Visual sociology photographic project about a reaction to an observation in unexpected situations.
Fried, M. (2008, p. 28) suggests: ‘When a voyeur recognizes that he can realize his ends by eliminating the basic act of watching, this means his death as such’.
On my daily basis, I would consider myself as social transportation passenger / urban cyclist, who enjoys the freedom of observation, looking at other passengers, staff who operate transportation vehicles and/or facilities. But when I am driving my car I have to focus on navigation through the matrix of interconnected roads and signs. The observation experience of other fellow drivers is limited to short glimpses due to safe driving mode. Such a limitation gave a reason to search for other possibilities visually analyse surrounding urban environments, also to capture the otherness in people portraits. S. Sontag puts it in a statement; “There is something on peoples’ faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do”. (Sontag. 1977, p. 37). This otherness seems to be obvious while observing people without a camera, but suddenly vanishing when a camera is in between the observer and one in front of a lens.
The inspiration came from Walker Evans’ project ‘Many Are Called’, to use similar to his photographic strategy for visual analysis of other drivers, who were navigating through the city at the same time with me. W. Evans had hidden his camera under his coat while he was traveling in New York subway, photographing other passengers with release cable hidden in his sleeve. “When you get in,” he said, “there’s nothing to look at except the people…” …he wanted to do nothing but look at the people. (Kennedy, R. 2004). I wanted to capture the dead time while people are waiting in their car by cross-lights, immersion in their activity and forgetfulness of the surrounding environment.
Motives of my project are very similar to W. Evans’ but adapted to modern age isolated by our commodities, which are also extensions of personal representation or like Katz points out, “…extensions of their bodies” (Thrift N. p. 153). I am moving in my car with other drivers from one cross light to another until one of use turns in a different direction, like people at underground also stepping in and out at different stations. Even city lights are arranged by the way people are moving around in the cities: yellowish/orange streetlights glow, blinking signs, more cool colours of pedestrian passages. This interplay of different light sources and deep shadows of the darkness adds another dimension to this theatricality of a daily routine. This aspect also worked for me as a trigger of choosing to analyse visually in evening hours, after sunset, creating a chiaroscuro effect. This technique also may be termed “ambient/natural lighting”, although when done so for the effect, the look is artificial and not generally documentary in nature.
But there are quite a few photographers, who mastered to apply this effect to their practice.
I have placed my remotely operated digital camera on a tripod on the front passenger’s seat in my old VW Passat (very common car in Lithuania, that would not attract anyone’s attention). A plastic bag covered camera and it was turned right, that only lens would be visible. Fried M. (2008, p.28) states ‘A voyeur of a scene is by definition present but hidden…’, so, that it could capture other drivers while I am not looking at them. The camera was operated by the remote shutter release, triggered only by my peripheral viewing sense. Fried, M. (2008, p. 28) suggests: ‘When a voyeur recognizes that he can realize his ends by eliminating the basic act of watching, this means his death as such’.
From the very first drive out I had to add another level of perception to the space around me. Suddenly peripheral view started to play very important part in contrary to my daily experience of its use. Together with my project’s aims, my driving characteristics also had to adjust in order to capture other drivers with my camera.
A camera under a plastic bag on a passenger’s seat became quite difficult a distinguishable object and it became, even more, difficult to understand its purpose there, when noticed by other drivers, that I am not looking at them at all. Seeing no visible connection between the driver and the “unknown” object raises curiosity for other drivers. This “object” in my car also becomes a connector with others by being uncommon, the punctum (Barthes, R. p. 51) for the automobile. After each drive out, after my return, I was noticing that I have captured always a few drivers, which are actually looking back to the lens. And some of these looks are very intensely analysing this object with unclear functionality but also having something resembling a lens. Cameras around in urban spaces became a very common attribute, to which we started not to pay any attention. We know, that some drivers installing them in their cars to observe traffic in front and back of their vehicles. Capturing gazes back at the lens became a turning point in my project.
But there are also other parallels that occur in the project – the erosion of boundaries between the public and the private. These disappearing boundaries are unsuccessful in capturing the multiple mobile relationships between them. These mobilities are physical (in the form of mobile people, objects, and hybrids of humans-in-machines). There is also a doubt, that comes up with a question inside ‘Is there something wrong with what I am doing?’ when a lens is pointing at a person, who is actively trying to understand if he/she is under observation (yet still unsure, that he/she is being observed or not?).
With my photographic analysis and visual strategy in the project I have tried to touch quite several issues, but most of all, that gave me the highest satisfaction as for the artists – the results of my work. How it has evolved: from a will to capture other drivers immersed in their activity while navigating through a city, reinterpreting the notion of street photography, forgetfulness of non-important elements around one’s action, to the connection by an unusual object (the attention catcher – punctum), that actually observes them and also captures.
• SONTAG, S. 1977. On Photography. New York: Penguin.
• BARTHES, R. 1980. Camera Lucida. France: Hill & Wang.
• BRIDGE, G. and WATSON, S. 2010. The Blackwell city reader. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. THRIFT, N. Driving in the city, p.153.
• FRIED, M. 2008. Why photography matters as art as never before. New Heaven: Yale University.
• KENNEDY, R. Book review. [online newspaper] http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/31/books/review/many-are-called-petals-on-a-wet-black-bough.html?_r=0 (10, October 2015).
• ROSE, G. 2001. Visual Methodologies. London: Sage.
• SHELLER, M. and URRY, J. Mobile Transformations of ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ Life. [online journal] http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/20/3/107.full.pdf+html (05, December 2015)
• WIKIPEDIA. [wiki] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiaroscuro (22, November 2015).