Thursday, 14 October 2010

Freedom, the camera and what lies beneath

There are very few people who aren’t photographers these days. Very few people who don’t carry a camera, knowingly or otherwise. We’ve become both the victims and the perpetrators of our own loss of freedom. Blame it on digital cameras, mobile phones, CCTV or simply health and safety gone mad, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who could argue that they were truly free.

This summer, an exhibition at the Tate Modern, entitled ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’ looks at the subversive ways in which cameras and photographers capture people, either aware or unaware, whilst going about their daily lives- and much more besides. The Tate’s Curator of Photography, Simon Baker, rightly points out that we’re all photographers now, but it took this exhibition to point it out to me. The artists use photography to capture the people looking at the spectacles, and not the spectacles themselves, and engaging in illicit or sensitive activities. The photographs are invasive, explicit, seedy and compelling in the same moment.

Artist Merry Alpern’s photographic work ‘Dirty Windows’, is about as invasive as it comes. Alpern discovered that from a friend’s attic, she could see through the toilet window of one of New York’s secret clubs. For months she surreptitiously photographed the workings of what looks like a brothel and drug den. This prolific piece encapsulates what this exhibition is all about: exploiting the camera’s ability to capture the fragility of people in pictures, without the knowledge of some or all of their subjects.

Today, we are not free for two reasons. Firstly because we are being watched. Secondly because we forget that we are being watched. We assume that people only see what we want them to see, but the pathways into the inner workings of our minds and the plethora of mediums which we use to express ourselves mean that it is all too easy for humans of our generation to expose themselves far beyond their intentions. Did the New York sex workers and drug pushers think that anyone was capable of anonymously recording their antics? No, of course not. They took for granted that their identity existed within only that club and only that city. But neither do we help ourselves. Many of us use Facebook haphazardly, saying intimate things meant for close friends on a social networking site has become the norm. For this reason, we are also our own jailkeepers. Cheaters text because they think they won’t get caught, but networks intertwine, and information cannot be fenced in so easily. As out foibles with modern technology have taught us, it transpires that these methods of communication, which we believe to be infallible, are in fact those that let us down.

Sometimes we are watched in manners that are threatening and abrasive, our freedom is ripped, as opposed to eased, from us. At the Tate, the photographs showing a KGB spy rifling through documents illustrate this. The exhibition even goes as far as to display the newspaper coverage from the death of Princess Diana, who allegedly died at the hands of the lenses that marred her short life. Brutality plays a big part in the camera’s invasiveness. But turn another corner, and you come to see Harry Callahan’s ‘Women Lost in Thought’, a tentative approach to record women in a state of musing. Although this is a voyeuristic exercise, it is also a candid one, which tells a story without, presumably directly harming its subjects.

Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic red, white and blue image of Obama that became the unofficial poster of his campaign, has found that free speech is a fallacy the hard way. When Iggy Pop interviewed him for a recent issue of Interview magazine, Fairey spoke of how Associated Press, the owners of the news photograph from which he took inspiration, are going after him for copyright infringement. Fairey sees his free speech as being ‘exercised visually’, but we aren’t even allowed to interpret any more.

This idea that we are being constantly policed is one that inspired the tagline of ‘OBEY’ for Fairey’s work. There is an increasing sense that there are forces surrounding us which have agendas and make us act in certain ways without our direct knowledge. He aligns advertising with propaganda. Indeed I believe it to be true that whilst we may believe some advertising to be ineffectual and passive, the subconscious impact may be quite different. So long as the package is friendly, the content must be harmless. But it is not, and we are increasingly affected by the existence of these power mechanisms. Discursive regimes dictate how we act, speak, think and feel and their place in our societies is getting more and more oppressive by the day. Whilst we might all want to be masters of our own destinies, we are not, and the camera acts as the façade for the devices which are unspoken.

People don’t like the idea that there is something out there controlling them, they like to think that their free will is paramount, but deep down, we all know that the structuralised network of power is there, we just have to look hard enough.

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