Exposed: a revealing snapshot of modern society

Exposed, a new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, raises interesting questions about photography and privacy.

David Cowlard

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Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is the latest ambitious photography exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery.

With a mix of stills, videos and slideshows by internationally renowned artists, photojournalists and amateurs, as well as military surveillance footage, Exposed highlights the contradiction between two coexisting trends today. On the one hand, there are growing concerns around privacy, surveillance and security, with a number of formal and informal restrictions being placed on photographers. On the other hand, there is ubiquitous access to high-tech cameras and we have seen an explosion of photo- and video-sharing on social networking sites, with people willingly revealing intimate details of their private lives.

The strength of the exhibition is that it does not try to provide any easy answers to the big questions raised. It includes photographs of everything from the normal and mundane – people in the street, lovers in bars, holidaymakers on the beach – through to the obsessive and horrific – clandestine FBI images of KGB agents, photographs taken illicitly in the Dachau concentration camp. Throughout the exhibition, a tension is set up between the pictures at both extremes of the spectrum.

The exhibition’s most compelling question is raised by the photographs taken of people without their knowledge or permission. How should we respond to such pictures? And how we should expect to live our lives in public? The tone is set in the opening room, where Walker Evans’s photographs of people riding the New York subway are shown alongside Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s pictures of people in Times Square. Both capture individuals unaware of the photographer’s presence.

As portraits, the street photographs in Exposed are engaging because they at once display the lives of others, broadening our social and historical understanding of the world, and touch on our own sense of humanity. Of course, such an understanding cannot simply come about through watching images, yet without a rich photographic record our knowledge of the world would be so much the poorer.

In comparing the Evans photographs, taken between 1938 and 1941, with the di Corcia images, taken in the late 1990s, the most significant shift does not concern the skill or curiosity of the photographers, but our changing responses to the images. Today, it is common to regard images such as these as an invasion of privacy or as a misrepresentation of the people on display, yet being in public is by necessity a negotiation of your self with others.

When diCorcia’s images originally went on show at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York this question was brought to the fore by a lawsuit initiated by one of the people featured in the photographs. He claimed his privacy had been invaded, but the judge dismissed the case, ruling that this was not an invasion of privacy but ‘simply the price every person must be prepared to pay for a society in which information and opinion freely flow’.

While quite correct, this judgement seems out-of-kilter with the recent trend towards the legal protection of privacy at the expense of press freedom. Though this process has been spearheaded by the rich and famous, who can afford costly lawsuits, it has informed a wider public conception of how to distinguish between our private and public lives and about the ethics of photography.

In the UK, police, community support officers and private security guards frequently stop amateurs and professionals from taking photographs in public. For instance, many photographers have been detained under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000. This not only makes the lives of photographers more difficult, but it also sends a message that taking photographs in public is a suspicious activity.

In addition to growing legal restrictions on photography, the informal parameters of what is and what is not ‘allowed’ to be photographed are becoming more restrictive, too. This is particularly noticeable in relation to photographing children. For instance, Magnum photographer Martin Parr has pretty much admitted that his lauded documentary studies of the English seaside, which include nude pictures of children, could not be produced today because of new anxieties and taboos.

While Exposed raises many complex questions rather than attempting to give us all the answers, its biggest failure is in presuming that photography always contains an element of voyeurism. Perhaps that’s why the exhibition also includes a great number of images of intimacy and sexual liaisons.

The exhibition’s principal curator, Sandra S Philips, summarises this outlook in her opening essay in the book accompanying the show. She locates the ‘family resemblance’ between street photography, sexually explicit pictures, celebrity stalking and photographs of death and violence in that they all ‘represent a transgression of accepted rules of privacy’. The implication is that, without the consent and permission of the subject most, if not all, forms of photography are voyeuristic, both in their execution and audience reception. This is simply untrue.

To claim that voyeurism is the unifying feature of all the diverse images on show in Exposed is to apply an extremely blunt theoretical instrument in examining them. This strips them of the very thing that makes the pictures worth revisiting: their context. It overlooks the multiple influences that shape a photographer’s interest and curiosity, whether this is Lewis Hine’s reformist project to document the conditions of American labour or Gary Winogrand’s claim that he photographed ‘to see what things looked like as photographs’. The impact is to remove any sense of social or historical understanding of the themes represented in photographs, rendering them only as a response of an individual.

Still, the exhibition does manage to examine the tensions and negotiations involved in encounters between photographers and subjects. Nowhere is this clearer than in the section that highlights the relationships between celebrities and ‘paparazzi’. It includes sequences of images by the Italian photographers Tazio Secchiaroli and Marcello Geppetti, who both worked as news photographers in Rome in the 1950s. Secchiaroli is widely recognised as the inspiration behind the character Paparazzo, a Vespa-riding photographer, in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita.

Secchiaroli, whose pictures regularly appeared in magazines such as L’Espresso and who established the Roma Press Photo agency, once said of the paparazzi: ‘Nothing will stop us, even if it means overturning tables and waiters, or raising shrieks from an old lady… even if the police intervene or we chase the subject all night long, we won’t let go, we’ll fight with flashes.’

It’s hardly a call to arms, but the image of the paparazzi as intrusive and relentless has stuck. As if to underline this fact the exhibition displays two spreads from the British press following the death of Princess Diana. One is from the Sunday Mirror and carries the headline ‘Paparazzi to blame’.

However, the exhibition also reveals that there is often collusion between stars and the paparazzi. For instance, while Secchiaroli photographed a secretive meeting between Ava Gardner and Tony Franciosa, thus exposing their affair, he was also once asked by the actor Marcello Mastrioanni to photograph his meeting with French star Catherine Deneuve. Secchiaroli’s pictures were widely published and therefore took the heat off Mastrioanni and Deneuve so they could actually spend time together without the press pack following them around.

The tensions and collusions between the photographers and the photographed are beautifully summed up in a picture taken by Parisian photographer Georges Dudognon. It is of the actress Greta Garbo in a nightclub in Paris’s St Germain district. Garbo looks directly at the camera while a hand attempts to block the photographer’s view of the actress. The hand doesn’t look as if it belongs to Garbo. It looks more like somebody is trying to stop the picture being taken, even though the actress stares directly into the camera.

Despite its failings, Exposed raises some very important questions about the nature of contemporary society and the role that photography plays in our lives today. It is well worth a look.

David Cowlard is a documentary and urban landscape photographer. View his work here.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is showing at Tate Modern, London, until 3 October 2010. For more information, see the Tate website.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes said royals should stop harassing the paparazzi. Nathalie Rothschild joined a protest against restrictions on photography and went to a Tate Modern exhibition which sparked a debate about child porn. Elsewhere, she reviewed a Tate show taking in 170 years of photography. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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