Speech Melba | Society

Life lived only through a view-finder

“From being one of those precious gadgets we extracted from the Godrej almirah just before summer vacation, [the camera’] is now an extension almost of our limbs,” writes the columnist

“From being one of those precious gadgets we extracted from the Godrej almirah just before summer vacation, [the camera’] is now an extension almost of our limbs,” writes the columnist   | Photo Credit: Deepak Harichandan

Even as we forever take pictures of ourselves, elsewhere the spycam is being trained on us

Early this month, in Albany, US, a woman guest sued Hilton hotel when she found that she had been filmed naked in the shower by a hidden camera. Roughly 7,000 km away, and roughly the same week, police arrested a man in Chennai called Sampath Raj who ran a women’s hostel and had installed nine spycams to secretly film the young women living there.

When I Googled the Chennai story, 8 of the 10 results on the first page were of porn sites promising intimate spycam photos of women. And when I Googled spycams, I found they were available for as less as ₹999; not much larger than a Ludo dice, easier to install than a doorbell.

Spycams are being sold for many reasons — from home security to nanny surveillance to recording sensitive transactions. Obviously, nobody is advertising that they’re the perfect tool for voyeurism, but clearly that’s one of the primary uses they are being put to.

But there is nothing less voyeuristic about the more ‘innocent’ roles the camera plays. I have watched, fascinated, as the camera has taken over our lives. From being one of those precious gadgets we extracted from the Godrej almirah just before summer vacation, it is now an extension almost of our limbs. In fact, I was reading that it might soon be embedded under the skin. Then we can be on show, 24/7.

As I write this, I open Facebook. People have posted photos of husbands, holidays, the day’s lunch. Fractured arms, hospital beds, daughter’s drawings, morning walk, it’s all there. They’ve posed with filmstars, best friends, dogs, cakes, tattoos. It’s a tireless, endless sharing of the minutiae of lives once lived in anonymity. Amazingly, it is a voluntary relinquishing of privacy on a scale possibly unrivalled in history. Even as we scream about the invasiveness of tools like Aadhaar, we willingly, happily share details of our bodies, our families, our possessions and relationships with every Tom, Jane and Hariharan.

Only, preoccupied as we are with capturing every utterly boring moment of our utterly boring existence, we haven’t noticed the camera being quietly weaponised against us. And, predictably, weaponised most effectively against women.

The relationship that women share with image-making is an intriguing one. Instagram and other photo-based social media sites have more female than male users, and even on ‘old-fashioned’ sites like Facebook, women recreate themselves over and over again, in a utopia where they are forever beautiful, desirable, loved and feted. They feed off their photographed, Photoshopped, filtered selves in a frenzy of self-consumption that is, at best, extreme narcissism and, at worst, a self-created prison of social media validation. Where every ‘like’ a photo gets adds to self-esteem. And fewer ‘likes’ bring on anxiety attacks. Where the frozen image is vastly more important than the real thing.

In this universe, women today are objectifying and sexualising themselves for public consumption to an unprecedented degree. And, in a bizarre parallel, they are elsewhere being objectified and sexualised, without their knowledge, by hidden camera pornography.

The defence of pornography and prostitution has for long been the existence of agency, when women can control the narrative as well as benefit from the commerce. But spycam pornography once again inverts the power equation. Just as when the jilted boyfriend uses revenge porn to invert the power of social media approval.

So, in a strange and rather tragic way, women have mostly become victims, once again, in the image-making era too. Of course, when they knowingly step in and lock themselves into the social approval trap, I have nothing to say except, well, bah. Which is my response to G-strings and the bikini wax as well.

Narcissism and, its flip side, voyeurism are perhaps as old as the hills. As are image-making and iconising. But with the ubiquitous camera and mechanical image-making came the ‘gaze industry’. And as patriarchy crystallised, the female body became the site of moral taboos even as, simultaneously, the image of the female body became ‘seductive’. If there was no pornography in tribal societies one wonders if it was because there were no clothed bodies.

We could argue that removing the taboos around the female body will defang the lust industry. But it might take much more than that to dismantle the predominantly ‘visual’ way in which we consume life today.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 12:28:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/life-lived-only-through-a-viewfinder/article25742351.ece

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