“Where is the camera in relation to these people?” asks Naomi Cass, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Photography. “In a physical relationship and a moral relationship?”

She’s describing the crux behind In camera and in public, an exhibition curated for the Melbourne Festival that explores in notions of privacy, observation and intrusion, and studies our varied reactions to watching and being watched. It questions the relationship between the camera and subject – especially when the subject is unaware.

“I was thinking about the difference between one’s face when one is being photographed by a friend or a family member, a loved one…and about the relationship between artists who are doing their set-ups and working with models or ordinary folk,” says Cass. “The relationship between the camera and the subject is so big now. I thought it might interest to see the relationship between camera and subject when it’s really fraught.”

Featuring works by Bill Henson, Cherine Fahd, David Chesworth and Sonia Leber, Denis Beaubois and Percy Grainger, the exhibition also reveals a selection of archived ASIO surveillance photography as well as revisiting Kohei Yoshiyuki’s infamous The Park (1970-1979) series – night photographs of voyeurs watching young people performing intimate acts in Japanese parks.

“You get a sense of the panopticon, of the all-seeing eye of God,” says Cass. “What one senses are these creeping voyeurs.”

Occasionally disturbing, the exhibition provokes the audience not so much by revelling in the acts of others but by making the audience accomplices to the very act of watching. “They’re about looking and not understanding,” says Cass. “You really are implicated in the voyeurism.”

In camera and in public runs from Friday September 16 to Sunday October 23 as part of the Melbourne Festival.