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Harry Callahan Untitled (Atlanta) 1984

Exposed at Tate

The Tate Modern sees the new exhibition 'Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera'...

Yesterday saw the opening of the new 'Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera' exhibition which promises to be the most comprehensive documentary photography exhibition at the Tate Modern to date. It was a wake up call to the power of photography and its abounding use in the 21st century. It starts by looking at street photography from the 1930s and by contrast, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads 2000, which capture New Yorker’s going about their days unaware that they have been snapped. Head #23 especially conveys a sense of energy and vitality in the image of a girl. However, the exhibition quickly proceeds into other more disturbing types of voyeuristic photography. From drug and sex scenes to Nick Ut’s weeping photo of Paris Hilton being whisked off to jail, soon your principles come into question with what’s ok to view and what in your eyes, is not. The hardest pictures to view are the pictures of holocaust victims and war photography which is at best unpleasant to see. Lee Miller’s ‘The suicide daughter’ is an apt end to this section. Room 11 hosts Jonathan Olley’s Castles of Ulster which make a looming contrast with the more modern ‘surveillance’ photos around them.

It takes you on a journey through the 20th century and beyond boasting works from such greats as Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Helmut Newton. This exhibition is bound to make you think differently about photography, human nature and the increasing feeling that George Orwell’s 1984 is not so far from becoming a reality. It seems that humans find a way to manipulate in what ever way they can to survive and control and the fate of photography may already be in the wrong hands. Dazed spoke to Jonathan Olley to find out more about his work.

Dazed Digital: Hi Jonathan, what is it about your 1998-1999 pictures ‘Castles of Ulster' that lends itself so well to the new Tate exhibition, 'Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera'?
Jonathan Olley: ‘Castles of Ulster’, has a specific theme, that of history and failure and is a rejection of the idealized landscape photography that exalted the elemental. These buildings are particularly relevant in the present context of censorship, street surveillance and civil liberties. They are a reminder of how close we have come to a nightmare of Orwellian proportion. Politically invisible these structures, first built and then expanded and improved upon between August 1996 and July 2007, which included fortified police stations, army barracks and observation towers and were added to the Official Secrets Act as 'classified buildings'. It became thus illegal to use film or photography to record them.

DD: Each photograph shows a landscape which has been ripped in half. On one side we have a village with homes, on the other we have armoured fort’s representing the brutal force of the police in the ‘troubles’ and the failure of politics. How did you decide to shoot these scenes and why did you not include people in them?
Jonathan Olley: One of the conditions imposed on me for conducting this survey was the refusal of the British Army to tell me where the buildings were. Some I knew of, others I had to find. My main task as I saw it was to not only record these structures, but try to include some context, road-markings, stationary vehicles, shop-signs. Things we could identify as 'normal' and so therefore contextualise the incongruity of the existence of these security measures in the latter part of the 20th Century.

There was no explicit reason to exclude people from the photographs. Mostly I worked early in the mornings, setting up the camera when it was still dark. Often, local people from both sides of the political divide would find reasons why I should not be photographing the security force buildings and the early mornings were a simple way for avoiding the majority of these inevitable confrontations.

DD: Did being a war photographer affect you in any way? We know that Don McCullin’s experiences of war had a deep impact on him and now he tends to photograph landscapes and scenes of tranquillity.
Jonathan Olley: I cannot honestly claim my own humanity and continue to pass-by the sufferings of others and as a correspondent in extremes, that is something you are more than likely to have to do, perhaps not every time...but sometime. It became increasingly easy to remain detached, I am adept at putting up walls and I felt in doing so I was eroding my own humanity. I can't deny that some moments are exciting, but if evil exists it is more fully able to flourish in times of war. My work in conflict zones amounts to only a few months out of twenty years of photography, however there is truth in the saying "Seen one...seen them all". It's the same inhumanity but with different accents.

DD: Where can we see your photography and are you working on any new projects?
Jonathan Olley: For a couple of years I've been mainly working with the men of the Département du Déminage in France who are tasked with the removal of the 12 million tones of shells that after 92 years remain in ‘Zone Rouge’, the area of the WW1 battlefields. Selected images from the body of work 'The Forbidden Forest', can be seen by appointment at the Diemar/Noble Gallery, London.