Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera

A review of the Tate Modern exhibition, discussing voyeurism in relation to privacy.

This exhibition maps voyeurism’s close relationship with photography and could not have come at a better time. Our lives are increasingly being lived and documented in full view, without us having fully considered the consequences. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera forces us to take a second look at the way society is changing and asks us if we are really comfortable with this exposure?

Of course, when I refer to living our lives publically, I am referring to the numerous social networking sites that are now in operation. The line between public and private has been blurred, as numerous people who have lost their jobs due to Facebook comments professing their boredom at work, have found out the hard way. These incidents keep happening because whilst we know it is a semi-public place, we forget and anticipate a certain level of privacy.

Sophie Calle 1953 The Hotel, Room 47, 1981 Photograph and text on paper Tate. Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1999 (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010

False expectation of privacy is an issue raised by a series of works by Sophie Calle, called The Hotel (1981). Calle got a job as a chambermaid and photographed people’s rooms, recording every detail of the room from the clothes that are left out, notes the guests have written to themselves and the bed clothes disturbed by their night’s sleep. Whilst these things alone seem quite insignificant, together they create quite an intimate portrayal of the guests’ stay.

When staying in a hotel you know that a maid will be going in your room, but you don’t consider the things you leave as personal, until they are documented. All of a sudden an invasion has taken place that is outside of your control. The thought of somebody scrutinising your belongings and the remnants of your night is uncomfortable, despite the fact that you willingly left them to be viewed. It is the lack of control that causes the encounter to be invasive, not the things that have been observed.

To add further to this power imbalance, the guests of the hotel would have had no idea and probably still have no idea that this invasion ever took place. Not knowing that you are under observation is a disturbing thought, played on in horror films, but is also a continual fact of life, thanks to the extensive surveillance system in the UK. A report released in February 2009 by the Lords’ Constitution Committee, estimated that Britain has about 4 million CCTV cameras, one of the most extensive surveillance systems in the world, amounting to roughly one camera to every 14 people.

The un-invited nature of voyeurism has never been documented more disturbingly than in The Park series by Kohei Yoshiyuki. These photographs depict a bizarre phenomenon in a park in Japan, where young couples go to partake in sexual conduct, a fact known to a group of Japanese men, who creep up on them to watch and even get close enough to touch the couple. In the cloak of darkness the couple have no idea that the hand on them is not that of their partner’s and are oblivious to the harassment that is occurring.

Yoshiyuki stumbled across the situation whilst walking through the park at night and in time succeeded in being accepted by the group of men to then be able to secretly document the occurrence with an infrared camera. The position of the photographer is similar to that of a photojournalist documenting a crime, but despite also partaking in the same wrongdoing, is effectively given a moral get out of jail free card. And we expect the same treatment as viewer: to cast judgement on the horrific actions of the men, pretending we are not governed by the same urges.

Kohei Yoshiyuki Untitled, from the series The Park 1971 Gelatin Silver Print (c) Kohei Yoshiyuki, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

The fact that we are all intrinsically voyeuristic to some degree does not change the fact that these actions are despicable. But it is the invasion of privacy that is disturbing not the desires of the men that have driven the actions. We all love to be voyeurs, we enjoy sex scenes in films, we can’t help but look into people’s living room windows as we pass their homes, we gossip about the lives of celebrities and we’re all guilty of a bit of Facebook stalking. However, we are mostly not happy to have our penetrative gaze returned.

In The Park series we immediately identify with the couple and feel outraged on their behalf, but the original exhibition of these works painted the viewer in a different light. In 1979 at the Komai Gallery, Tokyo, visitors were given a torch to reveal the images, displayed in a darkened room. The viewer as voyeur seems to be a healthy picture to paint, as all too easily, voyeurism can be placed high on the art pedestal away from the darker depths of human nature.

It is worth accepting that whilst we do learn things from intellectualising about the products of voyeurism, we are equally driven to look at these images out of a desire to peek into people’s private lives. We are extremely nosey and fascinated by other people; the darker, more fetishised, more private the better. We would stare continuously at people in public if it wasn’t socially unacceptable, but it is, so we crowd around pictures of people in a gallery instead, where the subjects can’t see us and make us feel guilty.

In the very first room of Exposed are photographs from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series, where he photographed strangers from afar as they walked under the strobe lighting he had attached to scaffolding. DiCorcia was sued by one of his subjects, Erno Nussenzweig, an Orthodox Jew and retired diamond merchant from Union City, New Jersey, for publishing and exhibiting the photograph without his permission and benefitting financially as a result. He also claimed the image prevented him from practicing his religion, which prohibits the use of graven images.

The defence cited the long tradition of street photography, giving iconic examples such as Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of a sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square in 1945 when the Japanese surrender was announced. Nussenzweig lost the case as the judge ruled that he had not sued within one year of the picture first being published, but also stated that the artist’s right to expression took precedence over his right to privacy.

Kohei Yoshiyuki Untitled, from the series The Park 1971 Gelatin Silver Print (c) Kohei Yoshiyuki, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

This was a landmark victory for photography, whose future would have been highly restricted had Nussenzweig won, however there is something disturbing about a man fighting to not have his image exhibited and sold against his will, and loosing. He has been denied the right to own his appearance, which has created an undeniably striking photograph. His cost is our gain.

The most disturbing photograph in the exhibition is one that also affords the viewer a privileged position, as a man in South Africa looks back into the camera from the top of a building as he contemplates suicide.

Looking into the eyes of a man as he contemplates death is not an experience you expect to be able to have. To see the emotion in his eyes, so scared and unsure, as the crowd below call for him to jump, is just heart breaking. I cannot begin to imagine what possessed the photographer to capture this man in such a vulnerable state, as he turns round for help and a reason to stay. If this is where voyeurism takes us, when our desire to look deep into a man’s soul, cannot be outweighed by the compassion to give him every chance at support, then I lose complete faith in humanity.

This issue is raised again and again in connection to photojournalists who document war and famine, with people asking them why they don’t help the people they photograph. The reply being that they are not involved in the events but are doing a service by reporting them, so people know what is going on. However, the position of the photographer here is clearly a trusted and engaged one; he is in the position of negotiator and appears to have ignored his responsibility. I feel like the photographer’s presence here could have affected the outcome of events, which is certainly not the role of the documentary photographer.

The photograph was printed in the South African newspapers along with another photo from an angle underneath the scaffolding a moment after he decides to jump. Whilst this may document an extremely disturbing situation in South Africa where people were actually chanting for him to jump, for me the price is too high and this photograph should never have come into existence. It does not document the circumstances, the taunting, only the unstable position of a man about to take his own life, as the caption says: “looking back to safety”. I cannot comprehend being in that situation and taking the photograph, surely causing the man to feel more like a number than a person.

The whole exhibition left me feeling exposed and paranoid, which is testament to its success. There are serious lessons to be learnt from this, before we passively go past the point of no return, if we have not long since passed it. With surveillance, the emergence of the celebrity culture and the latest phenomena of social networking sites we have welcomed, or at least allowed, our right to privacy to be slowly chipped away at.

The dangers of a voyeuristic culture have been screaming at us ever since Princess Diana was killed trying to escape the pursuit of the paparazzi. Celebrities, having lived in the limelight that ordinary people now invite upon themselves through the internet, are only too aware of how difficult it is to shut out prying eyes once you have allowed them in. Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Sienna Miller have all used the Harassment Act 1997 to win injunctions against paparazzi, after their privacy was continuously invaded.

The frustration at having lost the right to privacy is embodied in one photograph from the exhibition in particular, of Jack Nicholson attacking a fan with a golf club as she attempts to protect herself, still clutching her camera. The rage on Jack’s face is intense. He has clearly lost control, unable to cope with the relentless invasion into his life, which he once counted as success. The image acts as a forewarning to the perils of voyeurism that have been allowed to rage unrestricted.

I fear we may soon be able to sympathise with his position, as our lives are increasingly played out in the public eye, we may look back on our less documented past with nostalgic fondness. No matter how many golf clubs you arm yourself with, the idea of privacy has been shot to death with the lens and there may be no going back.