Week 5: The ever watchful eye

Is photography voyeuristic? Or 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 own 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)

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, easier 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’s 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’s say roughly 80% of those phones have a built-in camera: around 4 billion people. And let’s say they take 10 photos per day – that’s 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 a number of 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.

When viewed, these images form part of someone’s holiday or activity. Maybe a family outing, wedding or funeral. The question still 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, in fact, making a judgment, or do they themselves create a story as to who the person in the background is?


Fig 1

The above for me summarise this point. The image, shown all over the world, was used to showcase the Beatles during the train locations filming of ‘A Hard Days Night’. Whilst 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 film and video cameras, it is now almost impossible not to be photographed on a regular base.

Whilst I don’t 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 common.

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 own gaze constricted into a dark will to use images for their own 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 (quote) ‘sneaking around London with a  telephoto lens and catching people unaware’. However, following a number of 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. To be gazed upon by Yokomizo – who had no apparent control as to what context the ‘stranger’ appeared.

stranger-no-1Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 1 1998

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 own cultural position, 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.