Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Watching You Watching Me

Laurie says:

From Moa Karlberg’s site.

I have taken portraits of people through a mirror when they are totally unaware of the camera inside. This way I get shots of people watching themselves.

. . .Since the pictures are taken in public spaces, I can publish them how ever I want, at least in Sweden, where the laws are generous to journalists and artists. . . Watching You Watching Me is an effort to create debate on laws and ethics within the photographer’s role.

Watching You Watching Me is an interesting title for the project. The first interpretation of the phrase seems to imply a kind of reciprocity, which is clearly not what the project is about.  It’s more like Me Watching You (secretly). At the moment for me, the project raises any number of issues, including privacy, self image, and what the photographs actually reflect.

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Legalities aside, there is an assumption that when you’re looking in a mirror no one is looking back at you. I think we mostly see these reflections as a private moment. While when walking in public space you know you are on view.  I have mixed feelings about the legal issues, but I don’t have mixed feelings about depriving people of privacy, when the images are made very public. The photos are all over the web, otherwise I wouldn’t be putting them up. Their privacy is long gone.

The mirror shots are clearly a set up and there are many, many many captured images in both photo journalism and fine art photography and it’s complicated. My conversation here is about this project.

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Caperton on Feministe in her post Watch How You Watch Yourself had some useful things to say about the self image aspects of the project.

What gets me about the photos isn’t the ethical question of shooting someone secretly-in-public, but the subjects’ expressions as they see their reflections. I don’t see a single photo on Karlberg’s site that shows a person happy with what they see

. . . I know I’m guilty. When I get dressed to go out, I look myself in the mirror and tell myself how awesome I look. Then when I actually go out, in my mind, I look like Charlize Theron. (Note that I’m a 5’7″ redhead, making that particular fantasy particularly unrealistic.) And then when that inevitable moment comes during the evening when I have to go pee, I look in the bathroom mirror and observe with shock that I actually look like me. Usually, at that point, a rather shiny-looking me with mascara under her eyes. And my expression is probably something like picture #8 on Karlberg’s site.

Obviously, no one should be expected to perform any emotion, even for oneself, and sometimes you just don’t feel like smiling. But y’all, don’t glare at yourself in mirrors, store windows, and the sides of cars. It sucks when strangers do it to you; you should at least be able to expect better behavior from yourself. Unless you’re looking like #14, who looks to me like he could be saying, “Now there is one sexy bitch. What’s up, stud” and then making tiger noises at himself.

So next time you pass a mirrored surface, look into it and make tiger noises at yourself–not because there might be a voyeuristic, camera-toting Swede on the other side, but because you’re on this side. And if there is a Swedish photojournalist on the other side, you probably just made her day.

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This and the other reactions I’ve read assume that the photos are truly reflective of the emotions of the subject. Unphotoshopped photography is real. (Karlsberg says nothing to suggest that these images reflect anything about the people except their lack of privacy, except possibly by calling them portraits.)

I’m not so sure. The first thing I’d want to know is how were these particular images chosen. Are these _all_ of the people she photographed? Did she take a number of shots of each person or only one?  What other choices did she make?  Color was one. I know if she shot me, I would have been straightening my hat.

And I know from my own experience as a portrait photographer selection from many possible images is normal. The appearance of emotion on someone’s face is often the construct of a facial expression in movement, the way the camera translates an image of a person into two dimensions or any number or other causes. And photos most frequently reflect the photographer’s conscious or unconscious assumptions. (Particularly blatantly in images that involve race or gender.)

I know in my own work that it’s difficult and vital to get a real sense of the person I’m shooting and it involves lots of choices, some collaborative, some not.

As I said, I have mixed feeling about the privacy issues but not about the fact that I doubt that most of these are, by my definition, portraits.

3 Responses to “Watching You Watching Me”

  1. Stef Says:

    I thought most of the people looked neutral rather than unhappy, and I didn’t like the project being used to suggest that people need to be even more self-conscious of their appearance than they are already. So I found it interesting that some comments in the Feministe article were along the same lines, and that Caperton replied that she might have been projecting her own feelings when she assumed unhappiness.

  2. Lizzie Says:

    My relaxed face tends to look like a frown (which leads to men exhorting me to smile, but that’s another problem.) I think there are lots of times when I quickly check myself out in a reflection but don’t break out in a big grin, just maintain my relaxed/frowning face (because nobody’s watching me, right?) So I don’t see these as faces of unhappy disapproval but of unselfconciousness.

  3. Laurie Toby Edison Says:

    Stef, Lizzie,

    I didn’t see unhappiness or disapproval either. But as I said in the post I’m not at all convinced the images tell us much about how the people were feeling.

    Lizzie,

    Men exhorting women to smile is one of those things that really pushes my buttons. It rarely happened to me but when it did I always fought the temptation to say “my dog died.”

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