I live in a small city on the south coast of England – as remote a part of the world as any, with its own set of social values, dress codes and fancy coffee shops. Coffee shops may seem relatively unimportant in this context, but in Brighton they are where people really set aside time to sit and look at one another. These are expensive little boutiques, dressing up caffeine with frothy milk and syrup, and they line most shopping streets in the town, even managing to find a place in the London Road, the shabby, down-at-heel route in and out of the city. I recently saw three tramps huddled round a cappuccino outside the Costa Coffee on this road. It’s not the coffee that people really visit these cafés for though, they go for the people watching, the ogling and the silent judging of passers-by who are beautifully framed in the picture windows. It is voyeurism in its most refined and socially acceptable form and is understood by all.
Girls watch boys and boys watch girls; the old watch the young and lament whilst the young watch the old as if they are some other species; some look at clothes and some at bodies; some to feel a sense of belonging and some to set themselves apart. Don’t get me wrong, this is not criticism, and I am not immune to this tendency. I often take time out to stare at passers by, trying to imagine what they are thinking about, what they do and where they are going. I have developed a habit of playing a set of games whilst watching, the worst of which is looking out for overweight people and considering whether I could lift them or not. I am ashamed to admit this as I feel it may be ‘thought crime’ in terms of political correctness, but we surely all find our own strategies for dealing (or not dealing) with the abstract nature of trying to imagine what others are – this is mine.
In Rumor, Osamu Wataya has chosen an altogether different game to play whilst ‘people watching’, and what seems a darker set of rules. I have until now imagined Japan – a place I have never been fortunate enough to visit, through the photographs that pass across my desk here at the magazine’s offices and the Japanese as a series of clichés described by these pictures. There are usually women dressed as schoolgirls, craggy-faced fishermen wearing takegasa, young city-dwellers making western fashion subcultures look interesting again or businessmen letting loose in Johnny Walker soaked Karaoke bars. The image of Japan, and of Tokyo in particular, is one of a hyperrealist’s wonderland powered by equally vast amounts of eccentricity and electricity. Wataya seems to be offering a different representation and shows his subjects seemingly dragging themselves through choking grey smog in a colourless, featureless, anonymous city. The people here are not the beautiful or the perfect, but the damaged and the ugly. They are disabled, infected, overweight, exhausted, isolated and, worst of all, stared at.
The strangest thing here is that Wataya has chosen the very people that a mixture of social constraint and self-restraint would normally have photographers avoiding. There is a high level of discomfort involved in viewing these images, a feeling that I shouldn’t be looking and, what’s worse, that the subjects are looking back, to confront both my gaze and my discomfort. I get the overwhelming feeling that I have become complicit here and it makes me feel very bad about my history of scopophilic sport. I don’t know if this is Wataya’s point, but it is too powerful a reaction to believe that he hasn’t thought about it during the making and subsequent presentation of this work.
The most uncomfortable image in Rumor – which is quite an accolade in a set of pictures including shots of very young girls alone, seemingly lost in the city; sick looking people wearing masks or gloves; a disabled boy writhing in a wheelchair; an overdressed woman with suitcase-sized bags under her eyes and a blind dwarf – is one of a man whose flesh seems to be melting from his body like wax. His face and arms are covered in what look like large blisters and through his Lacoste polo shirt you can see that his body is also covered in these strange lumps. He is contorted, barely able to open his eyes, his arms bent up and his head twisted off at an angle. He looks as though he has been exposed to the most intense heat and it is hard for me not to relate these injuries to the atrocity of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US at the end of the Second World War. In Wataya’s Rumor the whole city looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the cast the victims of some major atrocity. This reading may be entirely wrong but – having nothing but a liberal western upbringing and values to bring the work into context – it’s an unavoidable one.
Rumor, it would seem to me, is an extremely well controlled look at the problems of viewing – a marriage between the creative impulses of Dianne Arbus and the sick mind of Mark Lewis from Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom. It is looking and showing taken to an extreme and almost pornographic level, both a celebration and indictment of street photography. Looking at this work over the past weeks has made the walk to work and home again a confusing, uncomfortable and engaging experience. It has also made me re-engage with an idea of what is acceptable to look at and think about and photograph; and to what extent political correctness has prescribed a set of moral codes and buffered us from the duty to do much of this thinking for ourselves.