An Argument with a Photographer: Thoughts on Autofiction – Alice Attlee


An Argument with a Photographer: Thoughts on Autofiction

A month or so ago, I found myself arguing with a photographer at a party. We started out on friendly terms, after he’d asked a friend of mine for a light. I had gestured to the camera slung over his shoulder and asked him whether he was an event photographer. “Only for the evening”, he’d said. “I’m doing it as a favour”. The party was being held in a small independent café in Oxford, the occasion an art exhibition, created by those who work there. The photographer was a friend of theirs. I asked him what he usually liked to photograph, but he had already turned away from me, eye on his viewfinder, distracted by a group of people talking, a little further off.

Later that evening, he sat beside me as he scrolled through the images he had taken, looking up occasionally to check he wasn’t missing anything important, and showing me the images he was particularly pleased with. I asked him, again, what he usually photographed. “People.” He replied. He liked to walk the streets with his camera, watching for interesting moments: unguarded expressions, spontaneous interactions, beautiful conditions of light as it fell upon unselfconscious faces. He couldn’t tell me what drew him to photograph somebody in particular, but it was important, for him, that they were not aware of being photographed at the moment of it being taken. It made for better pictures. I asked him whether he ever showed his images to the subject he’d photographed, or sought their permission to use the images afterwards. He looked surprised, as if the thought had not occurred to him before. “No,” he replied: “They’re my photographs.”

What followed was a mainly well-meaning attempt to see the argument from each other’s point of view. The photographer felt that his subjects did not really own what he was able to capture – their outward appearance. This was a thing available for use as soon as it entered the public domain – that is, as soon as somebody closed the front door behind them, and stepped out onto the street. Early on, I framed our discussion-argument as an ‘issue of consent’, and that had upset him, ‘consent’ being a word so loaded with sinister meaning: he was making portraits of people, not invading their privacy or subjecting them to unwanted advances. His having a record of a person did not hinder their ability to be themselves. I was certain, too, that I had reached for the wrong word, but felt sure that the issues of ownership, permission, and identity, were more complicated than he had made out.

At the time, I had been reading a lot of autofiction. Rachel Cusk, a leading light of the genre, had recently published the last in her Outline trilogy. I had read them all, hungrily, within a single week. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and Olivia Laing’s Crudo, had recently made the journey from my bedside table (reading) to the bookshelf (read). The experience had led me to consider, in particular, the function of the authorial gaze, in literature and in life. Autofiction demands an adherence to reality that is unlike other forms fiction– to write about something that never happened is to step out of the genre altogether. You can adjust the focus of an anecdote, or alter the angle from which a person is portrayed, but ultimately the subject has to have existed in the first place.

This dramatically alters the ways in which we encounter characters. During a recent event, Cusk rejected the possibility of operating a character “from the inside”. Bestowing characters with an inner life, according to Cusk, ought to have been left with the likes of Dickens, abandoned somewhere towards the end of the nineteenth century.  It is not the first time she has expressed this view. A recent profile of the author in the New Yorker runs with the title: “I don’t think character exists anymore”: A Conversation with Rachel Cusk. What does exist, for Cusk, is “the natural truth of the surface”; the observation of a person from the outside, translated onto the page through the medium of autofiction – a brush she considers herself to have been “tarred with”.  

I am personally rather invested in my own character, operating “from the inside”, possibly quite separately from what appears on “the surface”. If that appears to be a peculiarly self-centred reaction to a writer’s methods, relating a theoretical position all too literally to my own life: autofiction is a genre, or sub-genre, in which one is required to think almost exclusively in personal, real-life terms. When Serge Doubrovsky coined the expression in 1977, he literally inserted the concept of ‘self’ into fiction – the term ‘auto’ stemming from the Greek αὐτός, or ‘self’. Describing the category, he wrote that autofiction could be defined as: “Fiction, of events and facts strictly real”. This emphasis on real-life events, “strictly” recounted, roots the text, and its reception, firmly to one person: the author.

Knowing whether the content of a book is grounded in real-life experiences is of genre-defining importance. As a consequence, only the author can speak for the authenticity of what they have produced. Others might vouch for – or against – certain moments in a book. Perhaps it is their anecdote being recounted, or their house being described; their relationship explored or their appearance portrayed. Yet only the author bears witness to the creation of a book in its entirety, and one person’s rejection of a particular aspect of the book does not undermine its truthfulness, or accuracy. It may be that they simply do not recognise the angle from which their lives have been captured, or dislike being confronted by how they actually appear to others – preferring their own, undoubtedly more flattering picture of themselves.

Autofiction places the characters we encounter under a different, and perhaps harsher light to that which usually illuminates characters in fiction. The light changes because we know that they exist not only within the confines of a novel, but also outside of it. I have often wondered how the people captured within autofictional writing feel about the way they have been portrayed. Just as often, I have wondered whether it matters how these people feel. How would it be to find oneself reflected as “both handsome and unexceptional”, or find one’s back captured unawares from behind, “broad and fleshy, leathery with sun and age, and marked with numerous moles and scars”?

These descriptions are all to be found in Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and the truthfulness of the depictions is, for her, a moral issue. To make up such details in her fiction – to use anything that could not be “verified with your own eyes”  – would be to “lie”. Another moral issue, for Cusk, is the existence of plot within a narrative, which is, by her reckoning, a means of “subjecting human characters” to “extraordinary cruelty”. I wonder how cruelty factors into a description of a man whose “skin hung so loosely on his face that it formed clown-like folds that accentuated his changes of expression”. That is another picture taken by Cusk, but just as unflattering is the narrator’s self-portrait in Crudo, an autofictional novel in which the narrator appears as a cross between Laing herself and Kathy Acker: “Was Kathy nice? Unclear. Kathy was interested in her tan, she was interested in Twitter, she was interested in seeing whether her friends were having a better holiday than her.” Autofiction seems not to lend itself to generous character assessments: perhaps everybody looks worse at surface-level.

I hate having my picture taken, and do feel it as an invasion of privacy to find that somebody has photographed me without my knowing about it. I wonder if I would have taken that photographer to task at such length had I not felt, at various points during the evening, his lens trained upon my own face.  I have always disliked being shown a photograph where I am thought to have been well captured, my likeness truly transcribed. No small amount of this aversion I recognise as vanity, but there is also something unsettling about seeing yourself from the outside, as somebody else has seen you. Often these pictures make me less certain of myself altogether, the disparity between who I think I am, and how I am perceived from the outside, evidenced by an image on a screen. Of course, I have written a portrait of that photographer now. I wonder what he would make of it.

Alice Attlee is a writer and editor living between London and Cornwall. Her work has most recently appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Dark Mountain Project, and Caught by the river. She also writes and records ‘Letters on Foot’: a monthly consideration of the walks she takes, the people she walks with, and what she thinks about while walking. From September, she will be researching Climate Anxiety and Contemporary Literature at Goldsmiths.

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