Garry Winogrand's image of a couple in New York in 1969. Photograph: Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco/Garry WinograndSean O'Hagan
Sunday 16 May 2010 00.05 BST
Photography," Diane Arbus once said, "was a licence to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do." Arbus, who famously photographed American outsiders and eccentrics, including so-called freaks from carnival shows, also described the lure of the camera thus: "I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do... when I first did it I felt very perverse."
Either quotation could serve as an epigraph to the catalogue for Tate Modern's ambitious exhibition, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. Here, photography is a licence to spy and pry, to transgress, shock, provoke and, above all, to invade the privacy of others.
Exposed is a show about the politics of looking – both through the lens and at the end result. The work is gathered under five themes related to the voyeurism of the lens: street photography, sexually explicit images, celebrity stalking, shots of death and violence, and surveillance.
Today, photography itself could be said to be under siege. We live in a digitally driven culture where everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer of sorts. Technology has freed us to bear witness, but it has also made voyeurs of us all. Last year, the death of 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan during an Iranian pro-democracy protest was captured on a mobile phone and, according to Time magazine, became "probably the most widely witnessed death in human history".
The age of citizen journalism may be well under way, but the internet is also overloaded with images of violence, drunkenness and sexual embarrassment. Here, the humiliation of others often seems to be a defining dynamic. "We cannot blame the camera for what it has done to us," writes Sandra S Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in her foreword to the Exposed catalogue. "Nevertheless, it has made certain human predilections much easier to satisfy."
AdvertisementFor all that, photography can still shock and repel. Earlier this year, the World Press awards featured a series of images by Farah Abdi Warsameh entitled Stoned to Death, Somalia. The photographs were so graphic that one's immediate instinct was to turn away in horror. Are the images powerful because of the horror they capture? Or do they represent, as one Observer colleague put it, "a kind of pornography of suffering"? Do they jolt us into awareness or inure us even further to the suffering of others?
We could ask the same questions of many of the images that will feature in the Tate show's 'Witnessing Violence' section: graphic images of executions, exhumed bodies and victims of bombings. Chronologically, this begins with an image of an American civil war burial party taken in 1865 by John Reekie, and ends with Larry Clark's portrait of a heavily pregnant young woman injecting herself with heroin from his early 70s Tulsa series. That's quite a range of human suffering but, as Phillips notes, "the terrible fascination of looking at suffering and death, the moral ambiguity of the act, is as pertinent now as it was during the American civil war".
What has changed, as Susan Sontag predicted in her 1977 book On Photography, is the amount of such imagery and the ease with which we can access it. "Once one has seen such images," she wrote, "one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetise."
Today, the morality of what might be called extreme reportage is an even more vexed issue. Likewise, the terrain of the sexually explicit. Again, the range of photographs on display at Tate Modern is broad and frequently provocative. Both Robert Mapplethorpe and Nobuyoshi Araki deal in what many people might consider hardcore sexual imagery and are drawn, in their different ways, to the ritualistic. Perhaps it's just me, but what once seemed shocking in their work now seems familiar to the point of banal.
More intriguing are the voyeuristic images on display. In a picture from his brothel series, Chez Suzy (1932), Brassaï frames in a mirror a couple kissing on a bed. What once was considered arousing now looks quite restrained, but the sense that both the photographer and the viewer are prying remains strong.
AdvertisementThis is even more the case in Merry Alpern's grainy shots of prostitutes and their clients in her series, Dirty Windows (1994), taken clandestinely through the bathroom window of a sex club on Wall Street. Interestingly, Brassaï's brothel photographs are now seen as ground-breaking social reportage, whereas Alpern's are viewed as art photography, which tells us as much about the changing nature of the politics of curating as that of the politics of looking.
The idea that viewing such morally problematic images might make us complicit in the production of ever-more transgressive images is one that haunts this show. The curators seem to have broached it somewhat conceptually by creating a semi-dark corridor in which the dim lights just about illuminate Kohei Yoshiyuki's series, The Park. Taken with newly available infrared film in 1970, they show kneeling men behind bushes spying on the nocturnal lovemaking of young couples. (Yoshiyuki later said of this body of work that he had started off photographing voyeurs and ended up becoming one.)
For me, the most intriguing section of the show examines our surveillance culture. Here, the images are, as Phillips points out, "voyeuristic in anticipation". Again, the watcher's gaze is driven by technology, in this instance the security cameras that silently monitor from a distance individuals, groups, entire cities. The population of London is now one of the most watched in the world and the fact that we are being photographed 24/7 without our permission seems, as the show's curator, Simon Baker, posits, "to be somehow linked to our lack of awareness of what is going on".
Again, we cannot blame the camera for what it has done to us, but, as this intriguing show will illustrate, we should perhaps be more aware than ever of its relentless gaze, its power to shape and to distort our lives.