A study of voyeurism in photography


A brief exploration of the varying degrees of voyeurism in photography.

The beckoning window, a thin boundary between private and public. Drawing in light by day, releasing it by night. From inside, a welcomed source of natural light and ventilation. From outside, an alluring portal into the private. Gail Albert Halaban describes windows as “fragile borders between the familiar and the unknown, between the rushing noises of the city and the timeless quiet of private lives.” (Halaban, 2018). 

 The structure of this project will sit on a foundation of voyeurism conducted via windows, focusing on a variety of voyeuristic disciplines in order to investigate the interplay between the observer and the observed, whilst also throwing into relief our fascination with looking. 

Challenging the boundaries of art and its meaning has remained a constant in the evolution of creative expression, the repeated questioning of artistic conventions in order to progress. Mine is a voyage of artistic curiosity, a continuing journey of development to encompass a broader understanding of challenging concepts.  

 In this essay I aim to explore the art of prying, the appeal of observing an unwitting target unbound by the sexual motifs of voyeurism. By distancing Peeping Tom-ism from its erotic ties I will investigate the voyeuristic act as a form of artistic expression. In doing this I will analyse photographs that embody this element of expressive progression, whilst emphasising the fundamental role of photographic imagery as an artistic tool. As to immediate questions of ethics and legalities, I will not attempt to address these because they lay beyond the scope of my investigation. 

 Let us begin with a little game of Spot the Difference, a superficial analysis of the following images in order to find the voyeuristic imposter. The reader’s task is to discern, based on visual cues, which of the six images could be considered to be truly voyeuristic. 

At first glance the photographs appear to be very similar in content; they all capture intimate snippets of clothes peeling off, homespun nudity, and potential foreplay. All seemingly taking place in the comfort of a household environment and exposed through the medium of an open window. Yet one of the images differs in a single aspect, firmly asserting its intrusive nature. The difference is defined by the subject’s awareness of the camera – or the viewer’s gaze – or lack thereof in this case. In one of the images the subject appears to be performing to that gaze, but can we really know that? 

 Unfortunately, at face value this variable is almost impossible to distinguish with certainty, as the artist’s conceptual engineering of the work is not clearly evident. That is to say, although the photographs look invasive, without knowing if the subject willingly consented, there is no way of telling that Figure 6 (Yasmine Chatila’s black and white photograph in the bottom right hand corner) is missing the target’s acknowledgement. 

 One interesting aspect of the topic of voyeurism is that the closer you zoom in the harder it becomes to focus on the subject. Perhaps the most complete and comprehensive exploration of this precarious photographic theme is an exhibition co-curated by Sandra Phillips of San Francisco’s MoMA and Simon Baker of Tate, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (2010). This compelling collection of over 250 works aimed to fill in parts of this elusive strand of art history, delivered via a thematic arrangement of five unique subsections, in a series of essays by Sandra S. Phillips: The Unseen Photographer; Voyeurism and Desire; Celebrity and the Public Gaze; Witnessing Violence; Surveillance. 

 Through these subsections Phillips draws upon the tortured relationship between art and privacy. In this essay my focus is on three of those subjects; I will not be looking at the Celebrity circus, nor (necessarily) witnessing violence. As my title suggests, my theme will concentrate on what is hidden or revealed through portals separating – yet allowing access – outside to inside. 

As the exercise above is intended to demonstrate, the definition of Voyeurism becomes more diluted as we consider a variety of possibilities. Therefore, the premises of my own exploration will divide into consensual and non-consensual invasions of privacy, using both extremes of the continuum in order to fully explore the fine line between artistic curiosity and self-serving voyeurism. 

Section 1: Constructed Voyeurism

The extensive groundwork laid by Phillips and Baker serves as a solid platform from which to construct our observations on the strain of voyeuristic photography pertaining to windows, extracting worthy candidates from the line-up. I am particularly drawn to the work of Merry Alpern and Shizuka Yokomizo due to their contrasting methods. One captures the grim reality of an after-hour sex club through a grimy window, and the other sends anonymous letters to the strangers she portrays. Both conduct their observations through the medium of a window, yet are situated at the opposite ends of the voyeuristic spectrum.  

For this duo the definition of voyeurism is rather broad: Observing “things that are forbidden or sneaking looks at things people don’t usually spend time observing – openly at least. (Phillips, 2010).  According to this interpretation the voyeuristic act does not concern itself exclusively with sexual incentives,1 nor is it exclusive to the observation of an unwitting subject. Constructed Voyeurism explores the art of peeping from an ethical perspective by first gaining consent from the subject.  

 Situated at the milder end of our continuum Yokomizo’s voyeuristic-style portraits (fig.1) are strangely intimate. Here Phillips extends the definition of voyeurism a few degrees to include the subject’s consent, albeit by a very loose agreement. Openly displaying a shameless curiosity concerning the subjects’ home life – at least what they choose to show – the photographer establishes a distanced connection with the individual through a very simple message, which reads:  

 Dear Stranger, I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know. I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening. A camera will be set outside the window on the street. If you do not mind being photographed, please stand in the room and look into the camera through the window for 10 minutes on __-__-__ (date and time). I will take your picture and then leave. We will remain strangers to each other. If you do not want to get involved, please simply draw your curtains to show your refusal. I really hope to see you from the window. 

Shizuka Yokomizo, Dear Stranger, 1998-2000 

 Although there is an element of consent from the participants, Yokimozo’s work still encapsulates the unpredictability of a voyeur in search of that forbidden gaze by relinquishing the directorial role most photographers in this area assume, whilst simultaneously allowing the participants to influence how they are depicted (if at all). Their instruction to ‘stand […] and looks through the window for 10 minutes’ is open to their own interpretation, which they may or may not choose to perform.  

As such, arguably Yokimozo’s approach can be described as constructed whilst remaining deeply rooted in a voyeur’s mindset. Entirely constructed voyeuristic scenes on the other hand, exploit the humble window for its peeping properties, a pastiche imitating the invasion of privacy. The charm of a decisive moment lost in the process of staged photography. This Hitchcock-inspired Rear Window-esque genre concerns itself with replicating the invasion of privacy, instead of attempting to capture the real thing. 

 Unlike the unpredictability of Yokimozo’s approach, photographers such as Ole Marius Joergensen or Andreas Kock assume complete control over their models in order to compose a stalker-like aesthetic. These interpretations try to recreate the voyeuristic act through stereotyping the definition, usually addressing the sexual connotations of peeping in a bid to capture ‘convincing’ portrayal of a voyeur’s gaze. This is exemplified in fig. 2 by surrealist Norwegian photographer Ole Marius Joergensen, in an image featuring a woman undressing in front of an uncovered window. Joergensen forms a clichéd depiction of the voyeuristic act by adopting a literal definition of voyeurism (the activity of getting pleasure from secretly watching other people in sexual situations or, more generally, from watching other people’s private lives) as defined by the Cambridge dictionary. 

As previously mentioned in our game of spot the difference, although the photographic process employed by Joergensen is missing the key non-consensual component, the final results conceal this aspect visually. That is to say, even though his work looks voyeuristic, the methods used to create said work detach the act from a true invasion of privacy. 

This is less of a persuasive interpretation due to exaggerated lighting, nonetheless it is a prime candidate for the use of voyeuristic imagery in separate photographic areas. Another example includes Fig. 3, an editorial series by Andreas Kock. Dubbed ‘stalker’, the series began as a fashion venture which soon became a provocative tool for exploring the validity of peeping – due to its horror movie appeal, dimly lit nature, and implementation of a window. 

Paradoxically, the subject’s awareness of the observer seems to prevent the act from being purely voyeuristic, which strictly speaking defines ‘voyeur’ as a singularity; a one-way view. However, it is not inconceivable for this to be perceived by the viewer as a two-way or reciprocal interaction. Consider the Hindu notion of darśan, for example, meaning the sense of not only seeing a manifestation of a sacred or divine presence, but also being seen by it (Irving 2014, Gell 1998, Eck 1981). Not dissimilarly, stalkers who believe that newsreaders are sending personal signals to them through the TV. The visual examples I have given are distinctly scopophiliac due to semiotic values and visual indicators suggested by the window frame. 

The politics of looking are also crucial to Jack Adams and Gail Albert, whose images complete the set from our game. They are all in the same directorial league as Ole Marius, yet they all pursue an interpretive invasion of privacy to convey separate opinions on the peeping conundrum. In essence, our attitude towards photography has evolved from the belief that a camera will ‘steal the soul’, [which maybe a colonial myth that originated in spirit photography] to egotistically spreading images of ourselves in a bid for likes and approval – as indeed Adams and Albert investigate through their artwork. 

As mentioned by Coghlan in an online article about photographic voyeurism, our prolific use of the internet to consume and spread imagery has ensured that we are never alone or unwatched, in the increasingly ‘Big Brother’ society of external observation each participant is cast as an unwitting amateur voyeur.  The late Roger Ebert stated that “the movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people’s lives.” (Ebert,1999).  

 “Visually speaking, I love the old-fashion way of peeping, not the kind we all do today through the web” writes Joergensen (2016). Both Adams and Joergensen use the invasion of privacy as a metaphor for this constructed reality found in social media. “It is a phantasmagorical illustration of privacy in the 21st century and through this, it attempts to define the fabricated lives that we live in” says Adams. Seeing as so many facets of entertainment culminate within a frame, social media and reality TV seem to have normalised the observation of life through screens without interacting or interfering with the action as it unfolds. This includes pornographic content that would otherwise only be readily available through a window. Although, “while pornography can be voyeuristic it tends to be more mechanistic, even clinical; it lacks the sense that we are invading a person’s privacy” (Phillips, 2010: 55). Unlike the carefully constructed realities presented to us through the digital screen, a window contains a far more realistic representation of quotidian life; the curtains open to unveil a glimpse into the mundane truth, removed from the salacious grip of voyeurism as a sexual performance.  

 Yet, not all constructive voyeurs abide by such a strict definition. Consider Gail Albert Halaban as an example, who (except for one image of a woman getting out of the shower) encompasses this more general intrusiveness into private lives addressed in the definition of voyeurism. The rest of her work almost completely dismisses the sexual situations one might see when peering through a window, in favour of the innocence of a child’s birthday party or stroking a cat. 

 Inspired by Ruth Orkin who regularly photographed out of her window, Halaban started talking to people she knew about who they had seen from their apartment windows; this eventually led to her bringing the voyeurs and their subjects together in a bid to capture this strange interplay between observer and observed. (Papioannou, 2016). The resulting series is a blend of architectural photography and portraiture, presenting a holistic angle on privacy, city life and its inhabitants. This eventually led to a photobook which made such an impression on Le Monde newspaper that they commissioned a similar series in Paris. (Rosenberg, 2015).

I found Halaban’s photography to be the most realistic rendition of what is to follow. Although her project fits neatly into the fabricated realm, by avoiding the erotic connotations of peeping she paints a far more realistic picture of what it means to be a voyeur. Instead of the unrealistic saturated lighting present in Kock’s compositions, or the unlikely scenarios Joergensen depicts, Halaban opts for natural light sources as well as natural behaviour from her sitters. This is understated but effective. It not only fortifies the voyeuristic illusion, but it also relinquishes some of her choreographic capacity. 

 Ideally, a deeper analysis of each piece would benefit our study, but the limit of our inquiry allows for only a brief overview, so as to compare and contrast thoughts. So far, we have traversed from Yokomizo’s loosely consented photographs with little directorial influence, to Joergensen’s heavily controlled environments, with Halaban’s work serving as a bridge between the consensual and non-consensual. All nonetheless fit within the context of constructed peeping, whilst expressing completely separate opinions. 

Section 2: Photographic Voyeurs

Almost the polar opposite to constructed voyeurism; this theme is un-voyeuristic, yet its method retains many facets. “Indeed, surveillance has become especially compelling to contemporary artists working in photography and media, perhaps because it engages a certain anxiety felt in the culture.” (Phillips, 2010: 143). 

 Social conditioning labels spying as pejorative activity. The art critic and curator Michael Rush states that, “It is a short leap from looking (fixing one’s gaze upon another) to voyeurism (taking delight in extended gazing) to spying (surreptitiously studying the actions of another).” (Rush, 2004: 113). He also claims that the reason we are taught not to point or stare as children is because it bridges this gap between innocently looking and voyeuristically gazing.  

The voyeuristic gaze comes in several forms: Jeremy Bentham discusses an unreciprocated panoptic gaze when referring to the panopticon2. In comparison to Martin Jay, referencing Roland Barthes, who suggests that the gaze apprises, the gaze connects through reciprocation; it possesses and seeks out of our control (Jay, 1993: 441). Many theorists have contemplated and critiqued the hegemony of the gaze, yet very few have restricted their observations to window frames. 

 I would like to use this section to reflect on the differences between being granted access to a spectacle, versus watching people unawares. What exactly is the difference between using someone’s image without their explicit consent and using it against their knowledge, and how does this affect the final outcome? 

In contrast to the ethical mimicry of constructed voyeurism, truly voyeuristic and surveillance photography are surreptitious areas of photography concerned with capturing the subject in a state of candid unawareness; covert observation and recording of an unwitting participant. Perhaps as part of a broader objective, the aim is to breach another’s desire not to be observed without their knowledge, unless the subject gives explicit permission.  

Vicki Golberg, in a New York Times article about the ‘Sin of voyeurism’, declared that: “When compulsive, it’s perverse: a substitute for sexual contact with another.” (Goldberg, 1998). She also claimed that this version pertains almost exclusively to men. Here her view accords with Sigmund Freud, who believed that “pleasure in looking becomes a perversion if it is restricted exclusively to the genitals” (Freud, 1953). 

Garden-variety voyeurism, as Golberg calls it, is much more casually manifested, knows no gender and thrives on excitement. Strictly speaking, excitement is derived from witnessing the subject first-hand, which is why – here – I will ignore any form of remote surveillance. 

 Much like the observer effect in theoretical physics, which suggests that mere observation of a phenomenon can change that phenomenon (Wikipedia, 2020), humans also behave differently when knowingly observed. Therefore, the subject’s ignorance of being viewed is imperative. This also accords with the Japanese proverb suggesting we have three faces: The first, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends, and your family. The third, you never show anyone, for this is the truest reflection of who you are (Reid,2016). The likelihood of seeing this third face is increased through a discrete photographic method. 

 Arguably, through this opening we observe humans in their natural habitat, completely undisturbed. An environment of isolation and intimacy: a sacred space, where we escape the staged performances of constantly self-monitored actions, freeing us from social constraints.  In its enclosure the creature becomes unguarded, unaware of the visual predator stalking their prey through holes in the container. An ocular intruder in search of the forbidden gaze, desperate to feast their eyes on domestically raw moments, satisfying a primal curiosity of the unknown. A reverse camera obscura if you will, outwardly projecting the contents of a habitat through an aperture. 

Section 2.1: Privacy

Within our division into consensual and non-consensual we can also divide the non-consented invasions of privacy into images that reveal the subject’s identity and images which respectfully conceal this aspect. Defined as the ‘state in which one is not observed or disturbed by others’, privacy is a dwindling commodity: “By simply leaving one’s house, the viewer steps onto an urban stage and becomes an unwitting performer” (Coghlan, 2010) 

 Even in the safety of our own presence, the concrete jungles of today deprive its inhabitants of personal space. Meanwhile living spaces are becoming denser and more crowded; cameras are becoming more invasive. This begs the question: ‘If I stand in front of a window in my own home completely naked, and someone looks in, am I flashing or are they invading my privacy?’ 

 The perception of a voyeur’s behaviour is heavily dependent on semantics and context. A true voyeur is selfishly privileged, intentionally self-serving in their observations, seeking to be the sole observer, but introducing a camera into the equation makes an exclusive intimacy available to a wider audience, potentially exposing the unwitting subject. Unlike the selfish peeper, photography unlocks this uneven privacy making it accessible to others, or perhaps merely for the viewer’s pleasure elsewhere, later on, so as to infinitely prolong the intimate glimpse. Ultimately, it is the voyeur’s determination when to suspend the imposition on the stranger’s privacy. There is no doubt that the photographer exposes the subject to a wider audience, still the question remains; is it morally just to spread said content without consent? 

Which also begs further questions: ‘Is exploiting the vulnerable subject for profit or gain any less mischievous than indulging in their privacy as the sole viewer?’ and ‘Why does the introduction of a camera enable this behaviour?’ 

 By no means are the photographers under any obligation to protect the target. Simply releasing the fruits of their labour already exposes the photographer to possible disapproval or complications. Moreover, as Phillips writes, “distance also serves to protect the individual voyeur, who may use long lenses or night-vision scopes to peer without recrimination.” (Phillips, 2010: 141). Fortunately for the unwitting subject, although the individuals are on the receiving end of the voyeur’s gaze, in this case their identity remains intact – a prime example being the Photoshopped privacy added to Chatila’s work. This returns us to the final image from our game of spot the difference. Fig.6 is the only image not to contain any form of approval from those depicted. Chatila depicts intangible moments of privacy through the medium of still photography and moving image. In her most recent unfinished project ‘STOLEN MOMENTS II’, she explores these intimacies as digital video projections. In doing so, she brings the tableaux to life, simultaneously drawing the viewer into a more immersive voyeuristic experience.

As discussed earlier, constructed voyeurism usually appears sensual, but does so through careful planning and directions. The appearance of sex in this genre comes as a result of patience and unpredictability, completely out of the photographer’s control.3 Within constructed voyeurism the choice to include such content is implicit in the decision-making process, entirely at the whim of the photographer. Even when the content is sexual, the intentions may still be driven by artistic inquisitiveness rather than personal gratification. In an interview with Glen O’Brien, Chatila stressed the lack of eroticism in her work: “I am much more interested in looking at people when they are totally unselfconscious and uninhibited by social masks.” (Chatila, 2008) Thus she captures the distilled essence of a moment without exposing anyone’s identity. 

I would argue that photographic voyeurs exclusively pursue non-venereal invasions of privacy however, as with Halaban’s influence over constructed images of voyeurism there are also rare exceptions within photographic voyeurism. As discussed, Chatila occasionally indulges the carnal moments presented to her, alongside Alpern, who’s appearance in ‘Exposed’ features everything from the exchange of money for sex to the use of narcotics. 

Chatila possesses a rather apathetic attitude towards her sitters, almost insisting it is their fault for exposing themselves to her. Having noted that one woman “showered every day in front of a large window, apparently knowing that office workers in the building across the street were watching.” (Chatila, 2008). To paraphrase, ‘If your curtains are wide open during your most intimate moments… you know full well someone is watching.’ “That girl must be a little kinky, a little narcissistic, to want an audience like that” writes Chatila (2008). But she also goes to extreme lengths to disguise the individuals captured, such as strategic blurring, shadowing, and changing the framing in post-production to help disguise her subjects and their locations. In some cases, Chatila even replaces any real buildings with evocative architecture and manipulating interiors. It is possible to argue therefore that by manipulating the scene so much Chatila effectively falls into the category of constructed voyeurism, although there was no such intent when shooting the images. To me, Chatila’s lack of directorial control in each scenario overrules the way she almost ‘plays God’ in post-production. The decision to conceal the target’s identity appears to be a matter of both legal and ethical requisites, rather than artistic preference. Hiding their identity avoids any potential for legal action or unnecessary liabilities – that is, providing the subject is unable to identify themselves in the photograph. On the other hand, this is down to the photographer’s discretion and moral compass.  

 When presented with such imagery the viewer might be expected to feel uneasy, instilling a sense of vulnerability and unsettling empathy towards the unwitting subject. The typical reaction might be: What if this was me? Because as I shall now show, if you were to recognise yourself in the picture things start to become more complicated. Despite being unclear about the legalities of her work, Chatila has never been sued (Silverman, 2009). 

Arne Svenson on the other hand, a photographer living in Lower Manhattan has faced legal issues for his intrusive methods. When his show The Neighbours debuted at the Saul Gallery NY it received mixed reviews, promptly followed by legal action (Perlson, 2015). 

After seeing Svenson’s work, two subjects depicted in the prints, Matthew and Martha G. Foster, filed a complaint to the New York Supreme Court in May 2013 on behalf of themselves and their two children. They argued that they were “frightened and angered by defendant’s utter disregard for their privacy and the privacy of their children” (Foster, 2013). Furthermore, the couple contended that Svenson made the work for ‘commercial purposes’, to promote an exhibit where his prints were for sale, thus constituting advertising and trade. Fortunately for Svenson, in August 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in his favour. Arguing that “Street photography is art not commerce, and therefore falls under the First Amendment, which safeguards freedom of expression.” (Svenson, An Interview with Photographer Arne Svenson, 2015) As Svenson comments in an interview with Jonny Weeks for The Guardian (Weeks, 2013) “I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph, as they are most open to interpretation, to a narrative.” (Svenson, 2013). He also added that “If I had staged these domestic scenes as a collaborative project with the subjects’ I don’t think I would have been able to capture the visual serendipity and unexpected nuances of expressive non-movement.” (Svenson, 2013). 

Svenson’s reasoning could serve as a valid argument for Denis Dutton’s A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, which suggests that perceived beauty has innate components opposed to cultural origins – contrary to most academics who would contend  that “beauty lies in the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder.” (Dutton, 2010). However, this is another matter entirely and perhaps for anthropologists to debate. 

Much like Phillip Lorca Dicorcia’s extensive legal battle over a candid photograph of an orthodox Jew that eventually went to the highest State Court in New York (Gefter, 2006), it seems like difficulties only arise when the oblivious partakers subsequently recognise themselves in a photograph. Svenson conducted his practice within a tighter knitted circle to that of Chatila, which only heightens the likelihood of his subjects crossing paths with the intrusive image. Secondly, despite respectfully retaining the subject’s anonymity, there is no effort to alter the surroundings to reduce the prospect of recognition by said partakers. To me, it sounds like Chatila went above and beyond the requirements for her to avoid such complications, probably considering the erotic nature of her photography. 

 Lastly in our list of considerate photographers, Michael Wolf’s voyeuristic perspective is intrinsically retrospective, revisiting the ‘architecture of density’ and ‘transparent city’ in closer detail to reveal an advent calendar of windows. Pixelated close-ups of an urban landscape retain the subject’s anonymity. Wolf commenced his voyeuristic journey by capturing close-ups of vernacular objects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s high-rise. Once completed, Wolf felt the series of seventy or so images were conceptually one-dimensional, claiming it would be enriched if he could incorporate another layer of meaning, so he began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. 

Wolf has very little influence over the decision to hide his subject’s identity; that came after he took the images. When revising the cityscape photographs for flaws, he noticed a man gesturing his middle finger at the exact time of pressing the shutter.4 This provoked a chain reaction of closer inspection, prompting the photographer to methodically scan through every file at 200 percent magnification in order to peep into individual windows, jumping from one frame to the next, row by row as if deciphering a hidden text or scrolling through a feed. Due to the retroactivity of his methods Wolf feels there are no voyeuristic intentions present in his work. He maintains that it’s simply a matter of opinion whether or not zooming in on an architectural landscape constitutes peeping:  

 The difference between peeping and taking a picture, I think that’s semantics. Every form of photography is some form of peeping or voyeurism. I would consider peeping an invasion of someone’s privacy for instance, not taking a photograph of a landscape. 

 Michael Wolf, Foam For You – Peeping, 2012 

The practices of Chatila, Svenson, and Wolf, call into question the artistic and moral validity of exposing the subject whilst keeping anonymity intact. The use of technology to extend the human gaze comes with a certain responsibility. Just because one is able to peer into the intimate lives of others through a telephoto lens doesn’t mean they should. 

Section 2.2: Invasion of Privacy

Not all of the photographers practicing in this area are so considerate in terms of anonymity. 

Wolf’s work serves as a perfect vessel to continue this thread. As formerly discussed, his low-res crops are very difficult to define, sitting somewhere between harmless landscape photography and intrusive likenesses. Fortunately for us, Wolf’s curiosity and inquisitiveness led him to produce a far more defined contribution towards voyeuristic photography. Titled Window Watching, the series sits on the same premises as before, only now he is zooming into the windows first-hand instead of resulting as an afterthought. 

 Unlike his harmless pixelated crops, by actively pursuing the invasion of privacy Wolf revokes the perceivable innocence of capturing cityscapes. As previously stated, although he considers every form of photography to be some degree of voyeurism, semantics heavily dictate the perception of a peeper. For instance, as Zhang writes, “Although subjects in the photos could theoretically file lawsuits against Wolf for breaching their privacy, most of the subjects probably do not have the financial resources to engage in a legal battle.” (Zhang, 2013). This strikes me as far more destructive and demeaning towards the subject than Svenson’s extensive legal battles (whose subjects have a voice that is stripped from Wolf’s unwitting participants). 

As with Chatila’s postproduction process to avoid legal issues, Wolf seems to have exploited his subjects’ poverty to achieve similar results, shedding a slightly more sinister light on what would otherwise be a simple invasion of privacy.

Neither Wolf nor Iversen give the impression of malicious intent, yet it is very easy to see how the photographs could be interpreted as detrimental with regards to their sitters. 

With occasional exceptions, this area of photography typically avoids erotic content in favour of the true invasion of privacy. This is well demonstrated in both Fig. 11 by Wolf and Untitled No. 66 from Michele Iversen’s Night Surveillance series, which shows a woman covering part of her face with a platter. Unconscious of her captor’s presence, she methodically licks the plate for about one minute. Whether the social breach is ultimately deemed acceptable or not remains a question of the artist’s intent, rather than the aesthetic quality of said work

Surprisingly, Alperns work seems to have the best reputation, regardless of the exclusively sexual theme and her failure to protect her subject’s identity. As touched on by Martinique, Alpern’s transgressive series initially faced rejection after submitting it to the National Endowment for the Arts, along with that of Barbara DeGenevive and Andres Serrano. This sparked countless disputes, and consequently a lot of interest. As a result, established museums such as MoMA promptly exhibited the series. 25 years later and the work is now considered to be the artists oeuvre (Martinique, 2019). 


The prevalence of surveillance in modern society has dramatically shifted the visual and cultural environment to new extremes. In this era of the all-seeing eye, photographic methods have evolved alongside new technologies to reflect the ever-changing structure of society and visual culture. Unsurprisingly, more and more artists (myself included) are exploring these emerging forms of observation and representation to challenge the boundaries of art and its meaning. 

 In this exercise I have reflected upon, but not resolved, the incorporation of surveillance into artistic practices. By conducting my observations on the invasion of privacy through windows, I aim to compare and contrast the conflicting forces which compel these artists: stranger and intimacy, asymmetry and reciprocity, objectivity and subjectivity, empathy and exploitation. 

Evidently, photographic voyeurism can also be distanced from its erotic ties in place of artistic merit. As clearly demonstrated by the wide array of work featured in this essay, voyeurism appears to be more than valid as an artistic tool. Whether it’s consensual or not, exposing the subject or otherwise, the invasion of privacy evidently holds artistic promise. Not only as a medium to challenge the social conventions and boundaries, but as a means of expression for a multitude of complex thoughts and ideas – from the beauty Svenson finds in unrehearsed candidness to the excitement sought through Ivernsen’s approach. In spite of all this, artistic surveillance remains an extremely contentious topic with much space for further creative development. However, these tensions and complexities will undoubtedly endure. 


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1 thought on “A study of voyeurism in photography”

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