Monday, January 14, 2008

Photography and Surveillance

Those who are regular visitors to the online photography-related discussion forum may be aware of a recent topic being frequently discussed, one which seems to have exploded in significance since September of 2001. I am referring to the growing trend of the suppression of public photographic activity by both publicly and privately employed security personnel.

In some sense this trend represents nothing new at all; we may recall Walker Evans’ concealed camera project on the New York subways in the years preceding WWII. Although the ostensible reason for concealment was to capture the subway rider unawares, there were in affect at the time regulations prohibiting such activity without police permission. We also may know of publicly accessible private property, such as shopping malls which, being private property, retain the right to regulate or restrict any such activity what the management deems to be incompatible with the mall’s primary function of retail commerce.

Since we see precedent for the restriction of photographic activities within the confines of private property, and also specifically regulated public arenas such as mass transit, then why all the fuss?

We may recall that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there were many reports of the hijackers’ planning and preparations to have included photographic reconnaissance and surreptitious surveillance of their intended targets, by posing as tourists with cameras. There were at the time widely distributed warnings, for both law enforcement and the general public, to “be on the lookout” for any similar such activity. We were reminded that it was our civic duty to remain in an extraordinary level of heightened awareness, that the possibility of new attacks was ever-present; that we were in a permanent state of endless war.

Two other observations merit mention: first, we live in a technologically saturated culture where the presence of miniaturized, ‘embedded’ photographic devices, such as in cellular telephones, is endemic. It can be assumed as a given that in any shopping mall in America today over half of all those present will have the capability to perform surreptitious photographic activity of the mall’s private property, and then will be capable of emailing those images immediately to whomever they wish. Meanwhile simultaneously, photography using obviously camera-like equipment remains in an elevated level of concern. Secondly, we live in a culture that is under an unprecedented level of public and private sector surveillance, to include not only visual surveillance of the physical space of the built environment, but also surveillance of the virtual space of telecommunications and the Internet. Thus it becomes necessary for us to posit whether these phenomena are, somehow, interrelated.

Perhaps the presence of overt innocuous photographic activity compromises the ongoing covert surveillance establishment. One data point that suggests an interrelationship between surveillance and a general suppression of public image making is the value of the image as cultural currency. We may recall the video footage, taken by a nearby resident, of the beating of Rodney King by members of the LAPD, and the subsequent rioting that ensued when the police officers involved were exonerated of all charges. We may view this particular example as a watershed moment in media history, where freelance, amateur, ‘non-embedded’ media proved to be a direct threat to those in positions of authority. Such amateur media proves to be a recognizable threat because it bypasses the symbiotic relationship that exists between corporate media and government. The consequences of such footage being widely disseminated are entirely unpredictable, as evidenced by the violent aftermath in Los Angeles.

We suspect that some measure of control over the volatile nature of amateur media has since been established, first by a tendency of many TV news organizations to no longer accept unsolicited amateur footage; second by the diluting effects of the plethora of videos available from Internet-based media outlets such as You Tube; third by the marginalization of amateur video by such cutesy television programs as ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Meanwhile, there remains a small but dedicated cadre of traditional, film-based photographers, whose field of operations can include the populated, urban environment – the so-called ‘street photographer’ – as well as the built, architectural environment of the urban landscape – the large format photographer.

We can understand the opposition to handheld, candid street photography, even though there is no assumed right of privacy within a public venue; suppression of such activity plays into the public’s fears and insecurities resulting from existing within a surveilled culture. Explaining the suppression of public, tripod-mounted, large format photography is a bit more complex, however. Rationally, no one could seriously expect a real terrorist to be performing target recon activity using a tripod-mounted field camera and a stack of sheet film holders. For that matter, with the existence of Google Earth and other Internet image banks it becomes possible to surveill a potential target without leaving the comfort of one’s easy chair or Afghan cave, since the photographic data base is already in existence, waiting to be downloaded and studied. One possible explanation is that security personnel are, frankly, uninformed and paranoid; naturally suspicious of any activity appearing out of the ordinary, or that isn’t commonly understood. One must also suspect that the tripod itself plays a significant role in garnering suspicion. Or perhaps it’s the tripod minus the significance of an attached major corporate media logo.

It remains to be seen how large a part the act of photography itself plays in this phenomenon. One wonders if public, plein-air painting, for instance, or sketching, would attract the same amount of negative attention, even though we can imagine paper-and-pencil note taking might serve as a practical planning tool for the fledgling terrorist.

Whatever the reasons involved, there is little doubt that the suppression of public photography has less to do with security matters and more to do with the role that media plays in our culture.


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