Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera


Written by Ellie Wallis
31 Monday 31st May 2010

The Tate Modern’s new exhibition, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is a fascinating look at the use of documentary photography over the last century. It questions the medium, the integrity and motives of the people behind the cameras as well as your own sense of what is ok to look at and what makes us feel uncomfortable. It also opens up debate about the use of cameras in the modern world we live in and in the cities we inhabit. CCTV is a hot topic of discussion in recent times, and even for the Queen, it’s an issue on her mind, or should I say, on the minds of the Conservatives.

The truth is that we are under surveillance 24/7. Perhaps not when we are asleep, as far as we know, but as soon as you leave your front door up until you return home that evening, you have been watched more times than Die Hard. The UK has the most cameras per person than anywhere else in the world. A recent estimate claimed that there was one camera to every 14 people and there are 61 million people in the UK so it’s getting scarily like the Truman Show. The debate over security verses privacy is starting to come to a head as a recent survey estimated that Londoners are monitored by at least 500,000 CCTV cameras, but does this limit our sense of freedom or empower us on our streets?
Personally I feel secure in the fact that I can walk down my road in Brixton at midnight and feel safe because the street is covered by CCTV. What does not sit as well is the reasons why those cameras were needed in the first place. Is Britain hiding behind the CCTV debate and not addressing the reasons why they are there in the first place?
In last week’s Queen’s speech addressing the new coalition government, she said that the national identity card scheme was going to be scrapped. This is likely to happen in the next year or so but in many ways we as individuals are being recorded, both in the streets by cameras, and our movements online. The card scheme would have proved too expensive and difficult to manage but our government does want us to be counted for.
Is this documenting a real threat to us, or should we just accept the fact that our country sees these measures as important in securing our well-being and safety? I accept the fact that cameras are there, and that as individuals we leave an imprint, when we visit sites on the internet, when we move around in our daily lives. If you’re a good citizen then you should have nothing to worry about.
It’s sad that we live in this surveillance state, but unfortunately there are bad people out there who need to be held accountable for. Without CCTV the Ipswich strangler, Steven Wright might never have been caught. And without the use of DNA databases, a DNA sample taken from him years earlier would not have existed in order to provide a match to the DNA found on the bodies of the girls. This stuff works and it makes for a better society. In order to stay ‘safe’ we have to give up a small piece of our freedom. This may feel for some that we are all seen as potential criminals but I would rather have it that way that feel unsafe in daily life. The Crime and Security Act passed this year allows police to retain DNA samples from a person who has been arrested but not charged for six years. That may seem pretty unfair if you are indeed an innocent citizen but that in itself is a deterrent from getting in a situation which might lead to an arrest. People still don’t seem to realise that we are all responsible for our actions. If you don’t want to be on a register don’t get arrested and don’t break the law. The consequences could be far more severe in another country.
Without permission we are ‘exposed’ everyday, and on another level, which is challenged in the new exhibition, we are as humans exposed. Our true nature stripped bare for all to see wincing at the painful truth. We are so far from the dreams of utopianism, and the visions that religions aspire to. Harmony and goodness find it increasingly hard to shine through in this modern land, and always have. Are just too flawed in our make-up? It’s not all doom and gloom. We are as individuals able to make a certain amount of decisions, or are able at present to do so. We can travel freely, live and work in different countries. Buy a boat and sail around the world. How many people can actually claim to be able to do that in countries far less privileged that our own? We may be under surveillance but it’s our choice as to whether we wish to step in and out of the limelight. It’s our show so go out and enjoy it.


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