Candid photos are the lifeblood of documentary photography. But a critically acclaimed photo book on fraternity life by Andrew Moisey, assistant professor of visual studies at Cornell University, has attracted ire from students on multiple campuses over issues of consent and women's autonomy.
Specifically, critics say, The American Fraternity (Daylight) documents women in compromising positions. In one photo, for example, a woman in party clothes lies passed out on a dirty fraternity house bed with her legs splayed open toward the camera. In another photo, a woman lifts up her shirt to expose her bare breast. Most of the women’s faces are obscured. But some have said they are nevertheless recognizable. And Moisey has admitted he did not obtain consent from several women he featured -- despite having obtained consent forms from the fraternity men.
“Moisey lacked the practical wisdom to see that publishing these photographs presented the greatest risk to women, already a primary target of fraternity violence. Moisey himself had little to lose,” Augie Faller, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Cornell, wrote in a recent column in The Cornell Daily Sun. “Consent is for Cornell faculty, too.”
A woman who did not want to be identified by name or position, for fear of retribution, attended a talk Moisey gave about the book at Cornell.
The photos "don’t speak clearly, at least not as a criticism. It’s hard to not see these photos as anything other than violence pornography and fetishism," she said.
Moisey "hides behind the excuse of documentary photography and activism to absolve himself of the blatant disrespect of women that he demonstrates in publishing the photos without their consent," she added.
According to an audio recording of the talk, Moisey said he hadn't gotten consent from some of the women he photographed. Asked about the potential for the women's employers or families to recognize them, he said, "Those consequences haven’t happened. They could. They very well could. But I felt if I didn’t put those pictures in there then the book wouldn’t be able to make a critique at all."
Moisey has received more negative coverage from student newspapers at the University of California, Berkeley, his alma mater -- and where he shot the photos -- and at Kenyon College, where he recently gave a talk.
The American Fraternity came out just this fall, but Moisey collected photographs for it from 2000 to 2008 at Berkeley. He’s said he waited years to publish to protect the identities of the students he photographed, under the agreement that he would only refer to their fraternity under a pseudonym. (He’s also said he previously tried to show the photos in galleries.)
In an article in Bustle, a Berkeley alumna who attended frat parties while Moisey was on campus also says that the women in the photographs are still recognizable to her.
“Moisey may not have set out to say anything about consent with his book, but, as far as women pictured in the book are concerned, he says a lot about what their consent means to him,” wrote the alumna, Alexis Schrader. “I spoke to four women about Moisey’s book; one, whose image I recognized in several online articles about the book, didn't sign release forms or consent for Moisey to publish her image. When she contacted Moisey to protest, he sent her release forms signed by her friends.”
Schrader said those women don’t remember signing the forms, and they “visited the fraternity exclusively to socialize while drinking.” Street photographers legally don't need permission to photograph subjects in public spaces, she said, correctly. But “given that these parties were pre-social media and they viewed the fraternity as a private residence, the women feel they should have been fully informed of how Moisey intended to use their images.”
No Endorsement of Greek Life
The American Fraternity is no endorsement of campus Greek life. Moisey’s photos are by turns lewd and disturbing. Male genitalia and alcohol feature prominently. A man crawls naked, wearing only a denim undergarment and a ski boot, for instance. The brothers at one point appear to be tormenting a dog. And their pointed secret ceremony caps evoke the worst parts of U.S. history.
In various interviews, Moisey has described the book as a unique, real-life look into fraternity culture -- even calling it an imagining of U.S. Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s college days.
“Fraternities are the places where problematic and toxic masculinity is incubated,” Moisey is quoted as saying in a favorable article in Time, which named his photo book one of the best of 2018, for example. “We literally send our kids to be educated in places where they learn to be the opposite of gentlemen. It’s mind-boggling.”
Even so, Moisey’s critics accuse him of undermining women in the same way fraternity men sometimes do.
Beyond issues of consent, Moisey’s critics say the book and his public comments send a mixed message about women and their role in campus party culture.
At Kenyon, for example, Moisey was “asked to share his thoughts on why fraternities get away with such typically abhorrent behavior,” undergraduate Lucy White wrote in a campus newspaper op-ed. “He responded by saying that fraternities only exist because women still attend their parties. He then went on to suggest that, if women were to stop attending frat parties, then fraternity party culture would fall apart.
Asked at the Cornell talk whether some women might actually enjoy attending frat parties, Moisey said, "I'm not critiquing that they're having fun, but they're fulfilling the fantasy that often ends up so badly."
Both Schrader, author of the Bustle piece, and the woman at the Cornell talk took issue with one of two essays in the book -- that written by Cynthia Robinson, a professor in Moisey’s department at Cornell. It at once blames women for enabling frat culture and erases their autonomy, they say.
“She is at a frat party,” Robinson wrote of a woman in one of the photos. “She has heard, or seen, somehow learned, that this is what girls should expect at frat parties. This is what girls do at frat parties. What they let be done to them. If they want to be invited to more frat parties. At least she’s still standing.”
Robinson describes other women as being “infantilized” by sitting on men’s laps. And of that photo of the woman splayed out on the bed, Robinson wrote that Moisey stood “where the frat boys stood, the ones who posed her. Before? After? Or maybe not this time, she dodged a bullet, they passed her over.”
Despite Moisey's intentions and Robinson’s description, Schrader wrote, “the images of the women in The American Fraternity are where the tension between desire and social expectations is revealed -- women want to shotgun beers, fuck strangers, and get messy, the way the boys can. Yet we hesitate to do so, knowing eyes, and perhaps even cameras, are always, acutely, on us.”
Moisey declined an immediate interview request. He said via email that the “student authors of these pieces did not read the book, nor did they report accurately on what I said, nor did they speak to me." (Schrader, no longer a student, did speak to Moisey.)
The question of consent “is a very important one and [I] actually took it much more seriously than the authors of these articles have,” he said. “They just equivocated the word ‘consent’ in order to create a charged story, making it seem like I went looking for passed-out women to photograph and then uploaded them to the internet. I didn’t do anything like this. In fact it is so far from what I did that I have not considered it safe even to respond to them.”
Robinson also declined an immediate interview reques and said via email that “the topic of the book is immensely relevant to our current cultural discourse.” She added, “I recognized the frat culture in those images as one also prevalent on college campuses during my own (long-ago) undergrad days, and found it both striking and perturbing that so little appeared changed.”
Robinson said she attended a separate talk with Moisey about the book in a local bookstore, and that the “conversation, while intense -- there were various viewpoints represented -- was civil and intelligent and very well received.”
Berkeley said in a statement that it is aware of The American Fraternity and that is “dedicated to fostering a culture of safety, respect and an environment of safe, legal and responsible alcohol use. The campus and our CalGreeks community work together as partners to make our campus environment safe and supportive.”