Accidental Voyeur

by Kristin George Bagdanov August 01, 2013

I was walking downtown on my lunch break when it happened. It was the Tuesday before Lent. The sky was the cloudless blue that’s typical of springtime in Santa Barbara, California.

I passed the courthouse tower and looked to see if tourists were milling about the top as they often do. An old boyfriend once took me there—at one hundred feet high, it offers a romantic and picturesque view of the ocean and mountains.

But that day, instead of tourists, all I could see was a middle-aged man—denim shirt and pants, white sneakers, long, disheveled hair—standing on the wrong side of the safety barrier, his arms unfurled along the black metal fence.

Immediately my mind began to justify, analyze, sort, and suppress what my blood, heart, and gut already knew: this man was going to jump.

Susan Sontag’s voice from Regarding the Pain of Others momentarily rose to the surface above all my muddled and confused thoughts: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it. . .or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” I knew then that I was seeing something I shouldn’t.

In this quote Sontag is referring primarily to war photography, but her line of thinking extends to any horrific or violent event—in print or in person. Where is the line between witness and voyeur? And as people of faith who are often inundated with this call to “witness”—how can we know when we’ve crossed the line into voyeurism?

I know it sounds unbelievable—that my brain was processing all of this in a matter of seconds, but I remember telling myself: don’t be a voyeurthere is nothing you can do—the police will be here soon, just like on TV. I didn’t think this last part at the time, but upon later reflection, I did realize that so much of the grief I experienced afterward was due to this cognitive dissonance—how the depictions of violence I’d seen on TV and in movies did not match the actual experience, which was neither heroic nor gruesome.

The sudden silence is still what haunts me most. Less than a minute had gone by when I decided that there was nothing I could do to help this man, whose name I’d find out later was Danny. I saw a police car rounding the corner and assured myself that everything would be okay. Burly officers would charge the stairs, present some rational argument, and if that failed to dissuade this man, they would physically subdue him to safety. The tourists would resume their touring and we would all tell our friends about the “close call” we had encountered that day.

But as I began to turn, to run, to stop myself from falling into this trap of morbid curiosity, it was too late. Between the second when his white soles were tugged skyward as though uprooted, and the second when his too-quiet body was suddenly lying prostrate on the grass as though asleep, I had become an accidental voyeur. Too late but still feeling as though my open-mouthed staring would only compound the horror, I ran. I was angry because I felt as though Danny had forced me to become a voyeur—he did not give me a choice.

I was angry with someone I did not know for forcing one of the most intimate moments of his life—his death—to become a part of my own, while not allowing me to witness or honor it as it should have been.

And even as I write this blog post now I ask myself—is this story merely perpetuating voyeurism? I’ve written poems about this incident and still wonder—does this make it witness now? Can my involvement in this event be transformed? Transformative? Is there something that can be learned here? I hope so, but I’m not sure.

I hope that, as well-intentioned as he may be, the man who photographs the underfed child on his church mission trip thinks hard about the life of that photo—whether it will be passed around as a token of exoticism or tucked into his journal to remind him of the pain of others. I hope that when she watches the all-too-prevalent violence on television, the woman thinks about how it might be stunting her ability to empathize with those suffering from real violence. And I hope that in this world where sharing one’s most intimate moments is a click away, we all think a bit harder about who we are forcing to become unintentional voyeurs.

But mostly, I hope that our voyeurism, intentional or otherwise, can be transformed, and that this is part of the truth and power of art, and of faith.

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Kristin George Bagdanov
Kristin George Bagdanov

Author

Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD student in English Literature at U.C. Davis, where she studies 20th century and contemporary ecopoetics. Her poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, Cincinnati Review, The Laurel Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the 2016 Henry David Thoreau fellowship at Vermont Studio Center and is the poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @KristinGeorgeB.



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