Once you’ve bitten into it, you can’t just turn away from a bad apple’s taste. Short of leaving, you can’t avoid the smell in a smoky room; the feel of water when you’re in it is inescapable; there’s only so much street noise you can tune out. But seeing is different: it is the most voluntary of the senses. You can close your eyes to what you don’t want to see. You’re free to choose; you’re responsible.
I considered using my freedom of visual choice to skip the “Voyeurism and Desire” section of Exposed; many of its images made me uncomfortable. But some did not. Nan Goldin’s sometimes brutally honest images of (consenting) friends, relatives and self don’t, as I’ve said, seem voyeuristic.
Acting as a kind of participant-documentarian, she invites me to imagine the feelings and experiences of her fellow subjects and leaves me the space to connect respectfully, without actually entering her scene.
It’s hard, though, to respect this bent over woman, unwittingly exposing her vaguely clad derriere to a hidden camera.
This is the look of a secretive voyeur, and I don’t want it. It’s been noted, though, that Tichy’s works are his response to government repression in the former Czechoslovakia and suggested that he identified with his subjects. Do we? Or do we identify with an objectifying (male) gaze, gloating in its relative power? Does the image’s dreamy blur, an effect of Tichy’s jury-rigged camera, express a sad yearning to touch? Or does it read as creepy?
Another group of “Voyeuristic” images in the exhibition look at voyeurism itself.
It’s not the couple making out that seems to be caught in flagrante here; it’s the crawling figure–another photographer?–and the man lurking in the shadows, his hand on his fly. This photo pulls back from the scene, primal or otherwise; it preserves the identity if not the privacy of the actors, and instead watches the watchers. Who has the power in this photograph and to whom do we owe respect?
The posed near-portraits (by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray and Nobuyoshi Araki, especially) of presumably consenting models give me pause. Some offer a brave and even beautiful self-exposure; others make me wish for a sign announcing that no models were hurt in the process of making this photograph. Voyeurism is one thing; victimization another and some subjects seem like sacrifices to our bad appetites. Do the scratched-out faces and masks in E.J. Bellocq‘s Storyville Portraits rob these women of their individuality or confer protective anonymity?
Some of “Voyeurism’s” photographs stretch my loyalty to the old idea that “nothing human is alien to me.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose ethical thinking inspires my search for ethical looking, uses this mantra in an essay where he also claims a belief that “everybody matters.” How can everybody matter if humiliating others is a habit everybody shares?
How does the value of upholding the dignity of every person square with mainstream sexting and everyday visits to porn sites? Do voyeuristic photographs in a museum lead us to criticize, or condition us to live comfortably in a world where upskirt and downblouse shots, legal or not, circulate freely on the web?
If the desire to look at voyeuristic images is just the nasty side of the human condition, common and natural, is turning away from them a moral response or just squeamish hypocricy? In some of these photographs, the possibility of respectful looking seems beside the point. How can you feel empathy with a sex object? If vicarious respect isn’t always possible, is it always necessary? Should we rest easy knowing that every photograph is a fiction? Or should we stop looking?
Postscript: The August 1 film in the Walker’s “Summer Music and Movies” series is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It’s no skin flick, but Rear Window is Exhibit A in discussions of cinematic construction of the dominating, objectifying male gaze and voyeuristic looking.