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Exposure: voyeurism, surveillance and authenticity

Saturday morning saw me at the Tate Modern with a small group of OCA students to visit the exhibition Exposure: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. It was a real pleasure to meet a group of students, get their perspectives on the work displayed and get a sense of their experience of studying with the OCA. I had expected that I would have been making the longest trip to the exhibition from sunny Sheffield, but Edith from the Netherlands and Kate from Ethiopia beat me quite convincingly. Having got the tickets and then looked at the catalogue, I was wondering what we would make of the exhibition.
The main perspective for the exhibition seemed to be focused on ‘what does this tell us about society?’ For example: What does it tell us that there is a demand to see images of violence? What do we think about about living in the most closely filmed and photographed society? These are important and pressing questions and it is very difficult to see some of the images of the mechanisms of surveillance without pausing for thought. For me, the image of the isolation room by Richard Ross (which you can see on the cover of his book The Architecture of Authority) is chilling. The imagination floods into the void.
However a secondary perspective is also explored and for me is the most interesting one. What does the body of work tell us about photography and photographers that they seek to capture images of others surreptitiously or they document aspects of their lives compulsively? And it seems to me that what links Walker Evan’s subway photographs to Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a striving for the ‘authentic’. This is a slippery concept. One can readily see that Evans’ images from the subway appear natural because the subject is not given the opportunity to pose, but this is only part of the process. His selection of which images to print cannot fail to introduce his own perspective. And this was indeed the critique of an outraged media faced with the images in Robert Frank’s The Americans (There’s a good podcast on the subject here).
More problematic are the images of the personal. For me, the exhibition gave an opportunity to see Nan Goldin’s work as it was originally intended – a slideshow with music. The sheer number of images convinces that while there is clearly an editorial process at work, the images are from a life lived rather than a world visited. And yet there remains the question of what is authentic in this context – a mere glimpse at Big Brother (the TV show) yields multiple references to contestants who are suspected by the peers of being fake for the camera. Did Nan Goldin and Larry Clark set out to live a life of challenges in order to photograph it. The question is clearly ridiculous, but the lingering doubt remains about Araki’s erotic macrame.
Yes, let’s continue the debate about surveillance, but let’s wonder at what is being surveyed.
Finally the image above was taken in response to a challenge from OCA tutor Clive White. In an exhibition devoted to surveillance, where photography was banned, it was just too tempting.
In the image above you can see me photographing a work by Oliver Lutz – The lynching of Leo Frank – which itself is based on a photograph made at the time of the lynching in 1915. The photograph was taken to be used in a postcard. Postcards of such events apparently circulated widely in the American South at the time. A point to remember – the next time someone tells you that the internet is a scourge – people have always used the tools at their disposal, for good or bad.

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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16 thoughts on “Exposure: voyeurism, surveillance and authenticity

  • Excellent Gareth! You managed to make a meaningful image without feeling a heavy hand on your shoulder, hahaha.
    In short form…
    My initial thought was what photography couldn’t be in this exhibition? It seems to me that the very nature of photography is voyeuristic; hiding behind the camera to take away a slice of something to peruse at your leisure and pleasure.
    I have different feelings about Larry Clark and Nan Goldin which maybe due to the chronology, Tulsa came out around the time I started to become aware of serious photography; it felt authentic and I didn’t question it. Whereas with the initial flush of Goldin’s work my first, much more experienced, reaction was ‘step away from the camera and get help’; looking at it, from a place of safety,felt exploitatively vicarious.
    I was pleased to see the work of Sophie Calle there as I’d just recommended her to one of my students, who it turns out had gone along to the exhibition on the same day as myself. I could have been standing next to her looking at Sophie Calle’s work and we wouldn’t have known, which in some way is apposite given Calle’s theme.
    Her work is seriously addressing the issues in a very considered but risk taking manner while yoking in lots of associative emotional values; without resorting to titillation of one type or another.
    On Levels 5 I particularly enjoyed the work of Alexander Apostol; it demonstrates that you can address serious themes with heavy Photoshopping and not have it end up looking like an 80s album cover.

  • Thanks Gareth, very interesting, and thanks very much for the links that can help put things in perspective.
    You wrote one very interesting sentence ‘the images are from a life lived rather than a world visited’, and this being the center of some thoughts of a recent trip, where I wondered whether people (including myself) sometimes don’t just visit places, rather than actually BE there, and miss out on experiencing a small part of life that could influence the photos you take during the time in that location. Sorry, a little off topic.
    On the lighter side… the picture above, is a photo taken by someone that went with you, of a security camera, of you taking a photo of something you shouldn’t?
    Now THAT made my day!!

  • Well done Gareth! Excellent idea, the picture you have taken! It both expresses the atmosphere of the exhibition and makes a clever use of the exhibit. You have added another layer of meaning to it.
    I went to see the exhibition that same Saturday afternoon. The exhibition really seems to invite one to do something subversive.
    I was watching a video of a Canadian artist “communicating” with a surveillance camera. At a certain point, a security guide sidles towards the artist and attempts to intimidate him. At the very same moment, a security guide sidled up to me in the same manner. It was as if I was watching the same video on two screens. I doubt the security guides at the exhibition are aware of the irony…or are they and they make there own art while watching us?

  • If I want to properly experience something, be in the moment, I don’t take my camera; photographing can seem to be experience delayed, like recording a TV program to watch it later. But subsequently you discover you’ve set the recorder incorrectly and you’ve missed it altogether.
    Giving yourself up to the moment could possibly more influential on your future photography than constantly interrupting the continuum of experience to take another photograph.
    When you are photographing you’re not in the communal moment; you’re the steppenwolf.
    That’s obvious when you go out photographing with a group of non-photographers who are bent on enjoying themselves; without the years of training the family have had they get really hacked off with you. Hahahaha

  • I agree with you about Sophie Calle Clive, her hotel images and narrative are spell binding.
    Dewald – the image on the TV screen is actually behind me and I am photographing the CCTV camera which is monitoring the image and the screen it is being displayed on. It was rather confusing and my biggest risk of being caught occurred as I was absorbed in working out which direction to point the camera.

  • “there remains the question of what is authentic’
    I suspect that the postmodernist answer to this would have been “nothing” (see Jean Baudrillard’s “The Gulf War Did Not Happen”) Everything is mediated to some degree and unless we define ‘authentic’ as ‘mediated in a way we approve of’ then we can never know what the unmediated is/was even if it exists/ed and so, like before the big bang, it cannot be apprehended and so cannot exist.
    I rather wonder if, in these pseudo or hypermodern times the question an have any meaning in that all is artifice, banality and fleeting so even the notion of authenticity cannot exist.
    This seems to be rather depressing but I suspect that the reality is that we have always simply accepted that, that which is authentic is that which we are told is authentic by the dominant ideology. After all who is the the more authentic, the big girl who doesn’t cry, because the song tells her not to or the big girl who does cry, because the song tells her not to?
    Must try to get up to London soon what with this and the Tillmans at the Serpentine…

  • Very helpful, Gareth; have to try and get down to see the exhibition.
    Clive – “When you are photographing you’re not in the communal moment …” Agreed – except that, having just returned from two weeks holiday in Switzerland, I wonder whether photographing is becoming ‘the communal moment’. All cultural and language barriers disappear in the shared experience of trying to record something that none of us is actually looking at!

  • A excellent point Stan; Guy Debord and Baudrillard had some ideas that hook in to that.
    The powerful flux that the widespread dissemination of digital photography technology has created is still flowing, coupled crucially with the ability to easily share images on a global basis we have yet to fully appreciate what the implications are.
    Of course we can filter it through the gobo of the old, rather elitist, order but that may become an increasingly irrelevant position with the democratisation, through ease, availability,sharing and sheer weight of numbers, of the process and culture of photography.

  • As part of the ‘small group’ I’d just like to thank you for organising an interesting Saturday morning for us. Really good to meet you and the others, and more meetings like that would be great.
    Like Clive, I also think you miss some of the ‘moment’ if you’re concentrating on the photographs. When doing course assignments, I always find it useful to do a couple of visits without the camera. Then sort my ideas, think about possibilities, and then go to shoot.

  • As I see it, one of the challenges of making photographs is to remain in the moment as one does so.
    Awareness does not exist in a vacuum, it relates to something if only the rhythm of our breath.
    If one can be aware and photograph, the potential content of the image can be more apparent.
    I found the visit with other OCA students valuable since there was a chance to discuss and receive some feedback. Still not sure what it was all about though!
    My visit and the ensuing discussion have been recorded in my blog. If you want to see, here are the links …
    Oh .. by the way Gareth, your photo of the exhibition also reveals a small percentage of myself (the outline of the hat and shoulder to the right). My 2 minutes of fame perhaps … !!?

    • Your first post is very good summary of our discussion Amano – I rather wished I had taken some notes because when I was ready to write the WeAreOCA piece I couldn’t remember what we talked about – I think essentially because I was preoccupied with concerns about ‘I hope people think this is worthwhile’! In that sense I wasn’t in the moment.

  • Of course I didn’t mean to imply one is unaware when photographing, one could argue that one is hyper-aware.
    Projecting a frame around a set of elements then choosing the moment to freeze their relationships, thereby investing them with significance, requires intense breath holding inspection/introspection.
    In the normal flow of perception you passing close to a screen in the exhibition is of no consequence or significance to fellow visitors; that’s what happens when people mill around galleries looking at art.
    Gareth absents himself from his role as communal viewer in the flow to become a watcher, trapping you in his amber, in his moment; when he pressed the shutter, you became an active element of significance in his image, a shade of Philip Marlowe.

  • Nine days after the meeting with you, Gareth, and other OCA students. Thank you for this opportunity to see fellow-students and receive some feedback. For me, though sometimes trapped in translation, it was worthwhile.
    There is a lot to say about the exhibition and a lot has already been said. I’m still thinking of the impact it has made on me, and I’m not yet finished with it. What influence will this exhibition have on my own work in future.
    I am aware of a sliding scale in what is published in magazines and newspapers, especially on the frontpage. E.g. the photo’s that appeared on the frontpage of newspapers after the planecrash in Tripoli on May, 13, where 103 people lost their lives. No sign of bodies, but evidence of life, that ended abruptly. A notebook in which someone had just been writing, and other personal belongings scattered around. At that time, no relatives had yet been informed about the fate of their loved ones.
    For me, this really went too far.
    On a more personal scale, I have been thinking about my own behaviour. This is what happened on a walk in Hyde Park, the day preceding the visit to the Tate Modern. The scene: A sunny summerday. A young woman, wearing a very short skirt, lying on her stomach in the grass, enjoying the sunshine. Enter a man on a bicycle. He stops at a distance of 2 meter behind the young woman. Takes his camera out of his pocket and pretends to take some snapshots of the scenery. In case of the man, this scenery seems to exist of the well-shaped behind of the woman. I can see him lowering his camera and taking some photo’s a couple of times. I do not hesitate and grab my point and shoot camera and make a photo of the scene. This all happened in a flash and I acted on instinct. Question is: who is the voyeur? Will I be more hesitant in future to grab my camera?

    • Question is: who is the voyeur? Interesting question Edith and one that, for me, points to the deficiencies of catch all terms like ‘voyeur’. You were both observers seeking to capture a moment. Arguably however your motives were rather different. It is possibly unfair to ascribe motives to the cycling bottom snapper, but I would hazard a guess that his motives were rather less edifying than yours.

  • The debate stimulated by Gareth’s piece on the Tate exhibition is an absorbing read and a marker to the progress that the college has made under his leadership. It is encouraging to hear so many tutors and students putting their heads above the parapet to express their views on issues which are still in contention in many areas of society. Enlightenment and acceptance of changes in moral attitudes are a continuing process as a result of the developments in education and communication. For tutors and assessors the opinions formed by debate and research must be applied when they assume responsibility for the critical evaluation of student’s work. I am involved in the case of student who is seeking some positive guidance in the reaction at assessment to erotic images, pornography and documentary exploration. I do not think this is just a matter of establishing categories but more to defining their boundaries for the purpose of making quantitative assessments, when student’s work is submitted for grading to gain a university qualification. The enlightened discussion, that I have read, above is not typical of the divergence of opinion in society outside the university or possibly throughout our tutor team, who will need some guidelines in order to advise their students.
    I am of the opinion that tutors should not categorically dismiss a students’s work as unacceptable or not, but should advise them to tread warily to take into account the likelihood that the assessor may take a more radical view. The assessors who are in the unenviable position of being couched with the responsibility of translating their views into student’s grades should show tolerance in a constantly changing moral climate.
    Does my approach not show strong enough leadership for students and fail to give any useful guidance?
    I am grateful to Gareth for starting this discussion and to the others who have made contributions.

  • Alan, I have received very suitable guidance through the project, thanks for your input.
    I have also quoted your text in a recent discussion, to show that students may shy away from working with riskier material, for exactly the reason you mention – it comes down to gaining a qualification, and we can not predict how other people will react.
    Once again, thanks.

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