Photography and Voyeurism. Coincidences in space and time

This short article describes two special situations which are typical of documentary photography – the moment of the on-site work, which can lead to unforeseen discoveries, and that special power of the image that, in some cases, can well represent, instead of the point of view of the photographer, that of another subject, in this case of the voyeur.
There are several coincidences that merge. The most striking one is the meeting and the sharing of a situation that mirrors, by representing it in a visual way, the old analogy between photography and voyeurism. This sequence of ten photos, taken by the author of this article in Paris in 1994 will slowly and unexpectedly mix up these points of view.


Taking photos means seeing and prolonging the vision in space and time, dominating a glance by controlling its fleeting and automatic nature (F. Faeta, 2003, Strategie dell’occhio, Angeli, Milano), expanding the area of direct observation, but most of all, the possibility of interposing ourselves in the continuous flow of events happening around us.

These images tell the story of a social malaise and uneasiness, but it is also a story of contrasts, of such small realities that do not correspond or, to be more precise, that we are not able to see. The sociological dynamics of the situation will be explained here in a few words, as we prefer you do any further research elsewhere. We will discuss here what images do not show, but that is included in their execution, more than what is clearly visible.

Space and time

Photography effectively opens up new cognitive horizons of time and space, offering new chances for understanding and analysing reality, thus it can become a precious  tool within the continuous flow of events.

In fact, the use of the camera always conditions, to various degrees, the physical presence of the observer, influencing his movements and also his journey at that moment and his relations with reality. The image, as it freezes an infinitesimal time gap, captures a certain portion of space and deals with it in a timeless frame, and the photographer plays a crucial role – he has to decide how time and space shall be split from their standard daily co-existence, reassembling them with different ratios in the real instant of the shot. It is no coincidence that at this moment we often hold our breath, as to signify our need to stop our inner time for a second and concentrate  exclusively on external time.

The photographer is thus the one who decides which spatial-temporal combination shall be used in his descriptions, in short, which of these two elements shall have a decisive visual importance. The photographic moment in itself can be limited to just one moment, as in the case when we are waiting for a special moment to come and here, the concentration of the photographer, while shooting, attributes a greater visual importance to time rather than to space. Or, vice versa, we would like to represent just particular aspects of the elements in space attributing, on the contrary, a certain visual importance to space compared to a single time gap, whilst following time passing by in space and what happens in it can produce unusual combinations of spatial and temporal elements.

Spatial-temporal relationship

In fact, a photo is always a special alchemical concentration of space and time, where these two elements find a particular balance shown by every photo and by every photographer in a different way.

A photo sequence which is coherent with the passing events can find its punctum of visual interest more towards what is visible in space than in time, whilst maintaining significant relations with time which can strongly condition the efficiency of the single image or the entire sequence. It is the photographer and the situation he is looking at that decide how and with which balance the two elements will be combined. In this sense, the reference to the spatial-temporal relationship is somehow equivalent to the relationship between time, light and the photographic objective, although these aspects are something different.

In the photographic documentation we are presenting here, the spatial-temporal ratio is initially characterized by a visual way of the spatial element, while time remains in a secondary position, but it gradually turns up in the subsequent images, bringing space to a secondary level, and eventually finding a perfect balance together. This is particularly clear in the last image where the moment of the three protagonists together and the context, now extremely recognizable, legitimate the entire time sequence, making it reliable and real.

But time has in itself another important feature that goes beyond the act of photographing – only the natural flow and development of events in time. How does the actor who takes the photos find his own position in this flow of moments and situations? Surely in a different way compared to any other person.

First of all, the technique being used, which leads him to make an analysis separated from time and space, brings him almost to take a dissociated position, as an observer on the limits of reality. Then, his progress is not timely, continuous and constant, it may  sometimes be slow or suddenly become faster, his being in time can be highly neurotic and convulsive and his moving in space may seem a strange and bizarre way for someone external, as a person who goes and comes back to the same place more than once, who runs or kneels down or deliriously moves from one side to the other side of a street. In this special and double spatial-temporal ratio (that of the real photographic act, of the very instant of shooting, and the search for it), the movement that emerges can create unusual crossing points, situations and appearances which coincide and that we simply do not often see, without saying that they can’t usually happen.  

The sequence: the beginning

I took this photographic sequence in Paris in 1994. As it is shown here for the first time, it is important for me to briefly comment on it, in order to better explain the above reflections. The first image was actually taken for a merely aesthetic reason. We are under one of the many bridges in the Paris underground and the particular vanishing point which extends for the whole centre of the image, with the great pillars of white stone which limit the shot and the chiaroscuro effects created, caught my attention.

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

From that position, the static spatial elements have exerted all their influence on me. They prevail in the moment of shooting the photo over the temporal ones, even if the visual feature of the produced image is then perhaps more temporal than spatial. In fact, if observed separately, it seems to be a timeless setting.

But the aspect of time, or rather, the evolution of the spatial elements in time slowly start to replace my first and purely aesthetic interest, and thus merely of space and immobility. The two points visible in the distance in the first image, start to take shape – they are two people. Space stops being a static element and becomes a dynamic pole of attraction, and from now on the journey inside it begins.

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

What interest me here is to discover the evolution of space in time and I am absorbed into a new dimension, where it is not yet possible to put what is happening into focus.

The sequence: the journey

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

The third image represents, besides this aspect, a deeper meaning – closely linked to the second one: it expresses a process of transposition, the beginning of a shared point of view, of an intimate bond. The three sequences that follow describe this movement, with a gradual approach. A couple has romantically conquered all the space offered to them at that time.

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

The three images, once produced, are again dominated by time, which suspends and surprises, as if a spatial approach could produce an image strongly characterized by time, and vice versa.

I am now moving away from the bridge, to the side of the street, because at this point I would like to make the context less dominant, focusing more on the two people. I am running, because I am driven now by time rather than space – I want to photograph them before they stop kissing, so I have to hurry. The background is changing, their bodies seem to come out from the column, which partially hides them, but they would be completely out of context if the column were not there.

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

Two images are again produced from  breathlessly seeking against time, where spatial elements prevail. But the new space I have gained allows me to reveal a new point of view and to see the man, whom I could not see before because he was hidden by the column. I try to stop as many seconds as I can before the situation disappears.

The sequence: conclusions

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

What is that man doing now?

The last photo is a perfect balance between time and space – the precise instant with the presence of everybody. The context referable to the previous images and the frame chosen, allowing a photo of the three subjects together to be taken and where they are fairly recognizable, confer reliability on what is shown in this sequence. And for the first time, someone realizes that I am there, as until then I have not had any physical presence.

Paris 1994, Pont de Grenelle.; Author Cristiano Mutti

The evolution of the events has somehow brought the point of view of the photographer and that of the man to coincide. This last consideration introduces, as a further and final element of reflection, an almost “metaphysical” aspect of the camera – its rare power to transcend the very physical nature of bodies, placed spatially and temporally, and to originate almost a process of transposition and coincidence of the eyes. In this case, the eyes of two voyeurs of life, of passing time  and of events.

That smile has perhaps appeared just by thinking about this coincidence.

Cristiano Mutti
Visual Sociology Laboratory
Department of Sociology and Social Research
University of Milano-Bicocca


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