Safety first, desire later

Certain Indian pornographic websites offer tips on clicking photographs of women on the streets without getting caught. A French photographer spent four months collecting such 'candid shots' to throw light on the voyeurs with camera phones

In the photograph, a woman is looking directly at the camera of the cellphone, zoomed in to capture her in her kitchen. Her eyes seem to say, "I know what you are doing." Framed by a window, she wears a diaphanous kameez and no bra -- her personal space not only invaded, but also eroticised by a faceless voyeur.

This photograph is part of a 10,000-strong catalogue of 'candid shots' of women collected from Indian pornographic websites, by French photographer Fabien Charuau. Taken by anonymous porn site surfers, the photographs are -- like their medium -- democratic with their models. Inexpensive handsets have zoomed into women on the streets, on their rooftops, in their kitchens, and bedrooms, to capture thighs, shoulders, breasts, hips, stomachs and even bra straps peeping out of blouses. But Charuau hasn't used all of them.

In his piece titled Send Some Candids, Charuau showcases nine photographs, chosen on the basis of what the former fashion photographer calls "artistic merit". Charuau was curious about how inexpensive digital photography added to the voyeurism that women encounter in public spaces. His work also includes two short videos and forms part of an exhibition titled Exchanging Glances, at Chatterjee & Lal, which began last week.

Photographs by New York-based photographers Pradeep Dalal and Michael B hler-Rose will also be shown.
As with Charuau's earlier works, Send Some Candids does not offer itself up to easy explanation. What is one to make of photographs that have been taken from pornographic websites and showcased in an art gallery, in what could be construed as a continuation of the invasion of the subject's privacy?

"Mostly, I came away disgusted by the photographs. The act of clicking photographs for these men was no less than a sexual act. They also felt that they owned the women once they clicked them," explains Charuau.
But Charuau was intrigued by the forum discussions that many of these photographs inspired. Some offered tips on how to shoot pictures from the mobile phone, without getting caught. "Safety first, desire next", he read.

"The porn site users would discuss angles, lighting and picture composition. The photographer would upload more photographs, based on their suggestions," says Charuau. Many would use software to work on the photos. Sometimes, the results were disturbing: some made the women look like acid-attack victims; others put a blank box on the face, in a bid to reinforce a sense of power that the photographer felt he had over his subject.

At the same time, some of these photographs harked back to practices by well-known artists like John Baldessari, says Charuau. "Baldessari used to cut out parts of a photograph to draw a viewer's attention to the most uninteresting parts of a snap. I found something similar on one of the sites. The man had painstakingly cut out bangles, mangalsutras, bindis, and purses from his photos of women. This detailed care falls within the practice of anti-portraiture," adds Charuau.

What remains in those photographs are midriffs and faceless women. And the absent photographer incapable of facing his subjects.

At: Chatterjee & Lal, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba;
Call: 2202 3787;
On till: November 20

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