This week was about how we look at photographs and how we look at the world. As photographers, we both look at photographs and create photographs based on what we see. Clearly, looking and seeing are highly important activities for us.
The forums contained a lot of discussion about voyeurism. The connection was frequently made between the photographer’s continual looking and pleasure in looking and voyeurism. It’s my view that many of these connections are misplaced.
Voyeurism is a transgressive behaviour. The voyeur seeks sexual or scandalous pleasure in what they look at. There is an element of obsession there too. Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series certainly looks to me like a voyeuristic enterprise and Alpern’s comments about the series seem to confirm this:
” Perhaps it had something to do with wanting to understand how people connected, no matter the circumstance. I was single, so within that framework, the smallest details of the couples’ interactions became obsessively interesting. How and when did the money change hands? Who made the first move? Was it reciprocated? Was there a condom? A kiss? Would they meet again? There was a soap-opera quality to it all, with recurring characters and a good measure of entertainment. After long stretches of staring at empty windows, it was an adrenaline rush when a body suddenly appeared. I felt like a trophy hunter waiting in the blind. Shooting on film, there was no sure way of knowing what I’d captured until the film was processed. It was very exciting!”
Not all looking is like this. Looking can be motivated by prurience, but also by curiosity, sympathy, love, an existing interest (such as photography), political inclination or relationship status. I suppose it is no surprise that during this week, we were recommended to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
This film is all about looking. Whilst Jeffries is used to looking as a photographer, due to his injury he is unable to do anything but look at the world outside his window. Most commentators are agreed that Rear Window is a deeply psychological film, so it would be reasonable to try and understand it in those terms.
Jeffries can see a variety of neighbours, all of whom he sees differently and with whom he has different relationships. Miss Torso is the simplest relationship. She is young, fit and sexy. Jeffries is probably aroused by watching her, so his gaze for her could be deemed voyeuristic. Likewise the Newly Weds. They remain behind the blinds, so Jeffries must speculate about them. But “newlywed” carries specific connotations, so it must be assumed that Jeffries is imagining their energetic sexual activities.
The relations with the other neighbours are more complex. The couple with the dog are amusing and provide Jeffries with entertainment. Miss Lonely Hearts elicits his sympathy as her loneliness becomes increasingly apparent to him. The Thorwalds are more complex still. Jeffries begins the film by sympathising with the husband in the face of his wife’s demands. But when the wife is apparently murdered, sympathy swings to the deceased wife. No amount of nagging or demanding behaviour justifies murder.
The neighbours are seen through a variety of gazes: lust, fantasy, amusement, sympathy, curiosity and anger. These are the many ways in which all of us see the world, so the claustrophobic set of Rear Window becomes a model, not only of the multiple gazes that Jeffries exerts, but also the multiple gazes that we all exert.
We all see the world through multiple gazes. I am a husband, father, brother, cousin, uncle, activist, photographer and manager. All require different views of the world. Some inform my photography strongly, some not at all. So to limit discussion of the photographer’s gaze to various shades of voyeurism is to largely miss the point. For some photographer’s voyeurism is an aspect of their practice. It’s not part of mine, but I make no judgement on anyone for whom it is. My photography is informed by my love of the natural world and my activist desire to preserve it. Other photographers wish to explore their pasts, their gender alignment, their love for their family or a host of other ideas. Gazes are constructed by desires. What we want determines how we look at it.