Photography and the Surveillance Society
"The private life is nothing other but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object. It is my political right to be a subject which I must protect." (Barthes 1981: 15)
Since its inception, photography has been used for the purpose of surveillance. Increasing miniaturization and digitalization continue to keep photography at the forefront of surveillance technology. Paired with increasing computing power and database complexity, these new developments in photographic technology raise questions as to what sorts of information are appropriate to be held by governments and corporations, and how individuals understand themselves. Privacy activists and artists provoke complex and vital discussions about the implications of surveillance technologies on individuals and civil society.
French photography pioneer Nadar is credited with the first aerial photograph when, as early as 1858, he ascended in a hot air balloon to photograph the Bievre Valley in France. Immediately recognizing the prospective benefits for national security, the French army approached Nadar in 1859 to discuss the applications of aerial photography for the French campaign in Italy. While other pioneers experimented with kites in order to produce aerial photographs for aesthetic purposes, the path was already set for military use. During the First World War, cameras were mounted on planes and balloons in order to ascertain enemy positions. In the almost 150 years that have passed, the technology has changed but the goal of acquiring otherwise inaccessible information remain the same. The new technology is space imaging and "float-o-graphs": the planes have the capacity to fly 680 kilometres above the earth’s surface and the balloons are remote-controlled, miniature blimps.
Float-o-graphs is an American aerial photography company that rents miniature helicopters and blimps to law enforcement agencies, search and rescue teams and filmmakers. These hobby copters and baby blimps are equipped with camera platforms for either video or still photography. After a weekend of training, the operator is given two remote controls and a video monitor: one control for the helicopter or blimp, and the other for the camera shutter. The monitor allows the operator to see through the viewfinder and compose the shot. Their ease of use and agility make mini-blimps and helicopters a favourite tool for paparazzi seeking to penetrate the secluded estates of celebrities. Float-o-graphs can be shot from altitudes of 150 metres.
If you want to go higher, you can rent the view from an old Soviet spy satellite. The rapid growth in the market for high-resolution satellites was recently referred to as "God's Eyes for Sale."1 Until recently, God's eyes belonged to the superpowers. The end of the cold war and the transfer of technology in the United States from the military to the commercial sector has meant many formerly top-secret technologies are now available for hire to whoever can pay.
The first player on the market was Spin-2, an American-Russian joint venture, selling the Soviet archive of high-resolution satellite photographs of the United States to interested parties including farmers, real-estate developers, urban planners and, probably, the odd urban terrorist. Many of these photographs are available for sale through the internet.2 Now Spin-2 offers custom services. From an elevation of more than 500 kilometres, Spin-2 is capable of photographing the world at two-metre resolution; that is, objects of a minimum size of two metres (the average size of a pick-up truck) are legible in the photograph. The process is simple: Russian Spin-2 satellites direct their cameras to a specific location at a specific time. After the photographs are exposed, the undeveloped film drops to earth in a capsule. The film is developed in Russia and delivered to the United States to be scanned and digitally enhanced.
This system is fairly basic photography despite its high-tech flying platform. Film is exposed at a precise moment and falls to earth to be picked up. This system demonstrates one of the defining characteristics of photography: the capture of an exact moment in time, the freezing of a scene. Immediately after the satellite makes its photograph and continues on its orbit the situation on the ground has changed. The undeveloped photograph in the film capsule is freefalling towards obsolescence.
The new, privately owned IKONOS satellite, launched in September 1999, is a radical improvement on the Spin-2 technology. Built by major military contractors Lockheed, Martin and Raytheon, IKONOS’s state-of-the-art technology provides images to one metre of resolution transmitted back to earth by radio waves. It can make a new photograph of the same area every 98 minutes. Revealingly, both the NASA and the IKONOS web-sites take measures to communicate that individual people will not be able to be identified from the satellite, despite its resolution power. NASA states that "... trucks, roads, pipelines, individual trees [can be seen]. The sensor is not powerful enough to see individual people."3 This disclaimer undoubtedly reflects the concern shown by many regarding aerial surveillance of individuals, an idea disseminated by science fiction and espionage films, television and books. But surveillance of individuals from space is not merely something from Star Trek or James Bond films.4 It is reputed that some U.S. military satellites have a 10 centimetre resolution, as well as geostatic orbits; that is, the ability to hover over a specific spot on the earth, allowing continuous updates of the same location. Rick Oborn, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, has confidently stated: "We will remain a step ahead of commercial capacity."5
High-resolution space imaging is not merely an incremental improvement on earlier low-resolution technology: it is a quantum leap. High-resolution images provide a [detailed enough] platform to layer other technologies (such as infrared or thermal scanning) to provide real-time, dynamic maps. These maps provide information of a degree of detail and accuracy hitherto considered impossible. The change lies not only in the depth of the information but in how different sources of information can now be linked into a high-resolution image. For example, with a high-resolution space image, individual houses can now be seen. Realtors then can add a layer to the map of all the information they have on each house, making it possible to analyze wide areas in incredible detail. Increasingly exact questions and answers will be possible.
But who can ask the questions? And who is mere data fodder? What risks are we running as a society by collecting and applying this information? These are some of the questions asked by activists and governments trying to understand the implications of these new developments in surveillance technologies. Philosopher Michel Foucault saw photography as another tool that can be used to prop up pastoral power, which he identified as a dominant technique based on Christian forms of governance.6 Pastoral power governs entire populations through exploiting particular information on each individual. According to Christian styles of leadership, each soul must be accounted for and each "lost sheep" tracked down and brought back into the fold. Photography can play a role in this sort of governance by promoting a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish.
The recent debate over the Human Resources Development Canada database drew attention to the growing unease of the general public with the potential risks of the government holding so much information.7 The concern seems to stem less from the holding of this information than its application in ways not consented to by the citizen.8 Increasing computing power, sophisticated relational database design and the use of "imperishable" digital capture and storage of information collude to construct data nets which grow exponentially, not additively. Digital capture and storage is being sold to law enforcement agencies by companies such as Kodak as a way of preventing the ravages of time. No more yellowing photographs or soggy fingerprinting cards. No films burnt at the lab or destroyed by flood. Digital cameras and databases promise that their images will last forever (or at least as long as the computer languages and formats are in use). Cumbersome archive visits become a thing of the past. Cross-referencing and data matching expand records exponentially, but there are few controls in place to see if this frequently disseminated information is correct.
In spring 2000, the Europarliament asked its STOA (Scientific and Technical Option Assessment) branch for an expert evaluation of new surveillance technologies and their application to the political sphere.9 Web-driven CCTV (closed-circuit television) and new surveillance cameras, such as Jai stroboscopic cameras, allow for a blanketing surveillance that was previously impossible. Stroboscopic cameras taking one hundred pictures per second add a new dimension to documenting civil disobedience. Police will not be limited to photographing demonstrations with conventional eight-shots-per-second, SLR cameras or confiscating journalist's footage, but can capture an entire demonstration crowd in mere seconds. When stroboscopic cameras are combined with photographic databases and facial-recognition systems built around complicated algorithms (such as the Mandrake system), police officers can be informed almost immediately of the identity of the demonstrators. The type of threat posed by the application of databases built on compulsory, national, photographic identification has led privacy activists in the U.K. and elsewhere to resist pressure to adopt a national identification system, such as that in Germany. In Germany, one is required to carry photographic identification at all times. Traffic systems from the huge engineering conglomerate Siemens have been installed by the Chinese government in pedestrian zones, most infamously in Tianenmen Square, where their zoom-and-capture systems were used to photograph dissidents. Most of the demonstrators were then identified and apprehended after their images were broadcast on television - the contemporary equivalent of the wanted poster.10
Photography is used for surveillance because it has been and, to some extent still is invested with an aura of truth. Photographers were invested with the objectivity of the technician, free from the whimsy of a painter. Many photo-based artists play with this investment in veracity and exploit the ambiguity for their artistic work. Some proponents of this strategy are: Steve Mann, Sophie Calle and Christian Boltanski.
Steve Mann, artist and professor at the University of Toronto, takes a clever and fun approach to resisting photo and video surveillance, turning "totalitarian" surveillance techniques back on those who use them.11 Mann will go into a store using video surveillance wearing his self-made "Wear Cam." When staff become perplexed by a customer wearing a video-camera headset and a packet-radio uplink backpack to connect to the internet, Mann creates the opportunity to challenge their understanding of the application of surveillance technology. He fights against the logic of the panopticon of being seen but not being able to see in its modern form of "we can video you but you can't video us." We should not underestimate the power of this seeing, being seen dynamic. French philosopher Michel Foucault explicitly connects visibility to disciplinary power :
"Disciplinary power ... is exercised through its invisibility, at the same time it imposes on those it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility... "12
Surveillance, as a form of disciplinary power, turns subjects (those who would look back) into objects (things which are looked at). Mann is trying to challenge this logic.
Mann also challenges the ubiquitous deferral of responsibility ("I trust you not to steal, but my manager says we have to have cameras" or "the insurance company requires that we have cameras") by claiming that his employer is also making him conduct surveillance and that he cannot do anything about it. One of the limitations of Mann's technological interventions is that it is a reverse discourse that merely points to the problem but does not attempt to solve it. Mann simply applies the same rules to the watchers as the watched and hopes that thereby they will see the error in their ways. Accounts of Mann's 'Shootback Campaign' impress the reader for his desire to provoke discussion; unfortunately, it is not with the people responsible for the technology.
French photographer and conceptual artist Sophie Calle takes a different approach to surveillance. Calle assumes the role of photo surveillance's undisputed anti-hero: the lonely private detective on a stakeout. Calle followed people around Paris and photographed them without their knowledge. She once pursued her quarry as far as Venice. Later she worked as a chambermaid and photographed the possessions of the people who stayed in the hotel, trying to piece together some sort of coherent picture of them. Sophie Calle demonstrates the furtive pleasure in looking and following. The age-old pleasure of seeing and not being seen.13 Calle looks at other people's possessions and activities to discover something about them. Her intense surveillance raises uncomfortable questions about the viewer’s collusion in her surveillance. Viewers have to confront their own voyeuristic tendencies. Is there not something undignified in looking at people’s possessions, or following them when they are unaware of your presence ? Does dignity not mean simply showing respect and giving people space so that they can choose how (and when and where) they present themselves to others? Along side the voyeuristic thrill there is a discomfort in viewing Calle’s work and being implicated in the assault on someone’s dignity and privacy. We know about the so-called erosion of the public sphere, of privatisation. Calles’ photos and ever-present security cameras remind us of the erosion of private space where one can retreat from being constantly on view.
Calle once arranged for her mother to hire a private detective to follow her through Paris. Because she knew he was there, Calle was not a typical victim of surveillance but rather had the privilege of playing with it and using it for an exhibition.
is another photo based artist who has used photographs of himself to problematise assumptions about subjectivity. In his Christian Boltanski 1946 - 1964 piece Boltanski questioned the nature and limits of photographic identity through photographs of himself at different ages. Like Cindy Sherman's Film Stills Boltanski's photo collections serve to trouble the accepted wisdom that photographs provide a useful way of fixing the identity of subjects. Boltanski’s, like Calle’s work brings up doubts in ourselves about what we think we know when we look at pictures. What truths do they produce? What lies?14 What is the use of a photographic identification card, if the photo on the card does not always faithfully reproduce the image of the person carrying it?
Other Boltanski projects like Détective can produce a need in the viewer to create meaning in situations where it is absent and assign histories to people depicted in photographs. Database records also provoke this type of reading for the lines of connection, which when not present, are forced into the reading. No evidence is dismissed as circumstantial. In Détective Boltanski started with a magazine of the same name, which provides lurid accounts of crimes in Paris complete with photographs of victims and perpetrators. Boltanski rephotographed these original photographs and put them together in large collages. Who are the murderers? Who are the victims? Can you tell who is a criminal by looking at a picture? Do you want to believe that you can? At the beginning of the last century at the high point of the influence of the science of phrenology it was widely assumed that there were criminal types, shapes of head, slants of forehead, size of eyes. Now we observe some scientists trying again to ascribe criminal behaviour to an individual’s genetic make-up. Boltanski’s mixing of the murdered and the murderous thwarts the viewer's desire to immediately classify and comprehend the image.15
Boltanski's Résistance forcefully engages the question of photographic identity and surveillance by reappropriating arrest photographs from the Gestapo of members of the 'Rote Kapelle', a group who resisted the Nazis and were later disavowed by the West German government because of their communist affiliations.16
Boltanski rephotographed the identification photographs made of the 'Rote Kapelle' by the Gestapo at the time of their arrest. The photos were then enlarged, displayed and framed. Exposed to the elements on the otherwise pristine facade of the Munich Haus der Kunst, Boltanski pasted paper photocopies of his photographs, blown up and cropped so that only the eyes of the imprisoned resistance fighters are visible. Cropping the photographs so that only the band from eyebrows to nose is visible is the reverse of the censoring black bar placed over this area of the face in published photographs. This black bar is a compromise used when the print media want the power of a photograph but must make at least a gesture, under threat of a defamation lawsuit, to protecting the privacy of the individual depicted. The black bar is the photographic equivalent of the gray dot or heavy pixelation in television. By isolating this area of the face, Boltanski is inverting the disguising logic. Only the censored area is visible. The eyes are the area of the body, which we understand to be the site of individual identity.
In Résistance Boltanski continues with his central themes of individual dignity and collective identity and the ambivalent imperative to remember and to store. The breaking of the smooth stone museum facade by pasting on photocopies, like his earlier use of museum-style, glass vitrines, or photo albums and shrines, engages the construction of social storage and memory.
We return again to the storage and classification of information: the ever-expanding database of personal details, some significant, some apparently insignificant until they are pooled together and tracked over time. The citizen becomes transparent as the databases increasingly have detailed personal information on each and every individual. The storage of digital photography is not progress nor is it the end of civilization. New technology always poses questions as to how it should and should not be used. The risk with photography and surveillance is that one view will be taken as the True view. Photographs do not tell a lasting truth, if they tell a truth at all. They refer to a moment, not to the depicted subject. Satellite photographs capture a moment, as do cameras at a demonstration. These photographs necessarily leave things outside of their frame. They leave out the world as it is after or before their exposure. The tracking of these moments into pools of data provide the environment for data analysts to punch out their patterns, to reduce individual potential and difference to uniform groups predictable and governable. Surveillance and classification ensure the erasure of the private life and reflection through the reduction of subjects in their fullness to objects. As Barthes noted, it is our political right to be subjects that we must protect.
This article was first published in PREFIX PHOTO, 2/2000 Prefix Publishing, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Barthes, Roland (1981) Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. (trans. Howard) New York: Noonday Press.