Gillian Wearing, The Peepshow & Ethics

Peeping in to view the videos.

I enjoyed the Gillian Wearing show at The Whitechapel Gallery. I liked her sense of fun and her explorations of identity through her use of masks; her invocation of Goffman and ‘the presentation of self in everyday life; and her crazy dance in Peckham.

I have been thinking for a while about the relationship between photography and research. I have written before about the ubiquity of digital photography and the auto-ethnographic disposition that this seems to foster in many people. I think that the affordability of cameras and the ensuing low/no-cost production of images means that many people nowadays continually photograph their lives and view images of their daily experiences even as they live them. This gives individuals multiple ways of viewing, reviewing and reflecting on themselves and their lives in ways unknown before the digital age. This ethnographic aspect however, is a kind of by-product of photographic behaviour; most people with digital cameras do not probably intend to carry out auto-ethnographies! They just like taking photos of what they are doing and sharing them.

In the case of professional photographers, most obviously photo journalists, their work researches issues of a social, political or even cultural nature. And we often see how ethical considerations become quite a poignant aspect of their work.

Art photographers also explore issues with their cameras and many are undoubtedly carrying out research through their photography. For example the work of Lewis Hine and Daniel Meadows; two exhibitions I really enjoyed. I loved Briony Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project‘; Briony was interviewed and filmed for the OCA’s blog – which included a reference to how Briony dealt with some of the ethical issues involved in this work.

There were all sorts of things I was intrigued by with Gillian Wearing’s exhibition and I may post about this on my other blog, but here I want to just say something brief about ethics. One aspect of her exhibition featured a series of ‘confessional’ type videos where individuals had volunteered to talk about traumatic incidences in their lives. In doing so they were asked to wear masks and to be filmed. Some of the stories were shocking; the people spoke of sexual abuse; emotional abuse; other types of physical abuse and so on.All kinds of stories from all kinds of people, who had been at the mercy of others. Some of them were very moving and it was also awe inspiring how some of the people seemed to have moved on in their lives. It was astonishing how outspoken people were, how frank. I have frequently been surprised how willing some people seem, to talk in front of a camera – and maybe they are excited by the idea of film and the sense of being a kind of celebrity because of this. In agreeing to be filmed, and perhaps even being told a bit about GW’s work, I still wonder how much informed consent these indviduals were able to give. Did they know how many people would listen to them and in so many places and situations? Were they given support after their confessional filming? Did they regret taking part?

Where I work, in a School of Education in a University, any research we carry out must first be cleared by going through an ethical review procedure. This is the case for all University research. I believe this is a good thing, not just because it ensures we do not exploit research participants (note I do not refer to research ‘subjects’ here) but also because it leads to better quality research in my view. The re-positioning of people from subjects to participants means that not only do we acquire properly informed consent, but also an additional angle is introduced into the work. Perhaps this is why Helen Rosmier’s image of The Chair is so effective (as Clive describes in this video).

I worry that in taking a glimpse of people’s lives in order to explore the affect of masks and to produce an interesting project for display, some damage may have been done to individuals. I have no idea if this is the case, but I think that ethical procedures should be transparent – for journalists and artists as well as for university and clinical researchers. As a visitor to a museum, I want to know that no one came to any harm because of their involvement in the making of exhibits.  I think that information about the ethical process should be shared so that participants are always protected.

I could not help seeing the similarity between Victorian peepshows and the confessional boxes of the Wearing exhibition:

Peeping into view the videos.

Painting by John Burr. Thanks to blog at

Arthur Rackham Peepshow.. thanks to blogger of 'The Victorian era':

Girona Peepshow: thanks to :


12 thoughts on “Gillian Wearing, The Peepshow & Ethics

  1. It is interesting to consider the ethics behind what someone like Gillian Wearing is doing.
    Working with such troubled people can’t be easy though and one can imagine they might later object to what Wearing has done to get attention.
    Personally, I think the people interviewed probably got a lot of therapeutic value out of the experience and in a strange way, I felt privileged at being allowed to enter their worlds because they are not perhaps as extraordinary as one might assume.

    • Hi Amano, I totally agree with you that it could have been therapeutic. But I would like to know this for sure – and I think what I would like to see, is an ethical protocol for artists to follow. I can see that many would object though as there is an argument that artists should not have their thoughts boxed in. Thanks for commenting on my post!

  2. Pingback: Gillian Wearing « Amano photographic studies

  3. Yes – I’d wondered about the ethics of it all as well. Amano writes that he thinks people got therapeutic value from the experience but that would only happen if someone spoke (with the right skills) spoke to them about it afterwards.

    • Yes. I agree it is totally possible that it was therapeutic. And I think that puppetry and masks are sometimes used by therapists. But this is something That I think I want to be sure of. In fact I think it could enhance the artwork

  4. To be honest, I do not accept that the people who “confessed all” to Gillian would only get therapeutic value if someone talked to them afterwards; there are of course many different kinds of therapy but usually people need listening to with some response made when appropriate. It seems quite likely that Gillian Wearing was able to do this although a professional might have been able to offer more.

    One does not know what actually happened between artist and confessor (was there an exchange of money? did the confessors sign a model release? etc) but I do not think that an artist should be subjected to the ethics of a professional researcher partly because the artist is not really doing research here, just eliciting a response.

    Perhaps people featured here might feel they are being exploited at being put on “public” show and people having to pay to see them yet for all we know, they are grateful to Gillian for letting them have their say.

    I felt touched by their monologues, there was no feeling they were being co-erced, but was struck by an underlying confusion with many of them – not a result of Wearing but exposed by her.

  5. I do not however want to disagree with either of you because there is that underlying feeling of something unresolved. Wearing brings up hugely significant issues but seems to offer no way these might be confronted except perhaps by making them into art.

    So yes, the participants might have been “used” in some subtle way which is unethical and talking about their problems without proper guidance might have made the whole thing worse for them.

    Like good therapy, one needs to be offered something that takes one beyond one’s immediate concerns and I am not sure Wearing manages that.

    Hi Ho !

  6. My feeling is that it is very likely that many of the participants will have felt the process to be therapeutic and I do know that talking things through is often hugely helpful. I also was very moved by what I saw and heard. I think that in all the conversations I heard afterward our lovely OCA people were in general very much of this view – that the stories were often traumatic and it was interesting to hear them in this way. I would want to ask a few questions though – Can Wearing guarantee that all listeners will be sympathetic? Can she guarantee that the critics of her shows will all be respectful to the participants? Might they in some way (similar to confessionals on TV reality shows) talk about the participants in unsympathetic ways?(Might they laugh? Might they half listen and misunderstand? Might the perpetrators of the bullying listen in too?) Wearing cannot guarantee against these things and I think that if participants have thought this through before hand and still want to go ahead then I reckon that is great. But I would want to know that they really understood the repercussions of going public like this and this can only be demonstrated if we know the artist has gone through some kind of ethical procedure. In my own research I have to be very careful and keep reminding people of what will happen to the data I collect. They still usually want to continue and in this way I can feel confident. Young people in particular need guidance and I think that they need to be helped to think ahead – do I want this work to be seen in 20 years time when I actually want to forget this stuff and move on? That kind of thing.

  7. Pingback: Gillian Wearing Exhibition: Whitechapel Gallery 28th April 2012 « My OCA Learning Log

  8. Pingback: Gillian Wearing Exhibition : Whitechapel Gallery 28th April 2012 | People & Place

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