The Camera is Broken by Andrew McFarland

I live in a collective space in Brooklyn, and prior to my residency there eight months ago, my camera broke, and sometime thereafter I began working as an assistant at a commercial photography studio in Chelsea. I can’t tell whether it’s the former or the latter, but during this time period, my compulsion to take photographs waned. Since high school I’d carried a camera wherever I went to record bits of daily life. Combing through those thousands of images I took years ago, I now appreciate that I was trying to map the processes that encircled me – the train approaching on a subway platform, herds of pedestrians crossing busy streets, the way winter sunlight moved through my bedroom.

Photographing these phenomena was my way of inspecting the patterns to which I was subject, and inspired me to pursue editorial and documentary photography. Coming from a journalistic background, the realm of commercial image-making possessed for me a sexy and glossy veneer. Who wouldn’t want to work in the “creative” sector? As a millennial weaned on mainstream culture, I wanted to see how to understand how the sausage was made. Plus, the notion of being involved in an industry where big-budgeted shoots were the norm drew a certain appeal relative to the scrappy world of freelance photojournalism from whence I came.

What I soon realized was how studio photography has nothing to do with creativity. It engenders a controlled environment to produce predictable outcomes, ultimately deriving its power by a science of looks constructed through hierarchy. The chief look is the model’s gaze into the lens – a look that survives the studio and stretches out far beyond the camera to live on some billboard or a publication’s cover. But why this look? That expression? Those eyes? It’s certainly not unique. On any given magazine rack this same look graces at least a dozen covers. What I eventually realized was that it was important simply because it existed within a system where it was prized, and to justify its dominance, it played out on a micro and dispersed level within the studio. Each participant in the studio’s world performed the camera-model relationship dynamic without ever having stepped in front of a camera.

One look depends upon another in order to establish recognition and power for itself. Economic power – the ability to produce goods and services – requires a certain social power – the ability to appropriate and control human relations and environments. To create the object of sight there first had to be a foundational way of seeing others partnered in production.

We, the world of the studio, were like the exposure of film: through light and darkness, through the things seen and unseen, the desired image took shape. If the photographer, the model, or the stylist had a role designed specifically by how they each saw, so too would the studio’s receptionist, custodian, or assistant. It struck me as odd whenever a manager would remind me to “not look at the models” if I entered a studio mid-shoot, since that’s precisely their profession. I appreciate the power of the gaze, the ability to objectify someone simply with a look, but to be told to not look was more powerful. A will to blind seemed, in the culture of the studio, a greater power than others’ power to see.

Thus, everything had to be derived from an ordered sight.

While arranging equipment for shoots, my managers would instruct me to make the gear look “sexy” on the photo cart. The extension cords were to be “sexified,” coiled tightly and stacked in perfectly aligned rows. An unappealing sight was treated like a contagion and had to be eliminated, whether it was an object or a person. During my last month at the studio, a receptionist was sacked because she didn’t “have the look,” as one manager put it.

Hovering in the corner of the equipment office, there was a televised feed from the dozens of security cameras positioned throughout the studio. These recordings informed the lowest-level employee that he or she was always being seen even when no one was watching. I quickly learned which places were unmonitored by cameras, where I could be alone and unseen – the bathroom stall, the storage closet, the space behind a set – and sought them out whenever I could spare a moment. But these blindspots were just as much of a trap as the plane of surveillance. By this exposure, the image of the appealing employee took hold.

Through glances, stares, and choice looks, everything that needed to be communicated between superiors and subordinates could be speechlessly expressed. Were you being useful? Was your appearance attractive today? Efficient? Considerate? Rude? Overbearing? Were you coming on too strong with a client? Talking out of turn? These were the wordless, questioning powers of the gaze, like cameras bearing down upon models. And the answers could only come from within. Thus, you could only judge your own use, your own comic value, the potential pleasure or displeasure of your looks, etc.

The eyes were there and they wanted you to know as they saw.

The studio taught me to trade my camera for a mirror. Before leaving for work each morning, I found myself pausing in front of the mirror mounted to my closet’s sliding door. The eyes I sensed watching me everyday were now my own, staring back at me through the mirror. I was never actually allowed on set to see a photograph taken in a studio, but I now felt the way it could be done. If I closed my eyes I sensed the look pressing down upon me – the lights carving a warm halo out of this cave of a studio, the attentive herd of assistants huddled in the glow – and looking deeper into the glass, I felt for sure that I could spy a lens just as the shutter flashed. I was both sight and seeing – process without proof. In this way, all necessary and unnecessary energies had to be directed to serve the image, the image of myself as both the ultimate photographer and model.

In the space where I live, we occasionally leave disposable cameras around the venue. During shows and events, people would pick up a camera and snap a shot, perhaps of a performing band or their friend drinking a beer or some shameless selfie. Others documented the space, taking photos of the murals, of the yard, of a man with his back turned passing through a doorway. I’ve come to admire this resulting body of dispersed sight beyond anything that could grace the cover of Vogue. Looking over the prints with others, people would claim certain shots. “I took this,” they’d say, and another would reply, “No, I took this,” and so they’d playfully argue. The sight belonged to all. The image was a collective manifestation of unpredictable interactions and infinitely more creative than anything that comes out of a commercial shoot.

Systems of social hierarchy for the sake of economic production exist to create a stable environment wherein predictable outcomes can and will always be produced over and over again. The studio was just one embodiment of this practice, where silently understood chains of command were as essential to the process of image-making as any lighting or style or set. The collective photographs generated by the participants in the space were a testimony to a possibility and a creative community therein. The inquisition of the mirror became the reflected sight of magnified social potential.

For several reasons, I quit working for the studio. My camera is still broken, and I continue to reside in the same space in Brooklyn. I see the possibility of my experiences as an interaction between familiar strangers. It is seeing someone on the street, in a doorway, through the window of a passing train, and to feel like I know this person without ever having had met him or her. All the factors are calculated, and yet some mystery lingers. The mystery is like some unrealized photograph, where the model is offset, wrapped in a lily-white robe, and the photographer is perched by the hallway window, sighing as he smokes, because the camera is lying broken on the studio floor.


Andrew McFarland is a full time celebrity dishwasher.