Analyzing the Concept of Photographic Communities through the Projects of Nan Goldin and Zhe Chen

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The Inequity of Wealth in Contemporary America | ICP Museum | Oct 17 6:30-8PM

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Picturing Place: The Anthropology of Race, Class, and Community | ICP Museum | Dec 13 6:30-8PM

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Differing definitions of communities, ranging from nations to the smallest of subcultures, have been recorded and elucidated with the camera lens. The American art historian Louis Kaplan has suggested that the medium of photography is a means of communicating and connecting within space, and that these communal qualities raise questions about “our living and being with others, about community and about being-in-common”.[1] The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy introduced the idea of “being singular plural” as the essential relationship within a society or community. “Being singular plural” shows the main feature of the existence of human being. It is “the irreducible plurality of a coexistence that never becomes the same in the first place”.[2] Being is always “being-with”, due to the coexistence between singular and plural. Although this notion is developed from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Nancy emphasized that the relation of interest to him is not a relation between substances existing independently of, and prior to, relations, but being as relation.[3] Referring to Nancy, “No one…has radically thematised the ‘with’ as the essential trait of Being and as its proper plural singular co-essence”.[4] Nancy uses “expose” to describe the relations within the community. The community of “being singular plural” is based on the relations of being; relying on exposure, rather than the similarity or difference between the members within the community. In other words, the relation, or experience, of sharing and dividing is “being singular plural”. The community is actually being-in-common. Thus, community is not a fixed or closed idea and it could not follow the classic logic regarding a fixed or closed identity that is shared by every member of the community.[5] This is because the essence of community is not an accumulable individual. There is no “same” or “other”. The idea of forcing an ‘other’ to be ‘same’, should not exist anymore, because “its participants have nothing in common; they are in-common”.[6]


The Ballad of Sexual Dependecy (TBSD) is the first photo-book by the American photographer Nan Goldin, published in 1986. At first glance, many of these photographs appear to have been taken in close proximity, with flash used to lighten areas of darkness. These dark spaces are those normally kept private, away from public view: such as bedrooms or bathrooms. People, therefore, are shown to partake in events that take place only in such privacy, such as sexual intercourse and drug abuse, but they do so freely in front of the camera. According to the first page of the book, “[TBSD] is a visual diary chronicling the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family and lovers–collectively described by Goldin as her ‘‘tribe’.”[7] As Kaplan suggests, these photographs grew out of the relationships between Goldin and those photographed; Goldin does not look for subjects, but they find, or are linked with, her directly. It is possible to claim that Goldin’s social circle is a sub-culture group, which is, in other words, a featured community. Chris Townsend claims that Goldin’s photographs are valuable in authentically interpreting sub-culture groups: “what we have…is not the originary ‘Ballad’ but rather a version of that narrative read through a century and a half of thought about what the bohemian life should look like. ” [8] The photographs may or may not serve as research or evidence for Goldin’s particular sub-culture, but to do so, or to speak the truth about this community’s identity is not their essential quality. Rather, they produce a self-referent space for the memory of Goldin’s bohemian life; the people photographed together embody the notion of a bohemian lifestyle, which is divided from mainstream culture and society. We assume the opposite is true of the audience: the mainstream looking in on a bohemian lifestyle as if it is authentic; the photographs are developed from an established community, of which the photographer is one of its members. A comparison can be made here with Zhe Chen, who offers a visually similar, but also very different idea of community with her photographs.


The Chinese photographer Zhe Chen published her first photo-book, Bees, in 2011, after an exhibition of the project awarded Chen the Inge Morath Foundation award from the Magnum Foundation. There are 57 photographs, within which approximately 15 people are seen to be conducting self harm in varying degrees: from piercing their own ears, to participating in more serious bodily modification. The title of the photo-book comes from Virgil’s commentary on bees: “they left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves.”[9] Bee, then, became the name of those Chen has documented, indicating a level of understanding between Chen herself and those that commit self- harm. This brings a sense of intimacy to the photographs and their subjects, as they are treated on such a personal level. Before this work by Chen, a Japanese photographer, Kosuke Okahara, took photographs of those that commit self-harm. The difference between Okahara and Chen is that Chen, like Goldin, can relate as a member of the community she depicts. Chen’s bio-photographic project The Bearable comprised of a photographic diary of Chen committing self- harm.[10] Zhe Chen is, then, also a bee.


Goldin often shares specific details of her photographs in the captions, such as the names of people shown, the location of the shoot and the year taken. She designed her photo-book to follow central themes and composition choices, and she uses repetition of characters, identifying and labeling their names, to familiarize the audience with the people. There seem to be no secrets between Goldin and those in her photographs, or between Goldin and the people who look at the photographs. As the curator Elisabeth Sussman claimed, Goldin simply records those around her.[11] However, Zhe Chen very much protects the privacy of the people she documents. There are no captions, neither on the walls of her exhibitions, nor in her photo-book. Captions are used only occasionally and even then they only reference code numbers (e.g. 048-01), which are shown under the photographs on her personal website. Even in the acknowledgements of the last pages in the photo-book, Chen names the people who joined her photographic projects only in abbreviations.


Chen approaches each individual in her photographs separately, therefore each of the photographs represents a single, individual connection between photographer and the photographed subject. The photographs try to show an intimacy between the photographer and the individual subject, rather than between the photographers and a larger group of people. According to Chen, Bees is the counter fire to the stereotype of this [self-harm] group, rather than a illustration of the stereotype: he[or she] is a individual, not a type of person; he[or she] can’t be replaced by the formulation of society.”[12] Chen’s intention was not to represent a unified image of a group. She took photographs of the bees from different angles, juxtaposed with photographs of insects, animals and plants in The Bees, and the blank pages in the photo-book cut and form individual narratives. According to Chen, she talks with and poses the individuals in her photographs, and considers them a “cathartic” experience, which is shared by both herself and the people in front of her camera. Chen showed the photographs from The Bearable project, and her own scars, to those in her Bees project. Although they were complete strangers, the scars and the photographs acted as a passport, so to speak, to let known a shared experience, to photograph the real bees.[13] Photography places Chen in an equal position with those people in front of her camera. Taking photography itself, especially in the contemporary period, is considered a shared experience; it is a negotiating between the photographer and the subject.[14] Chen’s photographs not only mark the relations between the isolated individuals, but provide Chen and the documented people a chance of “being with” the people who understand and experience similar feelings. In return, the photographic project provides Chen a new way to walk out from her closed world.

None of the people who appear in the photographs by Chen had met each other before the photographic project. The actual communication between the photographer and the documented people starts with the contact between the photographer and her subjects, often made near to the time the photographs were shot. Photography is important for both the photographer and subject in this community, as it is a way of communicating with each other, both physically and through the photographs themselves. Although the act of self-harm could be considered as the “in-common” part to secure a certain kind of connection between them, rather than a social or political background or a period of time lived together, the communication and connections made with the community are consolidated by photography, and developed throughout the taking of photography and the photographic exhibition. It is Chen who reveals the self-harm community, and introduces the members to each other through her photographs.


The private and intimate spaces, such as bathroom and bedroom, appear in their photographs frequently. The camera has been placed close to the floor, looking up, in order to take a photograph, such as in Bees 048-01. The wooden floor covers nearly one third of the photograph, which shows a half-naked girl dressed in blood red, looking at herself in the mirror. The half-naked body is purposely exhibited to us as she reveals herself for the camera rather than the mirror, which is being used for make-up. The view of this photograph, then, is the result of careful consideration of natural lighting and composition. In comparison with some of Goldin’s photographs, such as the blurred (like a snapshot) Greer and Robert on the Bed, New York City, which is taken from eye-level with the use of flash, the subtleties of the Chen’s image’s circumstance is clear. ©


Tate Modern held the exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera in 2010. Nan Goldin and her TBSD was included. As the curator Sandra Phillips illustrated in her interview, “[from] the word ‘voyeur’ comes the word ‘to see’”.[15] Often in photography, evidence of a superior-subordinate relationship is often present, such as a dominated male gaze, which turns the female in the photographs into a product of fetishism and male appeal.[16] In Freudian psychoanalysis, “voyeurism (subjecting women to a controlling and unreturned gaze) and…fetishism (the displacement or substitution of the anxiety onto a re-assuring object which comes to stand in from the missing penis)…are both inscribed on the photographic arrangement.”[17]It is possible to understand as voyeurism the act of looking without actually understanding the situation depicted, at people documented who are personally unknown to the viewer, wuch as in the work of Chen and Goldin. The considerably enclosed community, of either artist, has attracted worldwide attention continuously from a variety of public viewers. If such intimacy can be shared by these photographers, can public viewers join these communities and avoid being voyeurs?

The word community “signifies those elements that are held in common among people”.[18] Because a community is identified by the individuals within it, these individuals usually share similarities with other members of their community. A community is not only recognised by the accumulated experiences shared by its members, but it also puts them into opposite positions from those outside the community; the people who share similarities inside the community are the “same”, while the people who are outside of the community are recognized as “other”.[19] This dual position of “same” and “other” is essential in the theory of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, who are leading thinkers of ethics in continental philosophy. In considering the relationships regarding the use of the ‘other’, one key ethical problem is that to totalise the other is “to speak on behalf of the other in a reductive, essentialising way that made it the other of the same”.[20]


Based on the philosophical theory by Nancy, Kaplan focuses on the photographs depicting the relations between people, which he called the “community-exposed photography”. On the one hand, he believes taking photographs is “an act of sharing in which we are exposed to one another, and to being-in-common when we are exposed to the camera lens”.[21] On the other hand, Kaplan points out that “photographic exposure allows us to become available as communication and open to communicability.”[22] The exposed photography forms the community. First of all, the term “us” indicates the photographer and the subjects, as well as the viewers. The photographic communication for Kaplan, taking photography, could equal to the “being-in-common” for everyone, especially for the spectators of photography. Therefore, through photography, the viewers of photography, even voyeurs, could join in the photographic communication. In the concept of “community-exposed photography”, the idea of “same” or “other” does not exist in the photographic exposure. Secondly, the photographic communication is “to share and to divide” simultaneously.[23] Through photography one can identify their imagined community. Therefore, the exposed photography is the medium to communicate and connect the imagined “moral truth” to everyone who connects with the community.[24] The imagined moral truth could be agreed by both those inside, and those originally outside of the community.


To the audience of these photographs, Kaplan claims that “a photographer and a philosopher will relate to use the fundamental acknowledgement that sharing constitutes each of us, that our being- in-the-world is always already a being-with, or what Nancy refers to as out being-in-common.”[25] It is a direct confirmation that photography opens the audience to a wider community. To this extent, Kaplan equals the characteristics of the philosophical theory of community, removing the difference between “same” and “other”, to his photographic theory of community. “Being singular plural”, therefore, is used as evidence that photography could be looked at by the audience, as part of this larger community. The viewers could share similar experiences as the subjects in the photographs, just through looking at them. The photographic community can then be contrasted with the classic analysis of spectatorship that is driven from film and feminist studies. Margaret Olin suggests the term “gaze” is often used in art theory, in discourses of “spectatorship”. Olin addresses, in the most common sense, the effective “looking” that could let the “beholder”, who conducts the “spectatorship”, to obtain both knowledge and pleasure from a work of art.[26] Because the actions, “beholding” and “gazing”, are often influenced by “the issues of power, manipulation, and desire”, art theory rarely agrees with the idea of gaining knowledge from the “gaze” in spectatorship, but rather questions the voyeuristic quality of the gaze.[27] The only way to escape the negative image of “gaze” is to prove its social value, which relies on “the mutual gaze of equality”. 28 The photographer who is coming from the same social or political background as the subjects could not secure a neutral “gaze”, because the aesthetic distinctions turn to aesthetic objects for a galleries’ wall.[28] The achieved ethics is also rarely generated by the enlarged viewer group or the future viewers.[29]


If viewers and photographer could be exposed to each other in exhibitions, as suggested by Kaplan, the spectators would communicate and share experiences with both the photographers and their subjects. However, it is difficult to recognize the differences only by looking at photographs. Comparing Tommy in the Garden and Bees 022-03, the photographs appear in one overbearing colour scheme; Tommy in the Garden in yellow, Bees 022-3 in blue. The subjects photographed do not look at the camera, while a trace of the photographer and the camera can be identified in the photographs – Goldin is seen within a shadow and Chen can be seen in the reflection of the glass. The people shown in Goldin and Chen’s photographs belong to different examples of communities. They do not reveal anything of their social communities in these photographs, and look rather similar. Simply looking at these photographs tells us little of their communities. Therefore, the visual similarity between Goldin and Chen becomes evidence to support the idea that through looking at photographs, we cannot share the experience of what actually happened.

Furthermore, even though the photographs open the exposures between the audiences and photographic projects, there are both “limits” and “possibilities” in representing an intimate community of lovers.[30] Although the limitation of sharing in a photographic community is often a comment on the photographer’s capability, Kaplan goes as far to suggests that the photographic project by Goldin “leaves itself open to the charge of voyeurism, even obscenity”.[31] Therefore, Kaplan suggests that looking at the intimate photographs is an ethical choice, even though the audience are essentially voyeurs. Similar to Goldin, photographs by Chen also encourage voyeurism from the audiences. It seems to bring out contradictions to Kaplan’s ethical claim that everyone, including the viewers (the spectators), can communicate and connect with each other.


After taking the photographs, they become objects that belong to the photographer. There is no connection or communication between the current viewers and the people in the photographs. Referring to Kaplan, “photographic images have externalized and realized how we imagine community.”[32] This is written for the beholders in the museums, galleries or anyone who is not “being-with”, or connected with the communities. In other words, Kaplan supports the right for spectators to look at these photographs. But the word “imagine” also hints that the viewers of the photographs and the readers of the book could not really understand the relations within the communities shown. Through Kaplan’s book, the readers share and divide their opinions about reading and looking at the community-exposed photographs. The photographic community, even thought the photographers are a part of the sub-culture community, could not fully solve the ethical problems of looking at intimate photographs in public places. The relationship between the viewer and photographed subject, is likely actually only a relationship between the viewer and the photographer. This new community cannot be mixed, or relate, with the communities in the photographs.


Fay (1)

Fangfei Chen is a Ph.D candidate of History at the University of Essex, with a primary focus on the research of photographic materials. She is from China and has an MA in Arts Market Appraisal from Kingston University, and an MA from the University of St. Andrews in the History of Photography. She has worked as Assistant Manager in the Beijing Huachen Auction House Photography Department, as well as working for several photographic archives such as in the University of St. Andrews. Her interviews and reviews have been published by Art Gallery, Art Guide and The World of Photography, among other publications. Her interests include the history of Chinese photography, the photographic market, management, and festivals.



[1] Louis Kaplan, American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). xv.

[2] Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural'”:51

[3] Christian Fynsk, Foreword to The Inoperative Community, by Jean-Luc Nancy(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): xii

[4] Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000):34

[5] Kaplan, American Exposures, xxii

[6] Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural'”,61

[7] Foreword to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

[8] Townsend, Chris. “Nan Goldin: Bohemian Ballads.” In Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico press, 2004): 114

[9] Foreword to Bees

[10] Jean Loh, “Bees in the Body Temple” In Bees (Washington, D.C: Xia International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2011): 63.

[11] Elisabeth Sussman, “In/of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs” In Nan Goldin: I’ll be your mirror (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996): 26

[12] Xu, ”The Sting: Interview”, 74.

[13] Tingting Xu, ”The Sting: Interview” In Bees (Washington, D.C: Xia International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2011): 74.

[14] Joanna Lowry, “Negotiating Power” In Face on:Photography as Social Exchange (London: Black Dog Publ., 2000): 24


[16] Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish.” October 34 (1985): 81-90. (accessed

April 24, 2012).

[17] Roberta McGrath, “Re-Reading Edward Weston.” In The photography reader (London: Routledge, 2003):333

[18] Victor E. Taylor, Charles E. Winquist, Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001) s.v. “community.”

[19] Christorpher Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural’.” Paragraph 30, no. 2 (2007): 50

[20] Ibid, 50.

[21] Kaplan, American Exposures. 81

[22] Ibid, 81

[23] Ibid, 82

[24] Ibid, xix

[25] Kaplan, American Exposures, 81

[26] Margaret Olin,”Gaze” In Critical Terms for Art History. 2 ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 319

[27] Olin,”Gaze”, 319
28 Ibid, 327

[28] Mark Durden, “Empathy and Engagement: the Subjective Documentary” in Face on:Photography as Social Exchange (London: Black Dog Publ., 2000): 32

[29] Ibid, 30

[30] Kaplan, American Exposures, 82.

[31] Ibid, 82.

[32] Ibid, xv.

Images ©Nan Goldin/Zhe Chen
Nan Goldin, Nan and Bryan in Bed, NYC, 1983
Zhe Chen, Bees 022-03, 2010
Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert on the Bed, New York City, 1982