Socialist Worker

Exposed: photographs of the watchers and the watched

A new exhibition offers a sharp insight into life with the camera, writes Jonny Jones

Issue No. 2204

Jonathan Olley’s photo of Golf Five Zero watchtower, Crossmaglen Security Force Base, South Armagh 1999

Jonathan Olley’s photo of Golf Five Zero watchtower, Crossmaglen Security Force Base, South Armagh 1999


Britain is the most watched country in the Western world. A 2006 study by the Surveillance Studies Network said that there were around 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the country – roughly one for every 14 people.

So it is fitting that the new exhibition Exposed should open at the Tate Modern in London.

It is made up of over 250 works of photography or film that seek to “provoke uneasy questions about who is looking at whom, and whether for power or for pleasure”.

Exposed is split into five sections, the first being The Unseen Photographer. Some of its most striking images are of poverty in the early 20th century, such as Depression-era refuges and breadlines.

The subjects’ powerlessness seems accentuated by the way they have been captured unawares.

The section on Celebrity And The Public Gaze explores the development of so-called paparazzi photography. In the 1880s, Giuseppe Primoli pioneered “candid camera” shots of the rich and famous in embarrassing situations.

These early images seem almost naive compared to some of the more recent work on display. Ron Galella, for example, stalked Jackie Onassis throughout the 1960s, forcing her to find ever more inventive ways to disguise and hide herself.

In the Voyeurism And Desire section early “peep show” images sit alongside more contemporary work by artists like Susan Meiselas and Cammie Toloui.

Their photographs documenting strip clubs turn the camera on the audience, inverting the typical relationship between spectator and spectacle.

Windows

The most striking and unsettling work in this section is Merry Alpern’s “Dirty Windows”.

It is a series of 12 blurred, black and white prints which document sex, drugs and money through the window of a Wall Street brothel.

These fragmented images graphically encapsulate the exploitative relationship between Wall Street and those who service it.

The following section, Witnessing Violence, contains harrowing images. It poses the question: “Does ­photography allows us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetise us to the horror?”

Two photographs taken in South Africa during 1975 are most shocking. The first shows a young black man, Amos Gexella, staring at the camera. He is on the sixth floor balcony of a Johannesburg apartment block, with a crowd of 2,000 people gathered below.

The second captures Amos jumping to his death. The crowd below had been shouting, “Jump! Jump!” according to the suicide prevention officer.

The final section on Surveillance is perhaps the most interesting. It covers everything from surveillance photographs of the Suffragettes right up to images from the Iraq war.

The interplay between surveillance techniques and developments in photographic techniques are striking.

A 1911 image taken from a Wright Model B biplane with a folding camera shows not only how difficult early aerial surveillance was to achieve, but how little use it was.

This section also explores how surveillance techniques have been subverted.

So Sophie Ristelhueber used aerial photography to capture hugely detailed images in 1991 of the scarred ­landscape of Kuwait after the Gulf War.

A line of burned out vehicles on the Basra Road hints at the enormous loss of life that occurred when US forces bombed the retreating Iraqi military.

Apocalyptic

Another image shows an apocalyptic landscape as plumes of smoke fill the sky, billowing out of burning oil wells.

Jonathan Olley’s images of Northern Ireland will come as an amazing surprise if you, like me, have never seen the invasive and obtrusive watchtowers built by the British Army during “the Troubles”.

The Golf Five Zero watchtower, a dystopian castle of barbed wire and steel, sits between a terraced house and a chemist.

There is plenty of filler on display at Exposed. But there is also much that is engaging and provocative.

The way in which voyeurism and surveillance have developed, but have also been challenged, are constant themes throughout.

Also constant is the watchful gaze of the Tate’s own system of CCTV cameras, a fitting accompaniment to an often unsettling exhibition.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is at Tate Modern until 3 October »  www.tate.org.uk


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Tue 1 Jun 2010, 18:54 BST
Issue No. 2204
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