Reflections: building confidence in practice

The one factor that has been holding me back exponentially during this project is anxiety. I had never intended this to be the case, either. As an inherently private place, I thought I would be safe from having to deal with the feelings when locked within a bathroom stall. This, however, turned out not to be the case. Plus, I began to find that my most interesting images were the ones into the stalls and capturing the more public areas of toilets, not the ones from within the cubicle itself.

I would like to use this space to reflect on a session I had a week or so back, when I took my partner and our best friend along with me. Despite them not being physically with me at the point of capturing my images, I felt a wave of confidence surge through me knowing that they were in the locality. This helped me to shrug off any feelings of self-consciousness and, for the first time on this journey, I felt at ease and justified in my position as a photographer capturing an important phenomenon.

The Ham Sandwich

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I began the session at Brighton Marina, of which I have visited several times throughout the project. This facility has come to be one of my favourites; not just because of the beautiful view of the Marina itself on the approach, but for the seemingly deserted nature of the area itself. This allowed for me to spend a good half-an-hour jumping from cubicle to cubicle, observing and investigating.

I had initially positioned myself against altering any aspect of the toilet itself to ‘protect’ my integrity as a photographer, despite some heated conversations with some peers about whether placing specific items in photographs is an appropriate thing to do or not. Luckily, I didn’t even need to do this. Deciding to take the lid off one of the sanitary bins after being inspired by some of the ‘explicit’ photography of Elinor Carucci, I discovered to my delight a discarded Asda-brand Ham & Cheese sandwich. Not what I had been hoping for, yet even more relevant to my project than I initially thought. After a quick Google search, I learnt that:

‘Ham sandwich’ is often used as a euphemism for a women’s vagina, whilst ‘smoking a ham’ can mean ‘using a small public stall for emptying your bowels / taking a shit and smelling up the entire area’

Urban Dictionary, 2007

This accidental find seemed to increase the complexity of the photograph three-fold; I was grateful that I had found the confidence and conviction (as well as a pair of rubber gloves, of course) to explore sanitary bins in this non-normative way. This leads to my second point of discussion, the male presence.

The Male Presence 

This new-found excitement lent itself to me snapping a fair few photographs outside the cubicles too. The most interestingly of these thematically was, in my opinion, the sexualised nature of some of the objects in the toilet: specifically, the hand-dryer. In my opinion, the way the hand-dryer is designed looks incredibly phallic; to others, it resembles a vagina in the way that it caves in.

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Regardless, I was interested to find this sexualised design and this got me thinking about the male presence in female toilets. I began to see indicators of men being allowed into these spaces intended for women and the overarching assumption that this should merely be accepted as the way things work. Other examples can be seen below; the first image shows a sign stating that facilities will be cleaned by male and female personnel; the second shows a yellow wet-floor sign with a typically male symbol falling over.

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A Woman By Design? 

Something else I observed in my exploration was the design of the toilets to accommodate normative ideas about womanhood and what this means. For example, in the facility at Hove Lagoon Kingsway, there were numerous baby-changing benches, one of which was inside the toilet cubicle itself. This would indicate to me a lack of privacy for the toilet user if they were to have a child with them – perhaps the absence of a second adult to look after the child so the mother can relieve themselves.

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Other examples of this include a toilet-roll holder, which seem to resemble breasts. On a slightly alternative note, this image also draws attention to the needs of women – what happens when there is no toilet paper in the stall? This is something that many of us have undoubtedly experienced, which echoes a report I’ve mentioned in previous entries about woman’s needs being catered to on a 70:30 basis in favour of men (House of Commons, 2008: 18).

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Structural Adjustment 

My final point of discussion for this post is the evidence of changes within public toilets to mirror wider societal shifts and modes of thinking. The first image, which is the final image in my photobook, shows a section of exposed brickwork in one of the dividing cubicle walls. I found this image to be incredibly symbolic of the gradually-changing ways that we view toilets and gender (i.e. with the introduction of gender-neutral toilets – although these haven’t made their way to public facilities yet) as well as female empowerment, challenging patriarchal norms, and shifts in the nature of womanhood and traditional notions of family.

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The latter point is evidenced in the second image of the soap dispenser, with two white people and a black girl/lady holding hands. This arguably speaks to discourses of race and racism. Such examples indicate such shifts and re-emphasis the necessity of projects such as From The Bottom Up in exploring such changes and how these are producing and reproducing social norms and identities.

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