The dictionary describes voyeurism as
a person who obtains sexual pleasure or excitement from the observation of someone undressing, having intercourse, etc (Collins 2014)
Psychologists generally endorse this and describe Voyeurism as a paraphilia, a mental health condition where the afflicted person derives sexual pleasure from observing other people (Berger 2005) however Reiss and Wiltz (Reiss and Wiltz 2001) broaden this in an article for Psychology Today to include reality TV shows and how it is dominating television ratings.
Art critics seem to agree that voyeurism does not have to be sexually motivated and in a large exhibition on voyeurism and surveillance held at The Tate Modern in 2010 (Phaidon 2010) they featured a number of artists including Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Walker Evans as works based on voyeurism that had no sexual content at all.
This got me thinking, is photography inherently voyeuristic or do we approach it from a viewers standpoint out of pure curiosity?
Curiosity is often the initial starting point of what motivates us to look at images, we want to know more, learn and understand and this can lead to an enjoyable feeling, something achieved and is mildly but ultimately pleasurable. Voyeurism begins when the person looking starts to become obsessive of what they see. The level of gratification grows and the emotional negativity experienced should the viewer be denied is far more intense.
In 1865 Edouard Manet shocked the art world with his painting of Olympia (Culture Shock n.d.) It was not simply that the lady was nude as this was widely accepted within artistic circles but a mixture of the method of painting, the model being a prostitute and that she is looking back at the viewer which caused great consternation amongst those who went to see it. Although the artist had very different intentions it did not prevent voyeuristic tendencies usurping its initial goal with the image along with others being used for sexual gratification as did any art of this style.
Much the same could be said for photography. In the mid nineteenth century, Louis-Camile D’Olivier made a series of nude photographs intended as examples for his art students but quickly became a method of erotic stimulation for their predominately male audience (Tate Modern 2010). In the early 20th century lingerie catalogues were pawed over by adolescent boys, in the 1970’s the first Polaroid camera was known as the swinger and was commonly used in households to spice up dreary love lives (Waskul 2004) and as digital technology took over adult material became widely available. At this stage it is easy to see how voyeurism is easily linked to sexual proclivities but reality TV shows and television as a whole offer us a different perspective. As mentioned earlier, a study by online magazine psychology today has demonstrated people’s obsession with reality TV shows and this voyeuristic passion is now become evident through the rise of online social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook where people spend hours watching through home videos and taking a brief look into the lives of others. There is rarely any sexual content involved with these yet they arouse a similar desire from the viewer to consume them.
So, is photography inherently voyeuristic? Well I would say no it is not, an image is just an image and voyeurism is a natural human condition. We are instinctively inquisitive and photography like paintings before it naturally provoke that curiosity in us. It is also human for us to become obsessed and to fall into voyeuristic tendencies but the content does not need to be sexual nor is being voyeuristic necessarily a sexual deviation. Soap operas, reality TV, online videos and home movies can all lead to captivated and preoccupied behavioural traits and voyeuristic actions cover a broad spectrum which range from the harmless to illegal and potentially lethal.