What We Do
Photography changes who and what we can stare at
John Waters, filmmaker, writer, and visual artist who is known for challenging cultural norms, good taste, and poking holes in propriety, muses on the joys and curse of voyeurism.
The Cub Scout in this picture was caught doing something and, when I was a child, I did the same thing. I looked at pictures I wasn’t supposed to see, too. My father didn’t have girlie pictures around; all he had was a copy of Peyton Place in his drawer. I have to admit that the first “dirty” pictures I saw were gay ones, taken by studios like the Athletic Modeling Guild and published in magazines like Vim and Vigor that I stole because I was too embarrassed to buy them.
I don’t think voyeurism is a male-only thing and, in fact, voyeuristic pictures don’t even have to be about sex. When I was a kid, for example, I was impressed and fascinated with car crashes, played “car accident,” and collected photographs of crashes long before Andy Warhol used them in his paintings. There’s a picture of a 1940s car accident that’s hanging on the wall in front of me, right now.
For most people, the word voyeur is a bad word; to me, it’s a realistic one. Whatever your secret obsession is, that’s what you need to look at again and again and again. It doesn’t matter what it is. Was Ansel Adams—who spent a lifetime looking at mountains, making pictures, and getting off on them—a voyeur? All photographers are voyeurs; as soon as you look through a camera, you’re promoting voyeurism.
Movies, of course, are completely voyeuristic and Rear Window is probably the best voyeur movie, ever. Most people lead lives they can’t imagine someone watching, yet do things that they probably wouldn’t want anyone else to see. Voyeurism always works as a plot device because while everyone would like to spy on people, most people don’t; they only imagine it. Movies are fun because you can watch any movie—even a Disney movie—and be ogling someone’s ass and nobody will know it. Disney doesn’t know it, the star doesn’t know it, the ticket taker doesn’t know it, your date or child might not even know it.
It’s celebrity voyeurism, though, that’s become the bane of my existence. When I’m out, people constantly say “Can I take a picture with you?” I always say yes. If you say no, they’ll say mean and negative things about you for the rest of their lives. If you say yes, they say, “Oh, I know him” and buy everything you put out till the end of your life. At least 50 percent of the time when I go out now, the next day a picture of me that I didn’t know someone took will end up on a blog, somewhere. It even happened when I went out for a cable car ride with my mother in San Francisco! That is creepy to me, because it means I’m never off work. But I’m not whining. It was Gore Vidal, I think, who said that when they keep taking pictures it’s horrible, but when they stop, it’s worse.
I noticed, a long time ago, that when I’m on the red carpet with a woman who is a glamorous movie star and over forty, like Kathleen Turner, I can see paparazzi lying on the ground, shooting up at us from a bad angle because they get more money for an ugly picture than a good one. I’m amazed that magazines, like Us Weekly, feature pictures of celebrities pushing shopping carts, or looking and behaving “just like us.” In the 1930s, people wanted to see celebrities looking perfect. Now, tabloid readers are so mad they’re not famous themselves that they want to see celebrities looking fat and just as bad as they do. (I’m the first to admit that I’ve got pictures of Aretha Franklin’s outfits and Marlon Brando, when they used to call him “The Blobfather,” pinned up on the bulletin board in my office.)
The reality is that with cell phone cameras and changing technology, there’s not going to be any privacy soon. Eventually, everybody’s going to be able to photograph anything. Today, if you’re outside your house, you’re in a movie, whether you like it or not. And people are so stupid, they’re putting their own naked pictures online. What are they thinking? Won’t someone where they work see and pass them around and say, “Look at so-and-so in Receiving!” I’m still waiting for a pair of glasses you can wear to see through clothes. When I was a kid back in the ‘50s, I used to see ads for them. Supposedly you’d put them on, look at a girl, scream “Yow-ee!!!” and your eyeballs would pop out. That’s going to happen someday, and I hope sometime soon. I’ve always said I wish everyone in the world were nude, except me.
John Waters’ bio picture courtesy of Greg Gorman.
- Carnival attraction at the Imperial County Fair, California. El Centro, California, March 1942
- Russell Lee
- Read image description
Carnival attraction at the Imperial County Fair, California. El Centro, California, March 1942
Black and White Negative
Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-072233-D