Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera

Exhibition: Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera
Location: Tate Modern
Running: until 3 October

In a desperate attempt to escape the oppressive muggy heat of July in London, I have begun to seek solace in the cool and assuredly calming spaces of its art galleries. While I usually have little patience with places such as the Tate at the height of tourist season, from the moment I stepped into the new photography exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, I was so enraptured that the hordes of Spanish school children simply melted away.

It is a show that fully embraces the controversial issues of surveillance, sexuality and our obsession with celebrity head on, leaving the viewer simultaneously intrigued and repulsed throughout. Questioning the morality of everything from pornography to war photography, it is an exhibition that juxtaposes concealment with narcissism, constantly placing the viewer in the morally precarious position of the ‘peeping tom’ – we are witnessing acts of an unbelievably debauched or violent nature, yet we cannot look away.

In the first room you enter, you come face to face with the powerful and striking portrait images by diCorcia. Focused in and blown up to a massive proportion, he captures a tangible snapshot of human emotion on the faces of otherwise threatening figures. Head #10, with the face mostly in shadow, is haunting and unnerving, allowing the viewer to approach a figure they would usually avoid face to face, bringing together fear and sympathy in these beautifully expressive pictures. These are contrasted side by side with almost miniature sepia photos of Native Americans in their natural habitat, creating an almost Blake-like allusion to innocence and experience in this modern age.

The theme of uncomfortable voyeurism and curiosity is continuous throughout the exhibition. Stepping into a darkened corridor you are confronted with a series by Kohei Yoshiyuki, depicting various strangers conducting illicit sexual affairs in the bushes of a public park while others watch. Similarly engrossing yet repulsive is ‘Dirty Windows’ by Merry Alpern, which captures tantalising glimpses of the sordid transactions of a brothel opposite her house through a grainy window. There is an odd poignancy to these images, catching human interaction at its rawest and most desperate.

Written on the wall as you enter the exhibition is the aphorism, “photography invented modern celebrity culture.” Fame and the fascination that it holds for the modern public is addressed in an interesting and often humorous way. The major question lies in where the line should be drawn between curiosity and infringement of privacy, allowing the viewer to greedily consume the glamorous images of Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe whilst showcasing newspaper headlines of Lady Diana’s death- a harsh reminder of the true price of celebrity. There is also a slightly mocking undertone in the showing of the staged fake celebrity photos by Allison Jackman, supposedly showing the queen and Jack Nicholson in their most intimate moments, undermining the supposed glamour and perfection of those celebrities we idolise and highlighting the absurdity of our enthralment with the idea of fame. I could not help but laugh.

The viewer is taken from this almost frivolous world of celebrity directly to the hazy morality of capturing violence and the terror of war on camera. Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering or does it anaesthetize us to the horror? While it showcases some of the harshest and most abrasive images of war of the last century, the exhibition also focuses on the importance of photography in depicting a side of human history and suffering otherwise forgotten. Particularly shocking is Tom Howard’s clandestine picture of convicted murder Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, leaving the viewer to feel as though they are witnessing first hand this scene of human agony. It is a stark yet evocative part of the exhibition, raising questions that stay with you long after you leave the gallery’s cultured walls.

Exposed is by no means an easy exhibition to digest. It brings to light some of the most complicated and controversial topics of our time, questioning both what we see and how we see it. Sophie Calle’s work Hotel Room, where she took a job at a Venetian hotel as a cleaner and photographed their belongings and documented them, making judgements about them based around the photos, is one of the many works that makes the viewer uncomfortably aware of how they are viewed by others; in this show we are both the hunter and the hunted.

Simon Baker, the Tate’s curator of photography, has excelled in bringing us an exhibition which is hauntingly relevant and beautifully laid out. It exudes an honest explicitness and lack of pretension that is refreshing, and while you may leave feeling a little on edge, its underlying messages and moral questions make it one of the most significant art shows of the moment.

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