From my windows
to other windows
Windows: Part 5
In Edward Hopper’s 'Night Windows' (1928), there is half-figure of an anonymous woman depicted near the windows of her apartment, unaware that she is being seen by voyeuristic viewers, whether is the artist or the artworks’ spectators. It is a private scene exposed in an illuminated room that creates a contrast with the darkness of the night. Although the viewer could be on the street watching this mysterious and erotic display, the point of view is higher and may suppose it is observed from the window of another building. As such, the painting looks like a frame of Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Rear Window’ (1954), as if that woman could be a neighbour of the broken-legged photographer L.B. Jeffries, played by James Stewart. This cinema masterpiece is certainly the most famous reference when thinking about looking at other people’s windows. Jeff, the protagonist, spies on his neighbours, gives them nicknames, and even discovers a murder by getting his voyeuristic practice beyond ethics. In this movie, Detective Doyle’s notable quote to Jeff outlines one of the crosslines between private and public space: ‘That's a secret, private world you're looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public’ (min 75).
Driven by curiosity and incessant watching, one gets involved in people’s life and, in some cases, that may take unimaginable proportions. It is also true in the recent American short film ‘Neighbor’s Window’ (2019), where a couple spies another couple’s window and they discover at the end that they were in turn watched by that same couple. The same behaviour is depicted in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film ‘Red’ (1994) when Joseph Kern, a retired judge, is eavesdropping his neighbours, listening rather than seeing, their weaknesses. Unconcerned by people’s reactions, some people may act as spies by following their drive rather than their common sense as they steal what should not be stolen, our privacy, our freedom, what George Orwell denounced in ‘1984’ (1949) when mass surveillance becomes a well-accepted norm. Hence, Yasmine Chatila’s ‘Stolen moments’ visual project (2016) shows how controversial it may be to expose glimpses of anonymous people’s vulnerability. With her photographic and telescopic equipment, she could access their apartments under the cover of the night, unveiling ordinary scenes, some including sex. Her project could be compared to Gail Albert Halaban’s ‘Out my window’ series of photographs (2009) in capturing mundanity, or Fosi Vegue’s ‘XX XY’ (2014) and Merry Alpern’s ‘Dirty Windows’ (1995), in capturing unsuspecting persons engaged in sexual activities or in provocative poses as these two photographers were facing brothels. The totalitarian society of surveillance is criticised by all of us as free citizens, but when individuals seek to keep an eye on their neighbours with their camera, they are called artists.
What is even more paradoxical is that those who take people in pictures would certainly not accept to be in turn taken in picture. Pulling off the curtain and turning off the light is a call for privacy, to avoid being seen by others at night, as ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves […] Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world (Berger, 1972: 9). In this context, Duchamp’s ‘Fresh Widow’ (1920) with the panes of glass covered in black leather could protect us from outside but they would lock us in our loneliness, between opacity and transparency, as it could also happen with a window facing a wall. For this chapter, I may have watched my neighbours at times, as the deranged artists described before, but have avoided them in most of my photographs to only capture their silhouette and to mainly focus on the interiors as if their windows were the frame of an artwork, a metaphor taken from René Magritte’s ‘The Human condition’ (1933) or from his series of broken windows. At last, I would like to end this chapter with a meme widely shared on social medias where three old ladies are looking outside from their balcony, a rather common scene in some countries, and where we can read in Spanish ‘I sell three old surveillance cameras’, in reference to the curiosity that some neighbours have more than others to see, know, and even comment on what happens outside, entertaining themselves without using a camera. These ladies could be the street watchers defended by the urban writer Jane Jacobs as the ‘eyes upon the street’ that may bring more safety to a city as they are ‘the natural proprietors of the street’ (1961: 35). They can provide a better understanding of the covered area, but also know to keep their distances according to the context as there exist different degrees of neighbour’s involvement, from the quiet listener to the nosy citizen. In my opinion, eyes should continue to be there but a debate on their different ways of being there could open up new perspectives in today’s cities where social connection seems to be more discontinuous.