Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera

Georges Dudognon, Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain ca. 1950s. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Members of Foto Forum, 2005.200 © Estate of Georges Dudognon

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is the latest large scale photographic exhibition to be organised by Tate Modern.

The exhibition includes images from internationally renowned artists, news and street photographers as well as unknown amateurs and military surveillance. Organised into five sections (The Unseen Photographer, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Voyeurism & Desire, Witnessing Violence and Surveillance) the photographs, videos and slideshows on display deliberately resonate with the current contradictory social climate where debates around privacy, surveillance and terrorism are paralleled by ubiquitous access to high-tech cameras and the explosion of online social networks and photo sharing sites such as Youtube, Flickr and Facebook. The dovetailing of these trends has resulted in the situation where a growing number of formal and informal restrictions are placed on photographers while people can regularly post pictures and the most intimate details of their private lives for all to see.

The strength of the exhibition is that it does not try to provide any easy answers to some of the big questions raised by the images and ideas on display. The exhibition includes photographs of everything from the normal and mundane aspects of our lives through to the obsessive and horrific and includes candid pictures of people in the street, images of lovers in bars and on the beach through to clandestine pictures taken in Dachau and photographs of KGB agents taken by the FBI. In each of the five sections there is a tension set up between pictures that are taken from both extremes of the spectrum.

Probably the biggest question raised by the exhibition rests on an examination of the photographs taken of people without their knowledge or permission and how we respond to these pictures both as subjects and audience. The tone is set in the opening room where Walker Evans’s photographs of people riding the New York subway are shown alongside pictures of people walking in Times Square by Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Both sets of photographs capture people unaware of the photographers’ presence. The photographs are engaging as portraits because they touch own sense of humanity while broadening our historical understanding of the world around us. Cumulatively these images, along with the thousands of others taken in the street, allow us to have a greater sense of our own historical understanding of the world we live in by offering points of comparison with the lives of others. Of course, this understanding is never simply a visual or photographic one and depends on as wider view of the world as possible but without the photographic record our view of the world would be so much the poorer. Most importantly the question raised by the street photographers featured in the exhibition is how we should expect to live our lives in public.

The difference in time between the photographs is telling in this respect. Evans’s photographs were taken between 1938–41, diCorcia’s were taken at the end of the 1990s. What has changed most significantly is not the curiosity or the visual investigations of the photographer but our responses to these images. It is now common to see them as an invasion of privacy or a misrepresentation of ‘our own image’. When diCorcia’s images originally went on show at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York this question was brought to the fore by a lawsuit initiated by one of the people featured in the series of photographs. Erno Nussenzweig a retired diamond trader and orthodox Jew took diCorcia to court. The judge dismissed the case against the gallery and diCorcia on the grounds that Nussenzweig having his picture taken in public was not an invasion of privacy but ‘simply the price every person must be prepared to pay for a society in which information and opinion freely flow.’[i]

Although in the diCorcia case the judge ruled in favour of the First Amendment, there have been numerous cases in Britain and across Europe where the legal precedents have shifted toward upholding individuals claims to privacy over and above artistic or press freedom. This process has been led by the protestations and legal representatives of the rich and famous but the impact is to inform a much wider public conception of what constitutes privacy and what is public life.

Against this background of growing legal restrictions, the informal parameters of what is and what is not ‘allowed’ to be photographed are shifting in a negative direction as well. This is particularly noticeable in relation to photographing children, including images of them interacting with adults in typical day-to-day situations. Magnum photographer Martin Parr has pretty much admitted that his documentary studies of the English seaside published for instance in The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton (1986), are no longer possible because of the anxieties around photography and children.

Similarly over the last few years the police, PCSOs and private security guards have stopped a growing number of photographers from taking photographs in public. Many photographers have subsequently been detained under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000. This does not only make the lives and work of photographers more difficult but informs a much broader attitude that taking photographs in public is an activity that should be treated with suspicion.

Although the exhibition offers a number of visual examples where the contradictions and grey areas in thinking are highlighted the scope of the exhibition ultimately points to one of its key problems. The biggest failure of the exhibition rests with the very notions of the voyeur and voyeurism. Although a significant part of the show is devoted to images of observed intimacy and sexual liaison there is a reading into street photography in particular that assumes an ‘invasive’ way of looking. The exhibition’s principal curator Sandra S. Philips summarises this outlook in her opening essay when she locates the ‘family resemblance’ between street photography, sexually explicit pictures, celebrity stalking and photographs of death and violence in that they all “represent a transgression of accepted rules of privacy.”[ii] The implication is that without the consent and permission of the subject most, if not all, forms of photography are voyeuristic both in their execution and audience reception. This is quite simply not the case.

Understanding voyeurism as the primary unifying feature of the images on show applies an extremely blunt theoretical instrument which strips them from the very thing that make the pictures worth revisiting, namely their context. This outlook significantly downgrades the real nature of public life and the way that there are multiple influences that shape a photographers interest and curiosity, whether this be Lewis Hine’s reformist project to document the conditions of American labour or Gary Winogrand’s notion that he photographed ‘to see what things looked like as photographs’.

Equally problematic is the ahistorical levelling of any discussion of violence. The theoretical application of voyeuristic impulses does nothing to explain the differences between the violence of suicide and that of war. The impact is to remove any sense of social understanding of these problems, rendering the only response as that of an individual.

Although the underlying assumption is that photography, in the public sphere, is predatory and an invasion of privacy the exhibition does manage to examine the tensions and negotiations that these encounters highlight between photographer and subject. Nowhere is this clearer than in the section that highlights the relationships between celebrity and the ‘paparazzi’. The exhibition contains sequences of images by the Italian photographers Tazio Secchiaroli and  Marcello Geppetti. Both worked as news photographers in Rome in the 1950s and Secchiaroli is widely recognised as one of the key influences shaping the character of Paparazzo, the vespa-riding photographer, in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Secchiaroli whose pictures regularly appeared in magazines such as l’espresso also established the Roma Press Photo agency is quoted as saying that “Nothing will stop us, even if it means overturning tables and waiters, or raising shrieks from an old lady… even if the police intervene or we chase the subject all night long, we won’t let go, we’ll fight with flashes.”[iii]

Despite this statement hardly being an aggressive call to arms the idea that the paparazzi as intrusive and relentless has stuck. As if to underline this fact the exhibition displays two spreads from the British press following the death of Princess Diana with the Sunday Mirror headline’s ‘PAPARAZZI TO BLAME’ splashed across two pages of the paper. Then as now there is often collusion between the stars and the photographers and Carol Squires underlines this in an accompanying essay noting  that Secchiaroli both photographed the secretive meeting of Ava Gardner and Tony Franciosa thus exposing their affair but was also called upon by the actor Marcello Mastrioanni to photograph his meeting with Catherine Deneuve. Secchiaroli’s pictures were widely published and therefore took the heat off Mastrioanni and Deneuve so they could actually spend time together without the press pack following them around.

The tensions and collusions between the photographed and the photographers are beautifully summed up in a photograph taken by Parisian photographer Georges Dudognon. The photograph is of the actress Greta Garbo in a nightclub in St. Germain. Garbo looks directly at the camera while a hand attempts to block the photographer’s view of the actress. The hand doesn’t look as if it is hers. It looks more like somebody is trying to stop the picture being taken even though the actress engages directly with the photographer’s eye.

The exhibition and accompanying catalogue raise some very important questions about the nature of contemporary society and the role that photography plays in our lives today. It is well worth a look.

[i] Philip Gefter, ‘The Theater of the Street, the Subject of the Photograph,’ New York Times, March 19 2006.

[ii] Sandra S. Philips, ‘Looking out, Looking in: Voyeurism and its affinities from the beginning of photography’ in Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. Tate Publishing, 2010. p.11

[iii] Quoted by Carol Squires in ‘Original Sin: The Birth of the Paparrazzo,’ Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. Tate Publishing, 2010. p.223

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is on show at Tate Modern until 3 Oct 2010

An edited version of this review was published on Spiked in June 2010.

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