My ballet class is held in a ground-floor studio with a picture window that looks out on a back lane. The other day, the teacher fell about laughing. He teases us, but he is not a cruel man, certainly not by ballet standards, and I didn’t expect he was laughing at us, even though our port-de-bras may have resembled windmills in a tornado.
‘You’re all going to be on Weibo,’ he told us.
Some Chinese tourists—as he described them, I did not see them myself—had taken some photos on their phones, thus reversing hundreds of years of the Western touristic, anthropological, colonising gaze. Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps we seemed exotic, adult women attempting ballet in a ramshackle studio down a semi-derelict (albeit West End) mews lane. Like the skinny black or brown children playing merrily in slums and shantytowns, all legs and toothy grins, who feature in so many ‘developing world’ arty shots, we were simply the human part of the scenery.
(I often wonder, what do the wealthy Chinese students who come to Glasgow make of their surroundings? They go about in groups wearing blingy brand-name clothes—oversized puffa jackets and bright orange teddy bear coats, vertiginous platform sneakers with gold heel inserts—a style of dress that stands out even in a city where people like colour and bling. Waiting for my booster shot in a socially distanced queue in the community centre off Dumbarton Rd, I saw a young Chinese man wearing a pair of heavily branded Dior high-top trainers. I wondered at the values and thoughts that go into spending £850—I was compelled to look this up—on a pair of trainers. Such esoteric apparel requires a certain context; in a Glaswegian community centre, they simply looked ridiculous.)
Street photography captures random moments in the vast unknowable life of a city. In my early London years, I discovered Brassaï at an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. A revelation. I still have the postcards I bought from the exhibition shop.
Years later, at a small Tokyo cinema in Jimbōchō, I saw the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, about the Chicago nanny whose life’s work of observing and recording city life was only discovered when, in her final, near-destitute years, she failed to keep up payments on a rented storage space and the boxes, tens of thousands of negatives and prints, were auctioned off.
I have my own urban eye, but I feel restraint in exercising it. People are not landscape. Also, when everyone has a smart phone, equipped with a technical capacity formerly limited to professionals, the novelty of being photographed at all is long gone. Snapping strangers seems an intrusion rather than a compliment; even theft, because these days, someone’s image is part of their brand.
Then again, by being in the most public of places, the street, have you forfeited your right to privacy, to not be looked at or photographed? Is the fact of being in a public place at all consent to be looked upon, ‘visually consumed’, as an academic might put it?
Women in public spaces are most certainly regarded as the rightful objects of the male gaze—and worse. In many societies, being out in public at all means a woman is complicit in her own harassment, even rape and murder.
As a woman, I don’t assume that other people exist to be looked at by me.
However, as with online dating, the etiquette of capturing images has been slow to catch up with the technology. Attending certain events is usually considered consent for your image to be used for promotional purposes, although sometimes you can opt out. Some people will now ask before posting your face on Facebook, with its surveillance-state recognition capacity. Posting pics of other people’s kids without their consent is a clear no-no, although the privacy of children is most egregiously abused by parents. I’ll be frank: I’m horrified by pregnancy scans on Facebook. Remember all those home birth videos taken in the 1980s? A blessing that VHS players are technologically extinct.
Perhaps I’m being too precious. Urban life is inherently scopophiliac. Learned papers and theses are being written on it, I promise you, encased in theory that resists penetration by ordinary understanding or translation into plain English. In the suburbs, curtains twitch and privacy is fetishised. On the city streets, there is no privacy. Observing other people is part of the pleasure of the city and being observed in turn is a fair price.
Emerging from a Sunday morning PCR test in Possilpark, I saw a man and dog looking out the top floor of a flat. It was a standard grey pebbledash social housing block, ubiquitous in Scotland: three floors, low-trimmed grass, no trees. I heard loud music, distorted: to my stuffed-up ears, it could’ve been opera or melodic rock. The man, scruffy, middle-aged, tattooed, was smoking. Next to him, leaning on the sill, head-level, was a large Alsatian, its tongue lolling out one side of its mouth, as if in imitation of its master’s fag.
A man and his dug, Possilpark, April 2022. My Vivian Maier alarm went off. I could already see the image, in black and white, of course. Social history, a human moment amid a desolate urban landscape (there was a Lidl across the road), spotted, captured and curated by me. A fragment of someone else’s life, appropriated, proof of my urban awareness and savvy, a middle-class sensibility on safari in a grittier part of Glasgow.
I didn’t reach for my phone.
I don’t imagine that the man and his dug had a social media brand, but to create and claim an image of their shared Sunday morning reverie seemed presumptuous. If he’d seen me, he might well have shouted some ripe Glaswegian abuse. (Or not.) I went on my way with only the impression, like the ghostly early days of photography, gently fading in my mind’s eye.
But damn, it would’ve been a good photo.