FINAL MAJOR PROJECT. WEEK 23.

Out-take from MANNA (from SKIN JUICE sequence). James Bellorini 2020.

During a critique session last week some of the feedback comments described my FMP images as ‘voyeuristic’. I wanted to explore this a little here, as my initial reaction was that this was a problematic description. After all it has many negative connotations in it’s usual use. We immediately think of something ‘creepy’. It’s dictionary definition limits it to ‘a means of attaining sexual gratification from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity’. Because of this, I became concerned that this was how the work would overwhelmingly be received, as that’s obviously not my intention at all.

I can’t deny that there is a sensuous eroticism in aspects of the work. This is something that grew from the work itself, the people involved, and their response to the foodstuffs present. That joy and pleasure could not be denied, and it’s inherent intimacy is a genuine part of the dialogue the subjects were having with themselves, the project, and myself as photographer. It is also, I guess, testament to the trust they had/have in me, that they felt able to bring that level of honesty to the moment.

The use of flash adds that sense of discovering something not meant to be seen and so forensically. Such as the moment someone puts something in their mouth and all the physical, biological aspects that go into that. It can be argued as well that, in the edit, I am pulling these moments of physical and gestural intimacy out more. But those points of physical, visceral, connection have just as much resonance to the theme of the project as direct images of food or a more ‘static’ portrait. They are also, and here is the voyeuristic gaze in action, fascinating to me because of their inherent vulnerability and honesty. There’s no hiding when you are eating. Maybe that’s why in some of the work I’ve placed a mirror, so that the subject can watch themselves eating while being photographed?

In a wider context, it’s not easy to separate the act of taking a photograph from voyeurism. It’s there in it’s very essence – ‘the insatiable eye’ as Sontag calls it (1977). Looking at a subject to such an extent that one wants to capture it via the camera, is inherently voyeuristic. And this goes as much for the overwhelming number of mobile phone snaps as it does for any ‘higher’ forms of photography. ‘Subject’ in this context, is always people, as other subjects don’t cause us to consider voyeurism at all. More so when the subject is unaware of being watched and captured. And, in this, there’s an even finer line between the voyeuristic gaze and an intent of surveillance. It’s about levels of consent of course. I see street photography for example as a form of surveillance in it’s crudest form. Lack of consent is necessary to maintain it’s in-the-moment allure (I’m not going to go into the legal aspects here, as I am fully aware that in the UK there is nothing illegal about photographing people in public places). Gary Winogrand’s most famous photographic moments for example are voyeuristic elegies to fleeting interaction of person, time, and place – not to say his evident penchant for pretty women which certainly, I think, does enter the sexual gratification zone.

I’m talking here then about the internal photographic motivation. The fascination necessary to get under the skin of something. To want to gaze longer and in more detail than is considered ‘normal’. Diane Arbus had it (more in this post). Nan Goldin has it too, though frequently her voyeurism is as much about looking at herself as it is at others. In both these cases it’s almost impossible to separate the photographer’s vision from the gaze, if you see what I mean. They walked a very fine line between the objective and the subjective. And these aspects too are important elements in this. The voyeur who is watching for sexual gratification is deliberately in the objective part of that spectrum. Arbus and Goldin, to me anyway, seem to be always crossing the line, engaging in a dialogue of what is objective and what is subjective in themselves and in their practice.

Greer and Robert on the bed, Nan Goldin NYC 1982/Tate Gallery.

If I get any gratification for myself as photographer in the context of this current body of work, it is in the honesty of the human experience I am engaged with and seeking. The exploration of the genuine, communal gesture of eating and it’s profound impact on me objectively and subjectively. Objective because of it’s human-ness, subjective because of all the personal resonances that I have with food in my own history and family story.

So, on reflection, I see (pardon the pun) that in a photographic context there’s a much wider take to being a voyeur. And rather than be uncertain about it, I need to accept and own it as part of my approach and gaze. Perhaps also there’s a point where photography meets our animalistic natures (taboos?) and we don’t feel comfortable with it because it reminds us that really that’s what we are. Maybe the voyeuristic gaze is so much equal parts fascination and revulsion because it is a mirror in so many ways to our own animal self?

REFERENCES:

Sontag, S. 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin.