It was night and two people stood in the street below my apartment screaming at each other. I moved near a window to watch. Suddenly the woman shhh’d and they both turned to look up at me. The three of us were silent – we all realized we’d been caught. Somewhere a dog barked.
Studies show, even at the earliest stages of development, we are fascinated by other humans. Babies are immediately intrigued by other babies, toddlers mirror each other’s behavior, and even as adults we love to eaves-drop, observe, and sometimes take notes.
I started thinking about this when I came across Yasmine Chatila’s website. I instantly fell in love with the stark black & white photography for the compositional beauty. But, more so, I fell in love with its silent capturing of intimate moments we probably are not supposed to see. It feels beautifully dirty to look through these photographs. I’m sure there is some ethical line being crossed here, but I’m glad it was crossed and we were asked to come along. The collection is properly titled Stolen Moments.
Since moving to Spokane I live in an apartment where, for the first time, I have a view of other apartments. My view isn’t wholly unlike Jimmy Stewart’s view in Hitchcock’s film Rear Window – one of my favorite films.
Of course, the question remains: Do I love watching neighbors because of Rear Window? Or do I enjoy Rear Window because I love watching neighbors?
Even as a kid, before seeing the movie, I remember wandering the backyard fence searching for knots in the wood allowing me to peer into the neighbor’s yard. This was mainly because they had a dog and I, much as I begged, did not.
I’d wander along the fence keeping an eye out for the owners. After glimpsing the old couple a few times, I became convinced they were evil (who has an alligator lawn ornament?) and I didn’t want them to know I was trying to win over their dog. There I’d stand face smashed against fence, splinters in my cheeks, talking to him. I’d hear the old man call the dog Tobey, but I called him Glenda. My plans to kidnap Glenda went unfulfilled. My track record thanks me for this.
Now that I’m an adult I spend a lot of time observing my across-alley neighbors. They have a penchant for screaming. The kind of fights where, even if one of them storms outside, the other will tear open the window and lean forward spitting more insults. In the apartment next to them I don’t hear the fighting, but I see a lot of arm flailing. The woman living below me likes to curse and throw things (including boyfriends out of the building). I’ve woken to the flashing red pulse of parked cop cars more than once.
According to the DMS-IV-TR, in order for a person to be diagnosed with voyeurism there has to be a connection to sexual fulfillment with the unauthorized observation of others.
While not all of us get off by watching neighbors, it’s probably safe to say we all find a certain curious enjoyment in quietly observing others. We’re hilariously tragic creatures.
As Chatila reflects on Stolen Moments she says, “At times, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of human nature when it was not guarded, not self-conscious and completely uninhibited.” This is the beauty in people watching. Some of us just watch, Yasmine grabs her camera, children pick their noses and, as writers, it’s only natural for us to frantically reach for a pen and paper. Just make sure to turn off your lights before moving towards a window.