Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Voyeurism and Private Spaces

It is axiomatic that the space and the objects around him define a man. The room where one spends most of his or her time becomes, to a good extent, a part of them. How does turning a room into a camera obscura modify the owner’s traces, with regard to the additional information provided by the optical effect?  The final goal of the research, accompanied by the photographic evidence gathered throughout the project, is to observe the interlinked triangle between photographer, camera and subject. Referencing the works of Alec Soth, Jason Oddy as well as Merry Alpern, the project also aims at analyzing and observing spaces and the effect generated by extracting the subject* from the frame. The essay sets out to answer the following questions:

Given enough time, can somebody's personality be transposed in their private space?

Without doubt, the capturing of one's personal or private space on film or digital sensor falls into the voyeuristic mode. As stated in Elisabeth Bronfen’s essay “Killing Gazes, Killing in the Gaze: On Michael Powell's Peeping Tom”, (Salecl, R, Zizek S, 1996) voyeurism can be divided in two major categories that feature gender related differences. The first category is that of the male voyeur, as an active, sadistic gaze and that of the female voyeur, which is classified mainly as passive and masochistic, concerned with the pleasure of being gazed at. Further research on the exploration of voyeurism showed that the so called “sadistic” male urge serves as an underlying catalyst that sparks the feeling of curiosity and thus has a direct link to the exploratory need that one experiences before and during the process of photographing. This puts the activity of taking still shots at the very edge of the sexually related urges or desires; even if the subconscious feeling that generates the impulse to photograph is sexual, it is not mandatory that the activity should involve or present a sexual theme. One of the most eloquent examples of the scopophilic features embedded within the image is presented within the photographic work of Merry Alpern. In her book  “ Dirty Windows “, she states: 

” I loved to watch even the most mundane of anthropological details like how each man, after urinating, shook his penis a little differently” (Alpern, M, 1995)
Her series of images depict the events taking place in the women's toilet of what appears to be an illegal nightclub, observed through a small glass pane. The window acts as a frame, limiting the gaze of the photographer and subsequently of the viewer, providing a summary amount of information that can be easily interpreted. From the photographer's view point, the people are presented without heads or with their backs turned, conferring a sensation of anonymity to the actors on the improvised stage, which are recorded while performing both legal and illegal actions, ranging from urinating to paying and receiving payment for sex as well as consumption of a series of drugs, of which most noticeable is cocaine.

The consent of a person whose private space or activity is being photographed throws the idea of being a voyeur away from the general perception, which links to sexual desire, into a derivation that has curiosity and the necessity to document as catalysts. Nevertheless, the basic action and it’s motives are still well preserved through the camera's and respectively the photographer's admission into a previously forbidden enclosure. By creating a parallel between Freud's ' Little Hans '[1](Freud, 1909, p 122-123) case and that of the photographer entering the 'closed-off' space, the similarities lead to the conclusion that, although not of a sexual nature, the desire to take possession of the space or items manifests itself by means of photographing them. Following this explanation, the next step is to analyze the artists whose work addresses the curiosity - documentary style that fits in the said standards. One of the first artists that I chose to research, whose work revolves around spaces and human traces, is Jason Oddy.

Some of his most important series, although different in themselves, pose a series of questions regarding inhabited spaces and the lack of humans. The first two series, which are linked by the lack of people, are “The Pentagon” and “The UN Buildings”.

All the images in the series present spaces where access to photographers and even to the public is rarely granted, which increases the feeling of the voyeuristic in the work and creates, to some extent, an utopic picture of some of the most important buildings in the world where chairs, frames and pencils are the only traces of human passage. The loneliness of the empty corridors lead the viewer to experience a feeling of the deserted, while being constantly aware of the building's role in modern society. To support this argument, Oddy states: 

' I have treated architectural space as a cultural artifact, one which not only reflects but also seeks to create historical reality' 

The other two series of interest were “Waiting Rooms“ and “Sanatorium“ which, like the first two, revolved around the idea of the lack of humans, but the main difference is that in there two groups of images, the aim is to portray complete lack of human presence and time's irreversible effects: corrosion, decay and finally nature taking over what rightfully belonged to her. Addressing the images from the “Waiting Rooms” series, which present houses of recently deceased people that he managed to get access to and photograph, Oddy states: 

”The things that usually sustain us and help us explain who we are, begin to proliferate and take over [...] it looks almost as though the belongings of these elderly people have decided to turn against their owners so as to hasten their departure from this life “

In addition to the concept of the possessions becoming the possessors, he also states that: 

”[...] as constructed spaces help share the narratives that we live by, then so do the narratives that we live by find themselves realized in the constructed space”

When asked how he arguments the decision not to have any sort of human presence in his work, his main reason was that spaces do not require, as a dominating necessity, the presence of humans in order to efficiently and correctly represent the action and jobs that take or have taken place there. As a second point to the answer, he admitted that any space inhabited by humans at some point will always be dominated by their ever present traces which should be enough to transmit the message. On  the other hand, having a person or a group of people in the image would clearly disrupt the flow of the photograph, encouraging the viewer to gaze at the person rather than the space. The second photographer in my research,  who also deals with private spaces, the people that live in them and their relationship to the camera, is Magnum photographer Alec Soth. His images from the “Bogota” and “Sleeping by the Mississippi” series contain a large number of portraits and rooms. From the “Bogota” series three of the images have important similarities that can help observe and draw a conclusion on the matter of the transposed personality                                               
In "Untitled 18", "Untitled 36" as well as "Untitled 16", there is an important item on the walls: a framed portrait. The portrait, which is almost the same size in all photographs can help substitute the lack of gaze of the owner of the room, who is either not present or is behind the camera. Oddy is interested in the traces of people in large numbers or on a large scale, but also the decay occurring as a result of their absence.

Soth  in contrast seeks to create invisible portraits of room owners, observing their environment. His photographic aesthetic is to use a slightly elevated perspective aiming the camera down towards the subjects. By doing so, the overall relationship between the photographer, the camera and the model changes, putting the first two in a slightly higher position than the latter. 

An interesting comparison would constitute that of the "Untitled 18" and "Untitled 16" images, from the "Bogota" series. The purpose of this comparison is to observe in what manner does the presence of a human being affect the image. In "Untitled 16" the main subject of the frame tends to be the girl gazing directly at the camera with one eye, while her hair covers the other one. The small pillow, the portrait of the soldier on the wall as well as the other details pass unobserved at a first view due mainly to the woman and the viewer's urge to return her gaze. 

In the second image, "Untitled 18", the fact that there is no person might as well be a statement in itself. If an imaginary vertical line were to be drawn, separating the frame in two equal halves, the three items that define the image, the clock, the frame and the gun, seen to be aligned so as to create a statement. This possibility of interpretation of the objects in the room based on their position further expands the probability of somebody's personality through images but also poses important questions to do with the authenticity of the positioned items. 

Just as a clock on the wall can be put there by a person in order to observe the passage of time, it could have just as well be strategically positioned there by the photographer in an attempt to convey a deeper meaning to the photograph.

Analyzed from a semiotic point of view, the "clock" can be interpreted as time, age, passage and irreversibility depending on the other items in the frame. This raises doubts regarding the existence and authenticity of an underlying message in the image.

In "Thinking photography" edited by Victor Burgin, the introduction addresses the subject in the following lines: 

" to a very great extent, our ways of conceiving photography have not succeeded in breaking clear of the gravitational field of the nineteenth century thinking: thinking dominated by a metaphor of depth, in which the surface of a photograph is viewed As a projection of something which lies "beyond" or "behind" [...] "reality" itself, the "expression" of the artist or both ( a reality refracted through sensibility )" 
(Burgin, 1982, p. 11)

His logical argument however cannot stop a possible viewer from misinterpreting, even without a malicious intent, the semiotics of the images. An excellent base for a practical application of this point is Alex Soth's image entitled "Sugar's, Davenport, Iowa, 2000" from the series "Sleeping by the Mississippi".

In this particular frame, the "Hustler" magazine thrown on the floor as well As the window covered with foil direct the viewer's imagination towards creating a mental image of the owner of the room based on the general features of the individuals who buy the said magazine and cover their windows in that fashion, thus generalizing and drawing conclusions based on non-substantial evidence. Again, Burgin finds a plausible explanation for this and subsequently states the following, about photography: 

"Whatever meanings and attributions we may construct at it's investigation can know no final closure, they cannot be held for long upon those imaginary points of convergence at which ( it may comfort some to imagine ) are situated the experience of the author or the truth of reality" 

The third and last artist to be discussed it Cuban photographer Abelardo Morell. While Burgin strongly supports the idea that our views and understanding of photography as a discipline and form of art as well as actual object has not changed for over a century and a half, Morell's images create the perfect grounds for such evolution. His practice revolves around the hiring of hotel rooms with beautiful views, creating a camera obscura by shutting all the light off and photographing the result with the aid of a large format camera; same type of camera used also by Soth and Oddy.

The tidy feeling of the clean hotel creates an excellent scenery for the development of the project which relies more on the visual peculiarity of the camera obscura effect rather than on transmitting a message. Still, the photographs of the room have now, thanks to the camera obscura effect more information regarding the height of the room, the outside view but also the weather conditions at the time when the photograph was taken. As a main reference in terms of technical aspects, I chose to focus on Morell’s early images, done in black and white on the large format camera, images which presented only traces of the effect. The imperfection of the images, as well as those of the optical effect reference the earliest attempts to record light in the mid 1850’s. The lack of color also aids in developing a certain link between his and Talbot or Daguerre’s images, therefore it seemed quite obvious that the series I intend to work on are to be black and white. Another argument towards creating a black and white series would be color in itself. Various patches of color, such as dresses, white shirts, pillows, can draw the viewer from the image towards the colors. Thus by having a monochrome image the effect of the camera obscura is easily observed, together with the obects in the room which are lit only by the rays coming from the outside.

As a conclusion, the series that I made during this period, manage to depict, without necessarily being very accurate, the personality of the room’s owner. As a test, the images have been linked together by the owner’s hobby/job, which is linked to photography. From this came the object that is present in all images, hidden or visible, which serves as a replacement of the gaze: the photographic camera. This requirement of all rooms to have a photographic camera was the only interference in the natural or owner – modified state of the room. As a test, I compiled a series of brief descriptions of each room’s inhabitant, so that the text and the images could be confronted. In this way, a practical answer to the questions answered here can be analyzed by each particular viewer.


Burgin, V, 1982, Thinking Photography, London: Macmillan, p. 12-19
Steffens, B., 2006, Ibn al-Hatytham: First Scientist, Morgan Reynolds Publishing
Needham, J., 1986, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
Freud, S., 1909 (2001), Two cases, 2001
Alpern, M., 1995, Dirty Windows, Scalo, Zurich
Alpern, M., 1999, Shopping, Scalo, Zurich
Salecl, R., Zizek S, 1996, Gaze and voice as love objects, Duke University Press
Johnson, W.S., Rice, M., Williams, C., 1999, A History of Photography, Taschen
BBC Movie Series – The Genius of Photography
Gernsheim,H., Ernsheim, A., The History of Photography: From the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
Nesbit, M., Reynaud, F., 1992, Interieurs Parisiens Eugene Atget, Carre, Paris


[1] “ Hans produced two minor phantasies: one of forcing his way into a forbidden enclosure at Schonbrunn, and te other of his smashing a railway carriage window on the Stadtbahn [p 40-41]. In each case the punishable nature of the action was emphasized[…]. They ( the phantasies ) belonged to Hans’ complex taking possession of his mother. […] for this elusive thought he found pictorial representations, which had in common the quality of being violent and forbidden ” – As the analysis was done on a young boy, it cannot be transported to an adult without any modifications. Regardless of this argument, it is clear that the impulse to photograph is concerned with the intention to take possession of things forbidden or out of reach.