It has become commonplace for people to talk about the "Big Brother" society. This coded short hand pulls in two directions. On the one hand, it refers to celebrity culture and the successful television franchise, Big Brother, that has helped fetishise this phenomenon. The celebrity is the one who uses the media to advance his or her idea of their own celebrity. At the same time, the media's carnivorous appetite for the designer or degenerate lifestyle is satiated by the constant stream of wannabees. From Hello/Ok magazine spreads to pap shots of inebriated celebs rolling out of Chinawhite nightclub, the idea of celebrity has become a contemporary contagion that few (either as participant or consumer) are immune from. It appears to take only fifteen minutes of gratuitous exhibitionism to become famous these days.
The "Big Brother" society also indicates the common anxiety that we are being watched by unseen forces. CCTV. The mobile phone camera. The zoom lens. Hidden banks of television screens monitoring our every movement. Some argue that the private life, that sphere where we are most truly, nakedly ourselves, is being eroded by these intrusive technologies. "He shifted position in his chair and watched the surveillance camera adjust," writes Don Delillo of the billionaire asset manager, Eric Packer, in his novel, Cosmopolis, "His image used to be accessible nearly all the time, videostreamed worldwide from the car, the plane, the office and selected sites in his apartment. But there were security issues to address and now the camera operated on a closed circuit. A nurse and two armed guards were on constant watch at three monitors in a windowless room at the office. The word office was outdated now. It had zero saturation." Delillo deftly captures the paranoia and claustrophobia of a life under visual interrogation.
The latest exhibition at Tate Modern, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, provides a photographic exploration of these Big Brother themes. Stripped of any sensationalist veneer, this exhibition is morally challenging and disturbing. We are all, to some extent, voyeurs, watching others without their express permission or knowledge. We do this all the time. But placing the single eye of a camera lens between us and the object of our desire or curiosity and taking a photo, adds a moral density to our actions. When this is achieved without the knowledge or consent of a person and made public, then we instinctively sense that some indefinable act of violation has occurred.
However, these photographic acts of violation are also opportunities for creativity and art. In the opening section of the exhibition, The Unseen Photographer, the lives of others are presented to us with an immediacy and authenticity that circumvents the posed, "say, cheese" fabrications of the studio or family snapshot. The photos of Jacob Riis held a gunpowder and magnesium flare to the darkness of poverty in 19th century New York. It was no longer necessary for the public to rely on their imaginations in order to picture this slum-dwelling underclass, these photos allowed them to see their naked suffering. Riis was a social reformer and his photos could be read as an aspect of his moral crusade, but, there remains the suspicion that those photographed - asleep, drunk, depressed - were being exploited to further an aesthetic enterprise. This suspicion arises because these photos are more than documentary material. In terms of content and form they are visual art works.
Such moral uneasiness increases as you enter the Celebrity and the Public Gaze section of the exhibition. We have grown accustomed to the work of the paparazzi and how the celebrity must cannibalise their privacy in order to maintain their fleeting status. There is no area of a celebrity's life that the public cannot have access to thanks to the photograph. We want to see our celebrities ooze glamour on some red carpet and to see the cellulite, the imperfections. We want to see the magnums of Cristal champagne they drink in some VIP enclosure and to see them throw drunken punches at some street paparazzo. With each photo, an individual becomes more a celebrity and less a person and large numbers of us are implicated in this degrading process by being eager consumers of such images. Yet, we are also aware of the consequences. In Ron Galella's photo, What Makes Jackie Run?, we see Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis running away from the photographer in an attempt to escape the camera and hold on to some crumb of privacy. This is the celebrity as hunted animal, caught in the glare of camera flashes. In the catalogue to the exhibition, the curator, Sandra S. Philips, notes:
Onassis would invent ways to subvert Galella's pictures of her - she wold put a bunch of flowers in front of her face, for instance, or run away from him, he in hot pursuit - and this dialogue between the photographer and his prey became the subject of his pictures. Gallela even disguised himself and landed on the private island of Skorpios, owned by Aristotle Onassis, to take pictures on her holidays (including her honeymoon). He was finally forced by court order to desist pursuing her.
This lack of respect for the private contours of a human life becomes even more unsettling when one considers the relationship between the voyeuristic gaze and eroticism. "We can now see anything, virtually" states the notes to this section of the exhibition. With the internet and access to pornography, this has proved to be the case. The long held conviction that the sexual act is something private and intimate has been called into question. This has been achieved under the banner of "sexual liberation" and done so with the minimum of suspicion, doubt or hesitation. Any moral sensibility is sacrificed to justify depicting the most sordid demimonde of sexual expression: sado-masochism, bondage, prostitution, etc. "To photograph the voyeurs, I needed to be considered one of them," the Japanese photographer, Kohei Yoshiyuki, has argued to rationalise his images of dogging, "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 not 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." This contorted logic reveals the emptiness of Yoshiyuki's moral position and cannot absolve him from his instrumentalisation of the human person. "Whatever I photograph, I always lose," remarks the serial killer, Mark Lewis, in Michael Powell's film Peeping Tom and what is lost in so many of the photographs here is the person's soul.
The final two sections of this exhibition ratchet up the moral dilemmas. Witnessing Violence includes images that have seared themselves on the collective imagination: the industrial charnel houses of Nazism, the immolation of a Buddhist monk, the shooting of a Viet Cong officer and a young, naked girl running towards the camera after being napalmed. Widely disseminated in the press, these images were a terrible testimony to man's cruelty to man. They were evidence of all that was vicious and violent in our world and gave the public permission to engage with the social and political issues of their day. That was the noble ideal, but in her critique, On Photography, Susan Sontag points out that "once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more - and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize." Familiarity with such violent images has the potential to cauterize the faculty of compassion within us. In this regard, the photos of William Willoughby Hooper chronicle the 1876-78 famine in Madras, India with an unflinching clarity. Yet, Hooper made no attempt to alleviate the suffering of those caught in his primitive view finder.
"Surveillance pictures are voyeuristic in anticipation, seeking deviance from what is there: the creeping presence of enemy activity; telling changes in the landscape below; evidence of incriminating behaviour, such as spying, crossing borders illegally, or accepting bribes," writes Sandra S. Philips in the catalogue to the final section of Exposed. These photographs capture the imperceptible movement of CCTV cameras and police photographers perched on high buildings. They are the blurred, grainy realities that exist at the periphery of our vision. Given the right circumstances, they confirm that we are all potential subjects for some government photo album. In my next post, I am going to return to this section and share some thoughts on the work of my friend, Jonathan Olley, who has some of his Castles of Ulster photographs in this exhibition.
Exposed is not for the faint hearted but it is for those who are prepared to wrestle with some of the most interesting questions of our age. This is the most stimulating exhibition in London at the moment. The historical breadth and artistic quality of the exhibits offer a convincing narrative that surrounds each individual idea with a halo of significance. In turn, each idea has a cumulative effect, forcing the viewer to consider a whole range of moral and philosophical possibilities and his response to them. When we might prefer to look away, Exposed helps us to see anew the challenges of being human in the twenty-first century.