Saturday, October 3, 2009

Voyeurism and photography

Algirdas Nakas

Professor Palacio

27 September 2009

Helmut Newton was quoted as saying, “Any photographer who says he’s not a voyeur is either stupid or a liar.” (PhotoQuotes). That sounds harsh, but in many ways Newton has a point. It’s a stretch to apply this statement to all photographers, but when referring to those artists who include human subjects in their work, Newton’s idea can be defended. Observation of people and photographic recording of them need not appeal to prurient interests to be voyeuristic, even though some accuse Newton of exactly that. An implicit aim of any photographer is to create a desire in others look at their work, to make pictures that beg for a viewer’s gaze. This is true whether or not the photography is done discretely or openly. The audience of photography actually participates in voyeuristic behavior as much as the photographer. It does this by looking, examining, studying the pictures and the people contained in them. In fact, if a photo achieves only a fleeting glance, rather than “the gaze”, it may be deemed a failure as art. If a photo does not ignite the urge to look at it for longer periods, it will be forgettable from any perspective. So photographers in their shooting, and those that are intrigued by seeing the work, participate in a synergistic, voyeuristic dance.

To support this thesis I shall broaden the accepted clinical notions of the definition of a voyeur from someone habitually engaged in spying on intimate behavior for reasons of sexual stimulation. Instead, let us consider the simple etymology of the word, from the French voyeur, “one who looks” (Webster). In popular thinking the voyeur does not actually relate to his subject, but does want to look, often from a distance or obscured in some other manner. Sexual stimulation is not a necessary component of voyeurism, just the want or need to look at a sight that is somehow unusual. In this definition, those drivers that slow traffic to a crawl so as to observe an auto accident, which always happens on busy throughways, are exhibiting voyeuristic behavior. They cannot control their need to gaze at the aftermath of an incident that may have been very tragic. This inability to divert a gaze and simply drive on normally equates to the idea of staring at a newspaper photo of the same scene. This also is an implicitly voyeuristic act of both the newspaper reader and the photographer that made the photo. This act, looking at or photographing the accident, does not have obvious sexual connotations in most cases. Perhaps within the realms of the subconscious, in some Freudian or paraphiliatic personality, a sexual strain could exist. For example, the rare case of someone with a fetish for bleeding, unconscious persons may be stimulated by such a scene . But that would certainly be very unusual and deviate from the majority of those gawking at the crash only for reasons of curiosity.

So it is with photographers, how different artists frame the objects of their vision merely defines differing points of view. One artist may focus on a world of victims, another on a world of elitist luxury, still others, the natural beauty of youth. Andy Warhol and Diane Arbus, though exploring similar avenues, viewed them differently. Diane Arbus had a distinctly pessimistic view of a world primarily inhabited by freaks and misfits, a world where oddness was everywhere. Diane could make a crying baby look frightening. The fact of Diane’s suicide actually protected her work from criticisms of insincerity or voyeuristic lack of compassion. Because of her tragic death, her work was seen as a devastating comment on our society. Almost as if her death proved her taking the pictures to be immensely painful, dangerous to her own survival. (Sontag 39) .

Andy Warhol, while sometimes visiting similar subjects, viewed them in a different light. In his films, Andy’s freaks, his drag queens and hustlers were portrayed as comical, fun and entertaining, even in their own, sometimes tragic, circumstances (Sontag 45). Not the threatening or bleak message we get from Arbus. In Andy’s films and photos, he gave us inside looks at a world that we might not have otherwise known without peering through his lens. Andy loved to watch others, photograph them, film them, but he always stayed aloof and detached while doing so. In many ways he was the ultimate voyeur, always at the party but never really part of it. I think it interesting that he was drawn to personalities that lived very exhibitionistic lives, they were his easy marks and great fodder to hold our attention.

Merry Alpern, in her work “Dirty Windows” photographed her subjects through a window and by leaving the window frame in her pictures she emphasized her distinctly voyeuristic method. She photographed the back room of a stripper club with a long lens, and in the process, she captured different illicit activities, from drug taking to prostitution. Although the graphic nature of her photography reveals sexually charged behaviors, I doubt that it can be considered to be sexually stimulating. They show the dark underbelly of a rough, crude exploitive world that is not sexy although it is inherently about the industry of sex (Caniglia). Likewise, when Diane Arbus shot a stripper in her dressing room displaying her breasts, it was in the context of her small, claustrophobic world, devoid of glamour and removed from sexual appeal. In contrast to Alpern’s subjects, Arbus usually had hers stare directly, if awkwardly into the lens, very aware of it’s presence. The voyeurism, if it exists with Diane’s work, is more with the viewer. The viewer peers into a scene where Diane’s presence was announced and open. Alpern shares the voyeuristic aspect in a more balanced way, allowing the queasy discomfort that window peeking might bring to be transferred to her. She was the stealthy one. We are allowed the indulgence of guilt free voyeurism because it is clear Merry has taken the blame for the breaking and entering.

Merry Alpern continued to hide her lens in her next body of work, published in a book called “Shopping”. She went to the mall with a small camera hidden in her handbag and photographed those engaged in shopping. She wanted to explore her own feelings about the materialistic act of shopping by studying vicariously the behavior of others engaged in this. The work was compelling because her pictures seemed to capture private subtleties of behavior in public places that would have not occurred if her subject knew they were being photographed. For example a woman’s futile pinching of the fat on her thighs while trying on clothes. As we look at her pictures we participate in Alpern’s secret study along with her, we are the hidden camera in her bag.

Is this voyeuristic behavior on the part of photographers and those that look at their photos immoral or in some manner perverse? I really don’t believe so, I think it is a normal component of the human psyche to be curious and try to satisfy it. And does spending time taking, displaying, and looking at photos lack “socially redeeming value”, an elusive quality that was once used to isolate pornography from socially acceptable art? What is the redemption in exhibitionistic social networks where people put online pictures of themselves involved in any manner of activity, and inviting freely, voyeuristic participation to complete the equation? I am not saying that Alpern’s work or Facebook, for example, lacks social value, on the contrary I feel both offer a lot of positive impact on society. Facebook is social by definition, it is designed to connect people. Saying that it lacks value would be analogous to saying human relationships lack value. Regardless, the differences that exist between photography, Facebook and those less platonic, actual relationships with physical human contact, leave room for debate as to the degree of value. But despite ambiguity of degree or definition, voyeurism and it’s facets including surveillance and exhibitionism, is no doubt a strong part of the work of artists such as Alpern as well as the phenomena social networks.

The idea of the closed Facebook network, available only to friends in a defined social circle, such as a specific school has gone by the wayside due to the choice of it’s users. It is now obvious that much of the content of Facebook is in the public arena. It’s not difficult to find a way to access to those once “protected” neighborhoods. The thin veil of privacy has been abandoned as a na├»ve moment that has been outgrown by the selection of options available to it’s users. Everyone is a friend of a friend of a friend, so everyone has access, much like the internet as a whole. Before video chat there was simply chat, no images. Privacy was preserved and voyeurism was not inherent. Like the old New Yorker cartoon of two dogs talking, one says to the other “On the internet they don’t know I’m a dog!”(scher). Now, in the Facebook era, that sense of privacy has evaporated, we know whether or not you are a dog. And that is because you and your friends now upload images which expose you to almost anyone who wants to look. That evolution is not seen as problematic to younger users. They were born into the free and open exchange of identity in public forums and don’t fear the potential pitfalls of such activity. They feel they know how to navigate around the land mines of pedophiliacs, identity thieves or others with depraved intentions. I am currently working on a project that involves this very idea, the idea of freely surrendering privacy to the world at large. My work involves displaying my personal Facebook friends in a public forum outside of Facebook to emphasize that Facebook itself has actually become an open public forum. That privacy in these social forums, if it ever really existed at all, is now lost.

The work of installation and video artist Julia Scher predated the Facebook culture. She is known for her installation work like “Security by Julia” circa mid 80’s to early 90’s where she focused on the surveillance culture. The culture of proliferation of security cameras in buildings and in public places, watching and recording whatever was occurring. She often invited viewers to actively participate in the surveillance pieces with soothing voices, baby blankets or other enticements (Johnson). Scher’s work is analogous in many ways to the seductive attraction that Facebook offer it’s users, i.e., many friends, a “safe” environment, an ability to watch and be watched by others. Voyeurism, surveillance, and the irony of private identity made public by choice... these are themes explored in my work and by many contemporary art photographers.

Lauren Greenfield is another artist that draws us into gawking at modern social cultures with her lavish photo and film studies of visually and emotionally provocative subject matter. From essays on bulimia, to materialism, to excessive behavior, to the Hollywood youth culture. Lauren sees, shoots and shows us the behind the scenes of worlds where we might not otherwise go (Greenfield 5-6). Like the view through Merry Alpern’s dirty window, Lauren shows us places we haven’t seen. Why are these thin girls starving themselves? Do these kids really live for the next outfit and spa session? What is it like growing up in Hollywood? Lauren provides visual examinations of these subjects and others that we devour with fervor. In seeing what we haven’t seen, on some voyeuristic level, we find satisfaction, even if it is only our curiosities that are satisfied.

So, if much of photography is built on aspects voyeurism, what do we call photography that is genuinely exploitive and is designed to objectify it’s subjects simply for sexual gratification? For example, up skirt internet sites that sell images taken from unaware subjects to those that want views of underwear or hidden flesh.

This is also voyeurism, but explicitly so. It falls into the definition that is used in clinical psychology, voyeurism as the act of looking at intimate scenes for the purpose of sexual stimulation only. Not the popular definition which does not require sexual gratification to be the key element, but may leave room for degrees of sexual interest as tertiary.

In “On Photography” Susan Sontag emphasized her view that photography is aggressive by nature. That the taking of pictures is a forceful act that rips a bit of soul from the subject. I agree that from a voyeuristic perspective, this is true as well. The artists discussed here in the context of this topic all use this aggressive medium of photography to steal glimpses of private realities and then share their hard fought for revelations. And we gazers of the fruits of these voyeuristic endeavors, also share in the same voyeuristic frailties through the very act of looking, and sometimes looking a bit too long .

Works cited

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1st. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc,

1978. Print.

Greenfield, Lauren. Girl Culture. 1st. San Francisco: Chronicle Books,

2002. Print.

"Quotes Helmut Newton ." 18 Sep 2009. Web. 1


"voyeur." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online.

2 October 2009

Johnson, Ken. "ART IN REVIEW; Julia Scher - 'Security by Julia.

XLV: Security Landscapes'." New York Times (2002): n. pag Web. 2 Oct 2009.



Caniglia, Julie. "Merry Alpern." ArtForum (1999): n. pag. Web. 2