatherings, panels and symposia for women in photography, often inspired by work curated by Fiona Rogers for her Firecracker platform, conversations before and after presentations were hallmarked by an undercurrent of energy, excitement and a surging wit. In her essay ‘Feminist Wit—Dare to be Devastating’ (from which the title of this piece originates), Nina Power analyses this phenomenon:

The witty women, and there are many throughout history, occupy a role that is hard to pin down. They take nothing seriously because they can see through structures and mock the image of individuality that would see ego and arrogance take centre-stage. That is not to say that what work their wit does reveals nothing of importance—on the contrary, it highlights everything in a flash, which is precisely why it is so unsettling […] Feminist wit is the strategy to end all strategies because it speaks from the vanishing point that is exactly midway between the individual and the collective, the structure and the specific situation. You will laugh, but you will also feel wounded, and it is from such wounds that the real work of politics begins.1

In order to get to ‘the real work of politics’ it was necessary to locate such wit within these women’s work, too. Wit, despite its etymological roots, from both witan (to know) and videre (to see), is most closely associated with verbal agility. And though a photograph is rarely without language, particularly within the contemporary documentary tradition in which I work, I was interested in its visual expression too. Who are today’s Claude Cahuns or Madame Yevondes, Martha Roslers or Carrie Mae Weems? I can only offer a fraction of the answer here.

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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 22, 2016
Commissioned by Photoworks