“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms”

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by Raluca Igr.

I always used the word “voyeurism” to describe my passion for cinematography and for observing/contemplating/analyzing random people in non-personal and non-intentional situations (while staying in lines, in the bus, while sitting in café-bars or in the park, while waiting at a pedestrian crossing, etc.) But searching by definition or formal meaning, “voyeurism” is reduced to the act of perversion, or the practice of gaining sexual pleasure by looking at people doing actions of intimacy (undressing, sexual activity, etc.)

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However, in popular culture, voyeur or voyeurism detached a little bit from his formal definition (which by the way is also a criminal charge, aham! let’s maintain taboos and a prudish society rather than understanding the complexities of psycho-sexual behaviors) and upgraded another meaning, a non-sexual one, within the phenomenon of cinematography and the cinematic apparatus and the phenomenon of reality shows. And with the era of internet, and especially through social media, “we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms” to quote from one of the most famous voyeuristic films, Hitchcock’s “Rare Window”. Image Then, may I say that sociology is also a voyeuristic phenomenon as it is the study of social behavior and the development of human society (which wouldn’t exist without sexuality to make a reference to the formal definition of voyeurism). Therefore, a sociologist is a voyeur as he observes, analyzes and tries to understand the individual and/within the society, as the filmmaker does when trying to reproduce this relationship.

(Hint: there is a very interesting study called ““The Sociologist as Voyeur”: Social Theory and Sexuality Research, 1910–1978 by Janice M. Irvine, which explores social theories and ethnographic research on sexuality, denaturalization of sexuality, historicization of sexuality, destabilization of sexual categories and identities, diverse meaning of sexual acts, sexuality as gender and performance, sexual stigma, marginalization of sexuality).

Generally speaking, there are two types of observation:

o   Unobtrusive where the observer is detached and doesn’t take an active part in the situation, he is rather observing the situation, behavior and interactions. The observer can be complete, he is not noticed (as the spy voyeur 🙂 ) and it is not known his true identity or can be observer as participant, still detached but admitting his role.

o   Intrusive where the observer is a participant and joins in the situation to observe and takes part as an inside member. The identity of the observer is still hidden but he is a complete observer (but he may alter the situation) or is a true participant, admitting his identity and objectives.

While I was an Erasmus student in Madrid, studying media and cinematography, I remember one course where we were talking about voyeurism which was linked to queer theory (in short, gender is part of the essential self and focus on gay/lesbian/transgender/transsexual studies examining the socially constructed nature of social acts and identities) after watching Andy Warhol’s video “Blowjob” which is a silent film and depicts a man apparently receiving a fellatio from an unseen partner as we see only a close up of his face and reactions. In this video, where there is only an implied sexual act, we don’t know if the unseen partner is a male or female, but we presume the sexual act is happening and we also presume (based on prejudice or not) the gender of the out of frame partner.

So, the act of voyeurism deals also with a lot of presumptions and intuition based on mirroring the human behavior within a society, and maybe this ‘game of guessing’ and observing offers a non-sexual pleasure of amateur psycho-analysis, trying to understand yourself as an individual, other individuals, and your and their interaction (but not as a versus relationship) within the society.

After the course, the teacher told us to take our camera and go in the city and film a complete stranger, making sure we are not seen in the act of observing and after that bring  the video to class, watch it collectively and try to ’guess’ bits of that person. We also had to make some notes and first listen to other colleagues what they think about that person and then to read our own notes. I remember that in my notes I added an unavoidable load of impressions, assumptions, philosophical or psychological meaning or a poetic mode to that act of voyeurism. But I found points of prejudice of which I was not proud, prejudice that I found at most of my colleagues. But the fact that I will never know the answers from the person I filmed, I loosen a bit the guilt of some prejudicial thinking.

All  in all, I think the act of voyeurism is also a pretext for dialogue, as it was in my class but also a perfect discussion starting point to reveal social constructs while judging the world around, inevitably affected by social mores, personal background and role taking. I have posted my notes here (I gave them a more narrative form) as well as the video. I would be curious of your observations, guessing and the profile you make to the person that appears in my video. 🙂

“The character of my video is completely the opposite of a person that usually would attract my attention for whatever sort of reason. My choice of the character, while looking only for interesting/strange/weird subjects, ended up with the thought to watch a type of person that gives me no familiar background according to my interest and affinities. When I started to film him, I was, as the video, not aware of its context as I was filming through a mirror, thus not allowing me to see with whom the person came,  nothing below the shoulders, what he was looking at or why he was laughing.

I, as a first viewer, judging by the ‘Hawaiian’ or ‘back to neon 90’s” colors and patterns on the shirt to which I add the upper left ear piercing and the ‘medium cool way to the baldness’, I firstly thought he was gay. Moreover, his somehow ‘full and funny’ laughter, that kind of laughter which usually people with a  strong appetite for life have(closing the eyes, ‘the Chinese smile’, wide open mouth to the ears, tremulous of the body, tongue slightly out, laughing for self not for the sake of the situation) made me think of the sincere enthusiasm and impatience when waiting for a meal and drink to which I have to add that the man’s bust appearance of a, let’s say ‘chubby’ person who obviously enjoys the primary pleasures of life.

As in, Warhol’s “Blow-job” I could feel the frustrations and disappointment of not seeing further than my frame as I wanted to know and see who is this person talking to, why is he laughing so hard and at what he looks down there. But at the moment the significant other person comes into the frame, I can see that my presumptions of him being gay are completely stereotyped as the other person is a black haired woman who affectionately leans on the man’s shoulder.

Thus, my subject is rather straight, but in the moment this becomes obvious, the mood of the man changes in a conspicuous way: did this man, who tries to impose a manly-macho-Segura fashion, actually gets soaked due to the gesture of affection the woman made?; or was that gesture a sign of rather friendship like ’you are my best friend I cannot think of you sexually’?; the fact that he yawned is a sign that he had just realized he got bored of pretending to be interested in what the woman says?; is the man having the terror of ‘displaying public affection ‘?; is he becoming too anxious about food and waiting?; did he say something wrong? Did she say something wrong? Why does he suddenly feel embarrassed at the end of the video? Did he spot the camera? If so, is the last expression of the man a mask in front of the uncomfortable figuring out of a voyeur? Is the last expression the only deliberate performance to the camera to show is vulnerability or disapproval?”

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