Being Observed

“You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur” is a quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride (1993). In the text, the Booker Prize- winning author suggests that the male gaze is ever-present, inescapable and even ingrained into how women see themselves. The idea of a “female-identifying gaze” underpins the work of award-winning British photographer Hannah Starkey (b. 1971), who says: “You are very aware as a girl that you are expected to perform for the eye. We’re conditioned to the point where we even observe ourselves being observed.” This needs to change.

But how do we break free from objectifying scrutiny? Starkey declares this is possible by showing us that “there is more to being female than being seen.” Her images highlight moments of self-reflection and interaction that challenge the portrayals we are used to seeing on adverts and screens. Subjects admire one another in bathroom mirrors, browse shopping malls together and look towards tower blocks.

Starkey’s work is rooted in collaboration. Each person in these carefully staged scenes is an active participant. The photographer values their approval on every part of the shoot, from composition to pose. Now, she presents her eighth solo exhibition at Maureen Paley, London. It follows a recent major solo show at The Hepworth, Wakefield, and highlights the crucial mission of Starkey’s art: demonstrating that women have agency over their own representation and, more importantly, how they see themselves. It’s a masterclass on “women depicting women,” offering refreshingly authentic and relatable scenes.

Maureen Paley Gallery, Hannah Starkey | Until 14 July

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Hannah Starkey. Kirkgate Towers, (2022), Framed c-type print mounted to aluminium, 122 x 163 cm © Hannah Starkey, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
  2. Hannah Starkey Untitled, November 2023, 2023 framed c-type print mounted on aluminium 121.5 x 160 © Hannah Starkey, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.