I’m Watching You Watching Me: The Inversion of the Gaze in Ginsberg’s Photographs


“You never look at me from the place from which I see you.”

– Jacques Lacan

Introduction: The Photographs, The Beats, The Gaze

If we conceive of the photograph as something to be gazed at, what are the affects, then, if the gaze is inverted, and turned back onto its viewer? What happens when the viewer becomes the viewed? To explore these questions, I will analyze a series of five photographs that Allen Ginsberg took while travelling through Tangiers, Morocco, in 1961, from the University of Toronto archives. The photographs were donated by the Larry and Cookie Rossy Family Foundation of Montreal in January, 2014 and together compile the world’s largest collection of Ginsberg’s photographs, numbering 7,686. They are housed within the archives of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and the Art Centre. A selection of these images have been made publically accessible online through flickr and the Art Centre Online, and from which I am working from.

The archive of photographs is significant for providing us a comprehensive, supplemental visual narrative of the Beat generation. It provides a lens through which we can glimpse the fundamental movement that “changed the landscape of American literature.”[1] The Beats reformulated the ways in which literature was written and accepted within academia, and mainstream society; thereby marking a pivotal turning point for it, and American culture. Though Ginsberg was an avid photographer from 1953 until 1965—when he left his camera in India while travelling—and again from 1983 until his death in 1997, he was first and foremost a poet. Leading the Beat Generation of America throughout the late 1940s until the early the 1960s, Ginsberg is often referred to as one of the most important and innovative writers of the 20th century, for his dismantling of the strict, conventional literary forms that stifled the movement’s experimentations in individualistic expression. Impelled by a shared vision amongst Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs upon meeting in New York, the aspiring writers coalesced while Ginsberg struggled to earn his undergraduate degree at Columbia University in 1944. It was a vision to recreate the art of literature that they felt had been lost in the harsh brutalities of society between wars.[2] As explicitly articulated by novelist, Jack Kerouac, they were “members of the generation that came of age after World War II who, supposedly as a result of disillusionment stemming from the Cold War, espouse mythical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions.”[3] The group was initially conceived as an underground, literary movement, though quickly disseminated into popular culture with the widespread, national notoriety of Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for the publication of Howl and Other Poems in 1956, and the overnight success of Kerouac’s first novel, On the Road, in 1957. These works exemplify the “shared experience”[4] of the Beats, which can most aptly be distinguished by a particular aesthetic “containing spontaneity, bop prosody, surreal-real images, jumps, beats, cool measures, long rapid vowels, long long lines, and the main content, soul.”[5] Voiced through the honest subjectivity of his own lived experience, articulating explicit details relating to the significance of particular individuals and events, Ginsberg dismantled traditional poetry with the raw, evocative language that marks his nonconformist ingenuity. In understanding his literature in this radically innovative way, we can thus correlatively approach a reading of his photographs.

This paper will focus on five specific photographs that challenge conventional roles of viewing, though I will be discussing them as a whole (See the Appendix, Figures 1-5). Through close inspection, and consideration of their dates, location, and subject matter, it is apparent that they were taken consecutively as a series. Though each one is slightly different—with the addition or subtraction of a figure, a subtle shift in pose—for the purposes of this paper, they all operate in the same manner. They were captured while travelling through Morocco on one of the extensive trips that Ginsberg and the Beats often embarked upon, featuring himself along with William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Ian Summerville, Michael Portman, and Paul Bowles. The precise point at which the photographs immediately captivate their onlooker’s attention is William Burroughs. Standing as the focal point amongst the other men, whilst armed at waist level, he simultaneously reciprocates the pointed camera back onto his photographer, as the instrument momentarily halts time and captures his image for immortalization onto film. The concurrent action of Burroughs’ aimed camera thus isolates not only Ginsberg as the photographer, but also his viewer. This action is evident in all five of the photographs, and though Bowles also has a camera in tow, he does not raise his as if to take a photograph in the manner that Burroughs does. In this way, Burroughs not only operates as the photograph’s subject matter; but rather, he transcends boundaries to embody the gaze of the audience. From this perspective, he simultaneously addresses his viewer as his viewer addresses him. Burroughs’s gaze inverts the conventional roles that have been normalized within the practice of photography. By addressing his audience in this seemingly unobtrusive pose, he inadvertently calls attention to the act of viewing, which subsequently, and concurrently, catalyzes dialogue between subject matter and audience. In viewing these photographs, we unwittingly become participants to the generative dialogue of this gaze, whereby the construction of an unconventional engagement with the photographs is generated. They do not permit us to merely act as passive viewers; but rather, we are forced to actively engage with these images. Such engagement thus calls into question the practices of these roles, how they culminate into the event of photography, and the effects that such candid inversion imposes upon its viewers. I seek to explore these questions through a methodological investigation that draws on seminal work by Roland Barthes, but also more recent scholarship, such as Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Lacan, and Ariella Azoulay’s work on surveillance photography, in order to break from conventional visual analyses and elucidate diverse modes for analyzing our relationship, as viewers, with the photograph. Such a rupture is appropriate, for it correlates with the ways in which the Beats’ ethos incited their break from traditional forms of literature; thus permitting us to view Ginsberg’s photographs in this way. Subsequently, this alternative perspective provides an unconventional framework for approaching new modes of engagement with the photograph, in accordance with our own lived experiences—analogous to the manner with which Ginsberg has captured them.

Terms, Roles, The Event

In order to discuss that which we see, read, interpret, and internalize within the photographs, Barthes offers us a language for the identification of the conventional roles that are practiced when we view an image. I will be using his terms, while also shifting them, to elucidate how the authoritative presence of the camera consequentially affects our actions and behaviours when its lens finds its focus on us. While Barthes’ work has been expansively and exhaustively used throughout photography scholarship and discourse since Camera Lucida’s English translation in 1982,[6] its relevance to such current discussions has remained intact. As Barthes informs us that he cannot speak from the perspective of the photographer, “having never experienced it,”[7] he is dealing with it as “that of the observed subject and that of the subject observing.” This approach is further made appropriate for application to this discussion, for Burroughs’ camera situates us in the center of these competing perspectives.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes articulates that the photograph “can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look.”[8] These are enacted by the “Operator,” the “Spectator,” and the “Spectrum.”[9] The photographer is the Operator, the audience of the photograph is the Spectator, and that which has been photographed—the subject matter, the referent—is the Spectrum.[10] Accordingly, as the photographer, Ginsberg can be identified as the Operator; we, as viewers of the photographs, are the Spectator; and the figures in them are the Spectrum. However, the simple act of Burroughs raising his camera and pointing it back onto the Operator, and thus his Spectator, challenges the definitions of these terms. As the referent in the photographs, we can identify Burroughs as the Spectrum; however, the aimed camera in tow affords him the duality of the Spectator as well. Through observance, we are struck by the imposition of this gaze, in recognition of his camera as an instrument for viewing. The pointed camera thus suggests that Burroughs is simultaneously viewing us as we are viewing him—subsequently inverting the conventional practices of these roles.

Such inversion, then, shifts Barthes’s definitions, while calling into question the implications of their affects. The Spectator’s subjective position of viewing becomes challenged when gazed upon by the Spectrum—an act not readily performed in photographic practices. This moment “represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, [we are] neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object.”[11] The authoritative stance of the Spectator becomes challenged when its object returns its subjective gaze, dissolving the boundaries between them, and preventing the Spectator from “looking at the picture from a safe, ‘objective’ distance.”[12] Here, Burroughs gains agency in addressing his viewer as his viewer is addressing him.

In “Gaze and Voice as Objects” in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Slavoj Zizek reminds us that, for Lacan, “[t]he gaze marks the point in the object (in the picture) from which the subject viewing it is already gazed at, i.e., it is the object that is gazing at me.”[13] This causes a “split” in our relation to the photograph, whereby we can never actually know or understand it from the point at which it is viewing us.[14] Lacan refers to this problematic divide as a “stain” for the viewer, by disturbing the boundaries between subject and object—Spectator and Spectrum—and rupturing its authoritative stature, as the Spectrum is instilled with a sense of agency as it transforms into a position that is conventionally only enacted by the Spectator. According to Lacan, the inversion of this interaction evokes an anxiety producing destabilization within the viewer’s identity—or for our purposes, the role of that which is now being viewed.

That the presence of Burroughs’ camera subsequently inscribes the object with an authoritative gaze generates altered behaviors in us, as its Spectator. That is, upon recognition of being watched, we gain a heightened sense of awareness of ourselves in being observed by the lens, as though we are “museum objects.”[15] We transform ourselves; “in front of the lens, [we are] at the same time: the one [we] think [we are], the one [we] want others to think [we] are, the one the photographer thinks [we] are, and the one he makes use of.”[16] The camera that Burroughs aims at us through the photograph thus becomes internalized within us, altering how we perform in front of the lens. According to Barthes, this leads us to immediately transform our bodies into a pose.[17] Speaking subjectively, he explains that “the transformation is an active one;”[18] he is aware that he has altered his behavior once the camera is raised. It is therefore a purposeful performance, for he wishes his photographic image to coincide with that which he believes to be his “(profound) ‘self.’”[19] Such behaviour elucidates how the camera’s presence has the ability to act as an agent of authority, influencing and shaping our actions, upon recognition of the potential for our image to be subjectively reproduced.

This occurrence, however, does not necessitate a photograph’s actual production. As more recently discussed by Ariella Azoulay, “the raised camera poses the threat of observing us.”[20] This agent of observation has the ability to manifest alterations to our behaviours—though “the event that the camera sets in motion does not necessarily result in a photograph.”[21] The significance, then, is our acknowledgment and awareness of the camera, and the event that it subsequently constructs through its mere presence; rather than the evidential photograph.

In order to further discuss such concepts, the distinction between the event of photography and the event of the photograph require explication. The former is indifferent toward its subject matter; it is unconcerned with the subject’s acceptance of the critical lens of the camera. This occurrence does not rely on a photograph to be produced for the propagation of its consequences. The latter, however, is precisely the subject matter’s image as it has been generated by the watchful tool. The event of photography is a continual, temporal potentiality that is “is made up of an infinite series of encounters” that operate in “two different modalities,” and whose independent existence does not rely on the other. [22] The first of which is the hypothetical camera; the mere potential for a camera to be present has the ability to shape human behaviours and their relations amongst one another.[23] The second modality is the hypothetical photograph. Azoulay perceives this as “an additional factor in the unfolding of the event of photography.”[24] The raised camera suggests that the possibility of a photograph to be taken indeed always exists. Similarly, Barthes articulates the potentiality of the photograph to remain present in “another time and place in a manner that is not contingent upon [the subjects] at all.”[25] The stance, or pose, that Burroughs assumes in the photographs can thus be considered threefold, for he actively raises his camera in a direct aim onto his viewer, subsequently granting him the roles of Spectrum and Spectator, but also that of the Operator. The pointed camera implies the act of looking, in addition to the suggestion that a photograph is, or has been, taken. In the same way that we can never observe the encounter from the perspective of the Spectrum as it gazes upon us, we can never know if a photograph has actually been captured.

With consideration to Ginsberg’s photographs as they relate to the implications of surveillance and hypothetical observations and reproductions, they can also be closely aligned with Michel Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon. This systematization of photography was conceived with similar notions in mind—to shape human behaviours. The Panopticon forms a systematic mode of self-governance that is imposed upon a social body, and accomplished through the subject’s internalization of these forces of surveillance. Such internalization thus leads to altered behaviours amongst its subjects under their acknowledgement of the Panopitcon’s watchful eye. Correlative to the hypothetical photograph, the reformed social behaviours do not rely on the photograph to actually be generated; but rather, it is the acceptance of this authoritative surveillance that imposes such alterations. Ginsberg’s photographs affect us in such a way. Our recognition of Burroughs’ camera as a tool for observation—directly addressing us with an unavoidable immediacy—is automatically internalized within us. It elicits questions regarding the normalized practices of viewing in relation to concepts of surveillance. Our subjective position as viewers thus becomes threatened by the possibility that someone is looking back at us through the critical lens of perception.

Modernity vs. Postmodernity: The Cultural Landscape

The question of subjectivity positions the photographs within the sociocultural context with which Ginsberg captured them. As a movement whose inception is a direct result of its particular moment in time, situated between the “demographic shifts in population, a change from a hot to a cold war, and a shift from an industrial to a consumer culture” amidst the 1950s, the photographs discussed here were taken at a later date in 1961, though they are also specific to their “social, political, and cultural” position. [26] On the cusp of two fundamental artistic movements, the photographs vacillate between modernity and postmodernity; thus appropriately deemed early-postmodern by Beat scholar, Erik Mortenson. If modernity is the ultimate exposition of the artist’s subjectivity—the “desire for totality” and “universal values,” sought through an exploration of individual experience;[27] and postmodernity is its negation—by which “cultural conventions” are explored in a challenging of the modernists’ quest for meaning, then Ginsberg’s photographs operate within an “early-postmodernist position.”[28] In them, subjectivity is made “indeterminate,”[29] rather than removed. Upon viewing them, we retain our subjectivity in actively reading and internalizing what it is that the photographs present to us; yet, our awareness and internalization of Burroughs’ simultaneous observation of us devalues our subjective agency as the Spectator of the image. We are no longer the sole participant enacting the role of viewer. That the subject of the photographs is watching us as we are watching it challenges such conventions, while consequently heightening our awareness of the ways in which we engage with the photographs as we attempt to understand them in a visual reading of their meaning.

As “Ginsberg’s aesthetic practice sought to distance itself from modernism, he was nevertheless unwilling to venture into the realm of the postmodern, where subjectivity is lost and indeterminacy reigns,”[30] so too are Robert Frank’s preeminent, and then-controversial, photographs of the cultural American landscape from the late 1950s. In his book, The Americans, Frank’s subjects are “bystanders, vagrants, newlyweds, Christian newlyweds, jukeboxes, mailboxes, coffins, televisions, many cars, and those many flags.”[31] His book encapsulates his profound interest in focusing on the liminal aspects of society, the figures who inhabit it, and the “the symbols and objects that defined them.”[32] He captured his subjects in the snapshot aesthetic that is associated with the New Documentary photographers of this time, who acted to subvert the artistic conventions as they had previously been established. This genre is characteristic for its copped frames that typically snapped from odd perspectival angles, and its banal subject matter that is oftentimes purposefully developed with an unclear focus—a style that can be associated with Ginsberg’s snapshots of the intimate, and the everyday moments of his, his loved ones, and acquaintances’ lives. They were shot in various apartments and locations that the Beats occupied and traversed, primarily centered around New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach, as well as their travels around the globe, self-portraits and experiments with mirrored self-portraits. Some of Ginsberg’s photographs appear to be staged, while others are seemingly catching his subjects unaware—much in the manner that Frank has captured the subjects who were deemed “unremarkable”[33] by dominant culture. Furthermore, Ginsberg has credited Frank as his motivation for resuming the practice of photography in 1983, after abandoning it, and his camera, while travelling throughout India.

In a time when the American Dream still permeated the social climate, The Americans remained unpublishable in the United States, until Frank sought out the newly famous Beat novelist to write the introduction for it. Kerouac’s first publication, On the Road, had just received acclamation from guest editor Gilbert Millstein in The New York Times, and this, along with Ginsberg winning his case in obscenity trial for Howl and Other Poems, further secured the Beats’ place on the cultural map of America. Like them, Frank shared a similar interest in outsiders—the castaways of mainstream society inhabiting its liminal spaces—figuratively and often quite literally. Similar to Ginsberg’s photographs, Frank’s can also be viewed in relation to the Beats’ creative style of writing—composed in a proliferation of expressive spontaneity that underscores the subjective realities of the everyday lived experience. The boundary that the Beats balanced between, as artists who experimented with notions of inner subjectivity, yet remained far enough removed from complete indeterminacy, position them within the frame of early-postmodernism. The inception of the Beats is a result of the culturally specific climate of the late 1940s, and the photographs of Ginsberg and Frank can also be viewed as such—pivoting between the “market of contemporary ideologies,”[34] constructing the modernist and postmodernist perspectives.

Conclusion: Dismantle, Internalize, Diversify

This small series of Ginsberg’s photographs facilitates a diversity of competing, yet productive, perspectives for viewing the photograph. They call attention to the act of looking, as well as the impact that the camera can impart upon us. The presence of Burroughs’ candidly aimed camera inverts, and thus challenges, the conventional practices enacted by the Spectator and Spectrum in the event of photography. This presumably simple act alters the ways in which we engage with the photographs, shifting our social relations and behaviours, as a direct result of the potential for our image to be generated by this tool of agency. Such shifting has also been reflected in my adaptation of Barthes’s terminology, through a questioning of the definition’s parameters. I have elucidated the ways in which Barthes’ three practices have the ability to transcend the boundaries of that which they are confined to—the Spectrum is transformed into simultaneous embodiment of the Spectator through an inversion of these roles, while acting as an additional Operator, as the possessor of a camera within the photograph. The implications of Burroughs’ authoritative position as an agent of observation culminate in his ability to impose an impactful effect on our behaviour in the presence of his aimed camera. As discussed by Barthes, we actively perform in front of the lens, transforming ourselves into that which we wish to be viewed as—objects to be desired. Our objectification by the camera’s surveillance effectually grants the authority that is conventionally only afforded to us, as the Spectator, to the Operator. The event of photography is thus impelled by our acknowledgment, acceptance, and internalization of the raised camera as an instrument of observation. Our subjectivity is made indeterminate by Burroughs’ evasive action as he simultaneously addresses us as we are addressing him.

The question of subjectivity is evidently relevant through the positioning of Ginsberg’s photographs within the sociocultural context of 1950s to 1960s America, connecting them to the pivotal movements from which they were constructed. As the inception of the Beat Generation was specific to its precise moment in time, Ginsberg’s photographs can also be understood as encapsulating a representation of their particular time frame. They lie in a position of indeterminacy, pivoting between the complete individualized experience of the artist in search of meaning through universal truths, and the removal of such by way of decentering the artist’s subjectivity; thereby residing in a site that is open for investigation. Ginsberg’s early-postmodern approach is similar to that of Frank’s, for his photographs capture the lived experiences of everyday life. This series creates a platform for the facilitation of dialogue between Spectator and Spectrum, while subsequently constructing an unconventional engagement that breaks from normalized modes of viewing. These photographs act to heighten our awareness of the conventional structures that set the parameters for how we observe them, which thus offers us new ways to think about the camera as an agent of authority. Such authority affords them the power to alter our behaviors in their presence, thereby impacting our relation to the photographs. As the Beats broke from convention and dismantled the traditional modes of literature, the photographs similarly act to rupture the conventional viewing practices. Through a recognition of this, we can thus view the photograph through new and diverse lenses of subjective engagement, in relation to our own lived experiences, in the manner that Ginsberg has captured them.




Figure 1

Beat Generation


Figure 2


Figure 3

Beat Group

Figure 4

Corso and Burroughs


Figure 5

Corso and Burroughs







Azoulay, Ariella. “What is Photography?” In Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, 11-27. New York: Verso, 2012.


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.


Batchen, Geoffrey. “Palinode. An Introduction to Photography Degree Zero.” In Photography Degree Zero, Edited by G. Batchen, 3-30. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.


Charters, Anne (ed). The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Group, 1992.


Dawidoff, Nicolas. “The Man Who Saw America: Looking Back with Robert Frank, the Most Influential Photographer Alive.” New York Times Magazine. July 2nd 2015.


Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1996.


Mortenson, Erik. Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.


“Poet: Allen Ginsberg.” Academy of American Poets. Accessed December 7, 2015. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/allen-ginsberg.


“University of Toronto Art Centre.” University of Toronto Art Centre Collections. Accessed November 10, 2015. http://collections.utac.utoronto.ca:8080/view/objects/aslist/search$0040?t:state:flow=0920c01a-167e-43d6-9c37-a2ab731a6015.


Zizek, Slavoj. “Gaze and Voice as Objects.” In Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 125- 132. London: October Books, 1991.




[1]. Brenda Knight, “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls: Women and the Beat,” in Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1996), 2.

[2]. “Poet: Allen Ginsberg.” Academy of American Poets, accessed December 7, 2015. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/allen-ginsberg.

[3]. Ann Charters, “Introduction” in The Portable Beat Reader, xxxiv.

[4]. Ibid., xvi.

[5]. Ibid., xxxiv.

[6]. Geoffrey Batchen addresses this in “Palinode. An Introduction to Photography Degree Zero,” in Photography Degree Zero, ed. G. Batchen (Cambridge: MIT Press 2009), 3-30.

[7]. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 10.

[8]. Ibid., 9.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 14.

[12]. Slavoj Zizek, “Gaze and Voice as Objects,” in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (London: October Books, 1991), 125.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 13.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid., 11.

[18]. Ibid., 10.

[19]. Ibid., 12.

[20]. Ariella Azoulay, “What is Photography?,” in Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (New York: Verso, 2012), 18. Though Azoulay’s writing is often underlain with political underpinnings, her concepts of societal surveillance and its relation to visual culture can be productively applied to this investigation.

[21]. Ibid., 21.

[22]. Ariella Azoulay, “What is Photography?,” in Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (New York: Verso, 2012), 26.

[23]. Ibid., 22. Though an important facet of Azoulay’s discussion, since we know the camera is present, and not hypothetical, it is not of use to the present analysis.

[24]. Ibid., 23.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. Erik Mortenson, “Introduction: Rethinking the Beats,” in Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), 4.

[27]. Ibid.

[28]. Ibid.

[29]. Ibid., 135.

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Nicolas Dawidoff, “The Man Who Saw America: Looking Back with Robert Frank, the Most Influential Photographer Alive,” New York Times Magazine, July 2 2015,

[32]. Ibid.

[33]. Ibid.

[34]. Erik Mortenson, “Introduction: Rethinking the Beats,” in Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), 135.

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Katie Oates


Katie Oates was born in southwestern Ontario in 1986. She moved to Ottawa to obtain her honours bachelor degree in English and Art History, and is currently working toward an MA in Art History at the University of Western Ontario, studying Beat culture, literature, and photography. She’s travelled coast-to-coast across Canada, documented by photography and a hand-written journal. Aside from exploring the outdoors, Katie loves yoga, reading, and crocheting, but most of all her longhaired miniature Dachshund, Charlie. When she grows up she wants to be an expert on all things Beat.

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