Last weekend, my mother held a reception in honor of my having gotten married. A little before the reception actually started, a good friend of my mother took what seemed like a thousand pictures of my wife and me with various other people who were there: My parents, my stepparents, my second cousin, and of course just the two of us — in countless configurations. Everything was posed as he told us where to stand and where to look and, in some cases, what to do with our arms. In contrast, the Tate Modern is now featuring an exhibit called Exposed, which is entirely filled with photographs that were taken without the subjects being aware of it at the time.
If you know you are being photographed, it is almost impossible to act as naturally as when you are unaware of the presence of the photographer. Last week in my office, I had a particularly difficult phone call from a client which was only as difficult as it was because the person was both computer illiterate and without any internet access — thus making it impossible for me to connect and take control of the person’s computer, which would have resolved the issue within a minute or two. I lost my temper a couple of times, though I tried not to show it — this call lasted nearly an hour because I was slowly spelling out everything the person had to do, and the person slowly repeated it back to me.
The next day, one of my colleagues told me that I needed to work on controlling my temper when I was working with such clients and when I asked him what he meant he told me that he had recorded me at my angriest and was more than happy to show me my “performance.” Had I known that I was being recorded for posterity, I would certainly have behaved differently. I can’t imagine that a nearly hour long session of computer instruction would make for particularly good art, however.
Can we say that the photographs taken for the Exposed exhibit are art? I can’t help but imagine that if I were to visit the exhibit and knew the nature of the photographs that I would feel as though I were peering into a room where I was not supposed to be, glancing about the contents of a medicine cabinet under the pretext of my having to use the facilities. One part of the Exposed exhibit features photographs taken by a woman who was hired as a cleaning woman in a hotel, who then used her access to private guest rooms to take photographs of their belongings.
To me, that goes beyond secretly taking photographs of people in public. When you are in the public domain, there is nothing you can do to stop someone from photographing you. When you put yourself or your belongings behind a locked door, however, there is an expectation that there will be some modicum of privacy.
It makes me think about being in the Disney World park with my wife Elizabeth, and the rides we would go on that offered photographs at key points. We love such photographs and have an album full of them, but some of them feature people that we don’t even know — do you automatically give permission to get photographed by going on the ride? Actually, if you look at the ticket you use to get into the park, you do give the park permission to take your photograph and to use your likeness in any way they want. It would be a good laugh to come upon a photo of myself in a Disney World art exhibit.