Marvin Heiferman | Marvin Heiferman | Friday, 13.12.2013

I, It, We, and They See You

In Blue Nights, a 2011 book in which Joan Didion struggles to come to terms with her daughter’s death, she relates how, when she was briefly hospitalized herself, doctors urged her to undergo a medical procedure:
I recall resisting: since I had never in my life been able to swallow an aspirin it seemed unlikely that I could swallow a camera.

“Of course you can, it’s only a little camera.”

A pause. The attempt at briskness declined into wheedling: “It’s really a very little camera.”

In the end I did swallow the very little camera, and the very little camera transmitted the desired images, which did not demonstrate what was causing the bleed but did demonstrate that with sufficient sedation anyone could swallow a very little camera.

This passage is a reminder, if we need another one, that most of us are or end up as subjects of photographic surveillance. Cameras will slide down our throats and be pushed up into our bowels. We will, for no or good reason, be photographed when and wherever we gather: on sidewalks; at events, meetings and demonstrations; in offices, stores, stadiums, airports, schools, elevators, and in our cars. If it were possible to collect and string together the images of us as we move through the world, the result would be an extended, time-lapse tracking shot of life in the panopticon, no longer an architectural concept or dystopian fantasy, but where we now live.
I am not paranoid person, but scroll through the archive of WHY WE LOOK, my Twitter project, and you will see that I am repeatedly drawn to and surprised by news stories that report on why, how easily and often our lives are being pictured, exposed, and monitored by the eyes of others. The art and photography worlds focus on and reward cleverly conceived and constructed images, but the most transgressive of images in today’s visual culture are those made, not for the ages, but for the moment, to be data-mined and, perhaps, acted upon.
To those of us who track or revel in the look-at-this, look-at-that miscellany that photographs open up or mirror back to us, it is humbling, frightening, and essential to acknowledge that the collection of data, for good or nefarious purposes, is where much of photography’s utility and power lies.
As individuals, we engage in the photographic surveillance process willfully and, with digital cameras always at hand, frequently. In previous posts, we’ve looked at those who stake out and scrutinize themselves in continuous streams of selfies. Early adapters of life-logging and/or wearable cameras will soon have hands-off tools to picture every place they go and everything they see along the way. That activity might be read as a strategy to fight off existential dread, a celebration of life, or confirmation that we have become unpaid interns working for the corporations that make those devices and whatever agencies or individuals figure out how to appropriate that information.
Off-the-shelf Surveillance Cameras(
We purchase the cameras that hover above infants’ cribs and monitor their sleep, and install granny-cams in nursing homes and hospitals to check up on family. We install security systems to monitor those who near or enter our homes. In Russia, dashboard cameras are widely installed in cars to pre-emptively scoop up information that may become useful if accidents are staged or take place. And we, in turn and of course, are relentlessly watched by cameras now seeming mounted everywhere--in the heads of retail store mannequins and on satellites producing images instrumental to determining the whereabouts, activities and probable next moves of innocents and violators.
Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece #70, 1975
I’ve always been intrigued with work by artists—including Bruce Nauman, Douglas Huebler, Merry Alpern, Sophie Calle, Lewis Baltz, and Trevor Paglen—that explores surveillance and the politics of sight.
MPH Red-Light Camera Notice of Liability© Marvin Heiferman
I’ve had run-ins with surveillance in my personal life, too. Photographic images illustrated the traffic summons I received a while ago in the mail, supposed proof that my car illegally glided through an intersection where, I swear, the light was changing. But it didn’t look that way in photos produced by a profit-generating, red-light camera. I have to admit that while I was miffed, I was also amused by the fact that photography, the medium I’ve spent a lifetime advocating for, had nailed me.
Less humorous was a day, three years after that, when I climbed the stairs to my fifth-floor loft in midtown Manhattan and spotted something suspicious. Wires taped to the wall and that ran to the carbon monoxide monitor mounted high up in the hallway and facing my door, which I’d never paid much attention to before, lay on the floor. The moment I stooped to pick them up and them, a feeling of dread welled up in me.
Sixth Avenue, NYC, 2009© Marvin Heiferman
All it took was a single, sharp tug to bring the carbon monoxide monitor crashing down. Once I’d nervously pried apart its cheap plastic housing, I found a tiny video camera no larger than a pencil point inside. Stunned at first, I quickly grasped the situation. My landlord, who had been harassing all the loft tenants on the block for a quarter of a century, had gone high tech. The more primitive VHS videotape security system installed at the building’s street-level entrance produced tapes that needed to be logged in real time, making surveillance expensive. This new digital system created an easily searchable record of each of my entrances and exits through the door, which I immediately understood would cause trouble for me. And did. Within a year, and because of local laws defining residency, I had vacated the space to a new tenant ready to pay eight times the rent that I did. Once again, the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. I wasn’t the only one who relished or made a living looking at photographs, many of which are made without their subject’s permission or awareness.
Video camera hidden in a carbon monoxide monitor, 2009© Marvin Heiferman
Earlier this year, a good friend and a photographer, told me a related story. Her loft--in a multi-storied and glass-fronted building in a large mid-western American city--faces a thoroughfare where parades periodically pass by. On a day when one did, my friend was naked, calmly doing yoga exercises on her bed, and only vaguely conscious of the muffled sounds of celebrants wafting up from below. What broke the meditative mood and captured her attention, however, was the small drone outside her window, which had been floating above and slowly advancing with the parade until it spotted her. Mini-propeller blades still whirling, it spun around to face her, hovered in place until she ran for cover, and only then moved on.
These examples are, of course, minor examples of the methodical and increasingly sophisticated processes of surveillance that photography has enabled and abetted since its introduction. A thorough and much-needed exploration of invasive looking was co-organized by Sandra Phillips of SFMOMA and Simon Baker from the Tate Modern Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 in 2010;. And for those interested in who or what does the looking these days--and all of us should be--alarms are increasingly being rung to alert us not only to the sorts of photographic images that are made and collected, but what (as Peter Burleigh rightly pointed in comments on this blog) happens to them once they are.
The future of photography is being defined by forces that, if no longer beyond our imagination, seem out of our control. With the release of ever-more detailed revelations of the scope of international surveillance, the push-back attempts now being mounted by privacy advocates, consumers, and even corporate information carriers make it clear that it is time to get serious about watching over those who watch over us.
Some recent articles exploring the theme: