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Exposed: Voyeurism and surveillance

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Back behind the lens, Sophie Ristelhueber’s 1992 images Fait, that include aerial views of the aftermath of the first Gulf war, may well distance us from individuals but brings us in closer contact with the trauma inflicted on the actual landscape of the country they inhabit.

By contrast, Harun Farocki’s Eye/Machine II video from 2002, documents the work of technicians using visuals from the ‘eyes’ of machines together with image processing to programme, among other things, cruise missile flight paths. While it sounds more interesting than it actually is to watch, the piece does indicate how easily imaging of this kind dehumanises the deeds men do.

The Exposed exhibition sets out to explore our relationship with the camera in its more intrusive role. Undoubtedly, detachment is a significant component of observing photographs – a medium that some still question as art, but is nonetheless, very accessible. For viewers, photographs also serve as reminders that we are not involved in the act taking place. While emotions may be evoked, the image tells of a moment that has passed and our detachment may leave us with feelings of longing or relief.

At the other end of the lens, those in the frame for this event’s theme are intentionally exposed. Their relationship with the camera is tinged with vulnerability, as is ours in this time of blasé social network postings and the surveillance state. Adorning the exhibition publicity is Garbo, now a byword for privacy, who declared, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.” As someone described by Bette Davis as having “mastery over the machine”, perhaps Garbo instinctively knew about the love/hate relationship we have with the camera, that this somewhat restrained exhibition invites us to appreciate.

Yet it is our relationship with realtime video that is underplayed here – a relationship, it seems, that is still being defined. Surprising that, the ‘Warhol of the Web’ Josh Harris’ social experiment, Quiet: We Live in Public is absent from the showings on surveillance. Still, despite the madness that ensued, his was a knowing surveillance set-up of volunteers, which may have been the deciding factor.

After all, we are prone to perform in front of the camera, yet the hidden camera denies that charade. It takes the power from us and, whether we are unknowingly viewed by voyeurs or the surveillance state, the intrusion disregards our freedom to wear the public face we prefer the world to see. A face, when lifted from others that we are, nonetheless, compelled to view.

If our relationship with the camera is all about power then, unwittingly, the exhibition may have succeeded in words where it failed in pictures. In the mind, the words ‘exposed’, ‘voyeur’ and ‘surveillance’ conjure up far more powerful scenes than were on show and suggests our appetite for taboo spectacles allows us to be easily manipulated by those claiming to offer them.

Bob Dormon is Reviews Editor at Reg Hardware. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is at Tate Modern until 3rd October 2010.

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