Exposed: voyeurism, surveillance and the camera

I’ve always harboured the idea that humans are voyeuristic creatures and that, in fact, voyeurism isn’t an abnormal, psychological disorder but basic human nature that we all experience to some degree. We like watching other human behaviour, this is proved by the popularity of programmes such as Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity and Laguna Beach during the last decade. However, beyond the contrived entertainment of “reality” television we’re really interested in the perverse, the freakish and the unacceptable.

For hundreds of years populations of socially “advanced” countries would gather to watch public executions, the romans built magnificent coliseums to watch men be attacked by wild animals and gladiator’s fight until death, human freak shows were popular until the early twentieth century. These aren’t the irrelevant people of the past; this would be us, now, if legalities and equality laws weren’t introduced and if it wasn’t considered “socially unacceptable”. Even the internet, arguably one of the greatest inventions of all time, is crammed full of porn to suit every fetish and perversion.

The other week I went to the Exposed exhibition at the Tate museum, which is subtitled “Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera”. It examines the various ways in which the camera has been used to act as the undetected eye spying on us, focusing on that part of photography which has concerned itself with the unacceptable: ogling, peeping and lying.

Exposed is not the cheeriest exhibition you’ll see this year, it’s a little bit sordid and the subject matter can be hard for some people to view. While I was in the section “Voyeurism and Desire” a young Asian woman stood next to me was clearly appalled by a staged image taken through a window of a couple having sex on the floor. It surprised me that in a room surrounded by full frontal nudity it was this one image, that only implied the couple were having sex and where sexual organs weren’t seen, that shocked her the most.

While sex and nudity don’t shock me in the slightest (and yet this section seems to have been commented on the most in the reviews I’ve read) the rooms dedicated to “Witnessing Violence” were difficult for me. Sex is sex and we know what the human body looks like but the extent of human violence will always shock me.

One room depicts the shifting attitudes to capital punishment in the United States during the early twentieth century, which is conveyed in two sets of photographs from this period. A surreptitious photograph of the convicted murderer Ruth Snyder shows the inhumanity of the electric chair. Around the same time, lynching photographs were printed and circulated as postcards, celebrating these brutal acts of vigilantism on innocent black people.

The exhibition ends with images from, or purporting to be from, surveillance cameras. Unintentional photography and a genre lent topicality by the Lib Dem’s anti-CCTV stance. With 4.2 million cameras throughout the country, Britain is a surveillance society with the full approval of the governments elected with the mandate to protect our freedoms. Hours and hours of surveillance footage recorded all over the world remains unseen by the human eye, played back only when incidents are suspected or the alarm is raised. Worryingly, we only occasionally feel unease at its ubiquity.

The Exposed exhibition is a clever in that the nature and character of invasive looking is evident not only in the images themselves, but also in the ways in which the viewer is implicated in acts of voyeurism. Rather than blame the camera for showing illicit or forbidden material, Exposed explores the uneasy relationship between making and viewing images that deliberately cross lines of privacy and propriety because, whether we want to be or not, we are all voyeurs now.