Is photography voyeuristic? Alternatively, is the viewer themselves the voyeurist?
To quote Swift:
“When did it happen? That imperceptible inversion. As if the camera no longer recorded but conferred reality. As if the world were the lost property of the camera. As if the world wanted to be claimed and possessed by the camera. To translate itself, as if afraid it might otherwise vanish into the new myth of its authentic-synthetic photographic memory. As if it were a kind of comfort that every random, crazy thing that gets done should be monitored by some all-seeing, unfeeling, inhuman eye. Not to be watched. Isn’t that a greater fear than the fear of being watched?”
(Swift, 2010: 187)
Photography today, I find, has become caught up in the digital revolution and is at risk of losing its own identity. It is now, more than ever, more accessible to get a camera and call yourself a ‘photographer.
To quote one study from 2017 looking at mobile phone camera use:
“How many digital photos will be taken in 2017? It is predicted there will be 7.5 billion people in the world in 2017, and about 5 billion of them will have a mobile phone. Let us say roughly 80% of those phones have a built-in camera: around 4 billion people. Moreover, let us say they take ten photos per day – that is 3,650 photos per year, per person. That adds up to more than 14 trillion photos annually.”
(True Stories, 2017)
Within those 14 trillion photos annually, it is fair to assume that many are of people taking group, self and tourism-related images. These images, taken all over the world, often capture passersby in the background. With this thought, one has to ask, how many of them do I appear in?
This massive oversaturation of images and the uncontrollable way that they are collected leads to several morality questions around ownership of the self-image. Do you have any control where you are seen and by whom?
When I think back to the number of places I have visited and the number of times I have walked through a photograph being taken, I can only assume that images of my ‘self’ now appear all over the world.
I have no say in these images — no control over who sees them, or where they are put. In effect, I am silently passing through someone else’s life. A ‘ghost’ in the machine.
When viewed, these images form part of someone’s holiday or activity. Maybe a family outing, wedding or funeral. The question remains – how am I perceived?
Does the viewer acknowledge that I am part of their image, or do they disregard me as background ‘noise’ unimportant and none existential?
To gaze upon these images, is the viewer making a judgment, or do they create a story as to who the person in the background really is?
The above for me summarise this point. This image, shown all over the world, was used to showcase the Beatles during the train locations filming of ‘A Hard Days Night’.
While McCartney is very easy to recognise, we are left with only a perception of who the people are in the background. Even though, in this case, they form the focus of the image.
With the ever-growing number of CCTV and security cameras, as well as dashboard cameras on cars, webcams and a whole raft of hobby drone, film and video cameras, it is now almost impossible not to be photographed on a regular base.
While I do not see this initial act as being voyeuristic, I do see the ability for the viewer of such films to become a voyeur – even unknowingly.
It is often seen in the news that individuals have been caught out possessing images taken from security or related hidden cameras – such as with upskirting. Often these individuals work in such locations where access to take these images without our knowledge is shared.
In such aim’s, this transformation of representation of an image from purpose into fetishism is done through the viewer and the photographer who takes them. Their gaze constricted into a dark will to use images for their sexual perversions.
On a lighter note, such images can be informative and create cultural debate. I am drawn to the work of Shizuka Yokomizo, whose Stranger series 1998–2000 depicts strangers standing in the window of their homes.
Initially, Yokomizo attempted the work thorough creeping around London with a telephoto lens and catching people unaware. However, following many frustrations and ethics issues, she decided to write anonymous letters inviting people to take part.
Those that agreed appeared in their windows at a suggested time of day, to be gazed upon by Yokomizo – who had no apparent control as to what context the ‘stranger’ appeared.
The result, as I see it, to Yokomizo’s work is an almost voluntary agreement of an individual to go from representational to a more fetish contextualised gaze. Agreeing to become part of a work that speaks of our social juxtaposition when viewed in the context of the apparent safety of our own homes.
The images allow us to gaze upon and into someone else’s life. Someone that, although had an understanding of Yokomizo’s project, is still asking questions. After all, did Stranger No. 1 know that over twenty years later I would be looking into his life in this way? If they knew, would they still be comfortable with my gaze on them?
The work of Yokomizo, Alpern and many others force us into a choice. To look or to move on. To make an assumption or to ignore and move their gaze to a more safer space.
The photographers here are very much the hunters, playing to a passive viewer and passive subject that carries darker more hidden undertones. In this time of image saturation it seems, no place is safe from the lenses gaze.
- COOMES, Phil. 2019. BBC – Viewfinder: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. [online] BBC.co.uk. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/photoblog/2010/05/voyeurism_surveillance_and_the_camera.html [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].
- HOWARTH, Sophie. YOKOMIZO, Shizuka. VERENE, Chris. CORBIJN, Anton. and FREI, Christian. 2010. What are you looking at?. [online] Tate.org.uk. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/what-are-you-looking [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].
- MARSH, Anne. MILES, Melissa. and PALMER, Daniel. 2015. The culture of photography in public space. 1st ed. Bristol, United Kingdom: Intellect Books.
- SWIFT, Graham. 2010. Out of this world. 2nd ed. London: Picador, p.187.
- True Stories. 2017. Here’s How Many Digital Photos Will Be Taken in 2017 – True Stories. [online] Available at: https://mylio.com/true-stories/tech-today/heres-how-many-digital-photos-will-be-taken-in-2017-repost-oct [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].
- Figure 1 – HURN, David. 1964. Fan recognising Paul McCartney. [Photograph] (source media)
- Figure 2 – YOKOMIZO, Shizuka. 1998. Stranger No. 1. [Photograph] (source media)