A photo of a person riding up an escalator
Maya Kogulan/MiC.

When I was younger, I would draw on the walls and furniture in my bedroom. One of my first memories was taking my mom’s bright red lipstick and smearing it on my dresser to replicate the dressers that I saw on HGTV. While I definitely got into trouble with my parents, the memory marks the first of many creative endeavors. 

In fact, art is the only thing in my life that came easy to me. It took years of bad essays and parent-teacher conferences for me to write coherently. It took hundreds of Kumon practice problems for me to be decent at math. And overall, I would say I was never really exceptionally good at any one thing. But art, in particular, photography, always came naturally. 

At first, I used photography as a method of breaking the ice and forming connections with people. I remember once approaching an elderly man near the farmer’s market in downtown Detroit. After asking him if I could take his picture, our conversation led to him recounting memories from his past music career in Motown. He was, of course, a natural in front of the camera, and I vividly remember the smile on his face after I showed him his portrait. That’s why I love photography: The entire process is gratifying. I love approaching a subject, asking them if I can take their portrait and watching the conversation rapidly grow and evolve into one about their daughter, their recent vacation or their old job instead. I love taking their picture and watching them find their angles, poses and, eventually, their confidence. I love showing them their image on the two-by-two screen of the camera, watching their face quickly light up as they realize that they are, in fact, beautiful.

Photography, as a whole, has always given me fulfillment. When I take photos of others, whether it be a family member or a stranger, it has always felt like giving out a gift. In terms of self-expression, photography has always been able to capture the depth of human emotion better than I have ever been able to write or say. 

And I am good at photography. In fact, it is one of the only things I am good at. I wasn’t chosen to go to math competitions. I sat on the bench for most of my volleyball games. I never placed highly at the science fair. So when my teacher submitted my photograph to an art competition in the 7th grade, and I won a national award, I felt a rush of newfound excitement in my life. My work was hanging in a fancy exhibit in New York City, I received a heavy silver medal and I got invited to an award ceremony in Carnegie Hall. There is a rush that comes with winning an award and being praised, especially when you have low confidence and are bad at a lot of other things. It inflates your ego, gives you a false semblance of self-worth and grants you a sense of belonging in a hypercompetitive environment. My photography talents allowed me to express myself, but my awards made me feel like I was finally good enough at something.

My view of art started to shift after I won my first award. It wasn’t a fun pastime anymore but a way to expand trophies on my bedroom shelf. I started taking many more photos, but more tactfully. You see, many of these art competitions are filled with a certain type of judges — rich, highly educated, white. And as I started to cater my work to awards, I started to inadvertently cater my work to the white gaze.

The white gaze, popularized by Toni Morrison, is the assumption that the observer of the work is white. Artists and writers of Color have been reckoning with how the white gaze has influenced their work both subconsciously and consciously. Blaise Allysen Kearsley, a correspondent of the Boston Globe, writes that ​​”Foundational to the centering and elevation of whiteness in America, the white gaze sees Blackness only within the context of comparison and alterity. It’s the shallow lens of privilege, ingrained bias, and misrepresentation that creates both violent acts and micro-aggressive behaviors.” 

It didn’t take me long to understand what the white gaze wanted. I noticed a pattern in my photographs that won awards versus those that didn’t. The white gaze likes a shallow form of diversity. They like photos of brown skin subjects in bright color sarees and bindis. They like photos of brown skin refugees with a sad-longing on their faces. It feels exotic but still easy to consume, easy to understand. The white gaze wants to see photography fulfill their preconceived notions of people of Color. That’s why publications often solely show people of Color in states of distress rather than in celebrations. They like work that makes them feel worldly and well-traveled from the comfort of their suburban home. 

The work that won awards always had a serious tone, yet it didn’t really explore anything substantive. For example, in my college admission portfolio, I included a photo of my family friend standing in front of a Bollywood movie on a projector. To me, it didn’t have much meaning and was just a photo to demonstrate the effects of projectors on subjects. However, of the eight admissions officers I met, they each seemed to create their own elaborate backstory to put meaning into my work. A photo that was meaningless to me was dubbed by an art school admissions officer as “a great message about the American dream.” I saw with my own eyes how the white gaze influenced the perception of my work. The white gaze made it so that including Brown subjects in my photography simply became an extension of what the white gaze perceived to be the lived experiences of people of Color. Brown subjects, instead, became tokenized without my consent and functioned as a means for white judges and educators to project their own preconceived notions of what it meant to be Brown on my work. The white gaze does not want to be attacked or challenged. Work centered around white privilege makes them uncomfortable. Work addressing the oppression of Black and Brown people makes them feel like they are being unfairly blamed. Unfiltered work about the minority experience in America is unrelatable and disengaging to them.

I didn’t have a sudden realization that the white gaze heavily influenced my work. Honestly, by my senior year of high school, I got bored of photography, and reflecting on my past work and portfolio made me cringe a little bit inside — largely due to the apparent influence of the white gaze on my work. I was no longer exploring new topics in my work or taking risks; I was repeating photography concepts that I knew would win. Deep down, I felt like I was exploiting my culture to satisfy the need to win competitions, to satisfy the white glaze. 

My work had no meaning to me. Many of the photos I took in high school were shallow and vague. I took photos of my cousins playing in their traditional Indian clothes, my aunt making Tamil food for dinner or strangers praying at the temple. While all these photographs captured facets of my daily life, I realized that they weren’t exploring themes I was excited by. Instead, they reduced Tamil culture to be consumable for a white audience, stripping away the pain, struggle and sacrifice. 

Like many other artists and writers, I am gradually unlearning the white gaze by reevaluating what influences my art. For many years, I made art that was critiqued and judged by my white art teachers, a classroom filled with white peers and competitions run by white adjudicators. And I let those critiques and grades shape my work. In her documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” Toni Morrison describes fighting the conditioned white gaze in your work as “The little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do or say. You sort of knock him off and you’re free.” 

While I am no longer a photographer for my school’s newspaper or taking photography classes, I still take photographs from time to time. I take pictures of the same things I did before, capturing the people and places that I love. Except this time, I take photos for myself, not for the consumption of the white gaze or anyone else. By eliminating the pressure of not only how the audience would perceive my photographs, but also their preconceived biases and notions of my own lived experiences, I have been able to reclaim the artist’s process, and its inherent sanctity for myself. Knocking off “the little white man that sits on my shoulder,” as Toni Morrison described, has not been simple. More so, it has been an integral and necessary part of the long-winded decolonization process.

MiC Columnist Maya Kogulan can be reached at ukogulan@umich.edu