Merry Aplern’s Dirty Windows, 1994, chronicles her surveillance-like photos of a bathroom window at a men's club, should have been aptly titled: Dirty Windows, Dirty Camera.
Merry Aplern had by chance, stumble upon a window view of her window subjects from a friend’s apartment. Armed with this new ‘privileged’ view, she made the decision to immortalise these forbidden moments of her unwitting subjects’ lives - forever cementing them to a one-dimensional view of themselves. Aplern invaded what should be very private moments in ‘her’ subjects lives, regardless of the decisions her subjects have made, they are not any less important than anyone else in the grand scheme of things. To be an active voyeur who mechanically documents an individual’s intimate, guarded moments highlights the disregard of one’s own right to privacy.
The issue with Aplern’s work highlights the trouble in defining ethical boundaries in photography, photographers of this nature use the freedom of artistic expression and the first amendment rights in the US, to pursue perhaps, a selfish, egotistical desire for recognition or to exhibit something different at the expense of others. Some photographers such as Arne Svenson (The Neighbours), have ‘defended’ their choices, stating they are 'observing humanity' in its natural habitat or in Svenson’s case: “I don't photograph anything salacious or demeaning”. The point is not whether it is salacious or demeaning, or human observation, we as members of society have long held an unwritten code of understanding and respecting each other’s private space, our innate boundaries. And while some hide behind the first amendment rights, it is worth nothing that those rights were adopted in 1791, almost three decades before photography was invented. Who could have predicted its far reaching consequences.
If we don’t have any boundaries in photography how can we argue for boundaries elsewhere (social media, government surveillance)? When does artistic expression trumps common decency and respect for our fellow-beings? An individual is either ethical or unethical, ethics cannot be demoted to a convenient pick and choose selection. A photographer cannot hope to separate unethical choices in his or her career as ‘my job’ and not have these choices reflect upon one’s innate character. The I for Me, Me for Mine is a temporary fix that is unsustainable.
Photography can play a much larger and positive role in our lives and society, we can become better people through photography. But like the air that we breathe, its amazement is lost in its availability and abundance.
Our current evolution in society has been built by teamwork, our cavemen ancestors worked hard together, respecting certain boundaries that were vital to each of their survival. By continuing to disregard or disrespect one’s innate right to privacy through voyeuristic photography, we are contributing to the rippling effect that is dismantling the successes of the past. And while it is recognised that gazing, looking at images of others who represent an alien form of life, can be beneficial in the understanding of such lives, one should not take for granted the photographers’ subjects – they are Doppelgänger objects for the camera, on display as human artefacts.
Look, Gaze, Frame, Click, Print, Frame and Famed.
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WEEKS, Jonny. 2013. 'The art of peeping: photography at the limits of privacy'. Photography blog [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2013/aug/19/art-peeping-photography-privacy-arne-svenson. [accessed 27/02/17].
2003. 'Photographer Alpern Exploits Line Between Art and Voyeurism'. New Paltz [Online]. Available at: https://sites.newpaltz.edu/news/2003/04/photographer-alpern-exploits-line-between-art-and-voyeurism/ [accessed 27/02/17].