There’s a fine line between documenting exhibitionism and indulging in voyeurism. It’s a line I have always tried very hard not to cross especially with portraiture as to do so risks objectifying the subject. Part of the reason I tend to formally engage with my subjects is because I want to connect with and represent their humanity; that’s very difficult to do, perhaps even impossible, if you’re photographing them without their knowledge or consent. It’s not that I think candid street photography of people is bad, I believe that approach can say a lot about our collective humanity and tell a wonderful story. A lot of the images in my ‘Brighton Beach, Sunrise Sunday’ project aim to do precisely this, but my greater interest is always with the person in front of me.
Documenting exhibitionism is inevitable on Brighton Beach at any time of day, but in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the clubbers emerge like Mortlocks from their subterranean dens, it’s an occupational hazard. Partially clothed or even naked swimmers are the most common sight and making out on the beach is hardly a modern concept, nor is the public expression of sexual preference, after all this is Brighton and if not here then where?
On this occasion I had approached a group on the beach as I usually do. I’ve commented on this before but it’s often hard to read the dynamic of these groups; are they a group held together on the basis of long held friendships or simply as a result of the sense of collectivism that Brighton Beach tends to excite? This group had a consistency of dress and style that I really liked, a mixture of rock and rockabilly and it was apparent that they had all been to a rock night together, so I guessed that were at least some of them who were connected by more than just a shared night out.
Amelia in particular stood out for her sense of style and flair and I knew I wanted to make a portrait just of her. I asked her if she would let me photograph her. She agreed despite her outwardly expressing a lack of confidence, but her timidity was charming and engaging and I was happy with the results. A moment later another woman in the group, who I had photographed a moment before and who had expressed much more ribald confidence, quite literally bowled over into the scene. There was a moment when it became apparent that they were clearly more than just friends but perhaps not quite ready to acknowledge this. I asked what the relationship was and Beth, the more confident one, energetically explained that she was working on it at which point she pulled Amelia down onto the shingle and passionately kissed her.
‘Oh my god you’re so much more confident than I am’, gasped Amelia when she was able to draw breath.
This presented something of a quandary for me because I was framing for a photograph at the point this happened, so they both knew that I was photographing them. The act was almost a defiant public display of passion and desire, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate her strength of feeling and thereby woo the object of her desire, perhaps as a way of demonstrating her confidence and dominance, perhaps even as a way of challenging my position as a stranger with a camera, observing and taking pictures.
Whatever her reason, the passion was unbridled and reciprocated, and I found myself faced with the dilemma of whether I should politely retreat and leave them to it, or continue to photograph them. Obviously, I chose the latter though the experience was distinctly uncomfortable. It’s not as if they didn’t know what I was doing, quite the opposite. it was almost as if they were doing this because of what I was doing. And yet the creeping sense of eroticism in the scene and the growing sense of my voyeurism (though strictly speaking voyeurism is the pleasure of observing without you yourself being observed) only compounded my sense of discomfort.
So why did I keep photographing?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I think the best answer I can give is because I was curious as to what would happen, that is of course, less what would happen with them and more what would happen with me. Would I be able to remain focused, composed and objective or would my baser instincts get the better of me? It was almost like a self-administered test but one I hopefully passed.
It will be interesting to see if either of them gets in touch. I suspect not as it’s been a few days now and I’ve not had any contact but this is not entirely unusual. If they do it will be interesting to hear their side of the story.