Saturday, 19 June 2010

A Peek into Surveillance and Voyeurism in Photography

A recent visit to Tate Modern's new exhibition Exposed proved to be more than intellectually stimulating. Like the name suggests, it's not for children and certainly not for the faint-hearted. The show features works by professional photographers, paparazzis and artists, some well-known, such as Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others anonymous. Some consist of instantly recognisable celebrities in cars and by the swimming pool, others focus on the familiar ordinary folks on the street. Some raise serious questions about the nature of photography, our morals and values, desires and emotions. I can't say that I enjoyed seeing those images of violence and death; hungry eyes of male spectators watching a female stripper performing on stage, or prostitutes taking clients and drugs in the toilet of a old block in down-town New York. But the whole collection firmly lifted modern photography to the same level as everything else in contemporary art, which is certainly worth applauding.

Two things struck me the most. One is a photograph taken by Simon Norfolk of the cloudy sky of a remote British colony island in the middle of South Atlantic that's covered in these insignificant and fragile looking wires almost undetectable to the naked eyes. According to Norfolk, this island is the hub of ECHELON, a global, computerised electronic surveillance system that captures all tele-communications and use computers to identify and extract messages of interest from a mass of unwanted ones, then sorting them for more detailed analysis later. Within ECHELON, data is collected by satellite interception, aerial arrays at strategic places and the direct tapping on underground and submarine cables. All our telephone conversations and everything on our computers can be heard and read by someone else. This island in the picture remains one of the few places where ECHELON can be seen and photographed.

These are hardly news to us. We all have seen Bourne Identity a million times and read the newspaper enough to know that paedophiles and terrorists are caught through this on a regular basis. What is interesting is that this photograph, in all its seemingly simplistic composition and imagery, captured the enormity of the surveillance force. I hope Norfolk didn't have to risk being arrested at the time to take this and make it public. Since then he has worked in Afghanistan and is currently studying the effects of war on us, our social surroundings and the urban landscapes through the means of photography.

The second series of work that really had the shock factor was Kohei Yoshiyuki's The Park, taken in the 1970s in Tokyo where parks at night were filled with voyeurs poaching for couples making out in the bushes and under the trees, not just to have a good look but also to 'participate' without being caught. Yoshiyuki himself joined the voyeurs to be 'considered one of them' before taking in a 35mm camera and an infrared flash bulb to record the voyeurs and lovers in action. The photographs are raw, exploitative of the sexual human subjects in the lens, sometimes female, other times male, and showed us the other side of Japan that was previously hidden. The lonely, desperate and sad love-seekers in big cities like Tokyo where plastic dolls sometimes are preferred over real women.

Undoubtedly Yoshiyuki's work is highly controversial that almost erased the line between voyeurism and photography. He commented later that "I behaved like I had the same interest as the voyeurs, but I was equipped with a small camera. My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was no a real 'voyeur' like them. But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer."

Exposed certainly suggests that there is a voyeur in every one of us. The exhibition is open until 3rd of October 2010. 

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