Is Photography Over? | Trevor Paglen | Thursday, 13.03.2014

Seeing Machines

In my last blog post, I sketched out some of the ways that traditional photography theory and practice seems to be at a standstill. Contemporary revolutions in photography, from omnipresent digital picture-taking to the advent of hundred-billion image repositories have prompted some practitioners, theorists, and critics to ask whether “photography” (at least as it was once understood) “is over.” I noted that the question has arrived at an ironic time – how could photography be “over” at the exact moment in history that it has achieved an unprecedented ubiquity? The reason is actually fairly obvious – “photography,” as it has been traditionally understood in theory and practice, has undergone a transition – it has become something else, something that’s difficult to make sense of within the existing analytic framework. To me, it seems that to begin charting a course forward, we have to develop an expanded definition of what we mean when we’re talking about “photography.” With a nod to Paul Virilio, 1 See Paul Virilio’s Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) and his War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989). I propose a simple definition that has far-reaching consequences: seeing machines.

Seeing machines is an expansive definition of photography. It is intended to encompass the myriad ways that not only humans use technology to “see” the world, but the ways machines see the world for other machines. Seeing machines includes familiar photographic devices and categories like viewfinder cameras and photosensitive films and papers, but quickly moves far beyond that. It embraces everything from iPhones to airport security backscatter-imaging devices, from electro-optical reconnaissance satellites in low-earth orbit, to QR code readers at supermarket checkouts, from border checkpoint facial-recognition surveillance cameras to privatized networks of Automated License Plate Recognition systems, and from military wide-area-airborne-surveillance systems, to the roving cameras on board legions of Google’s Street View” cars.

What’s more, the idea of seeing machines I’m sketching out here isn’t confined to the imaging devices and systems I’ve described in broad strokes. The definition extends to include the images (or data) produced by such imaging systems, the digital metadata associated with those images, as well as additional systems for storage, archiving, search and interpretation (either human or algorithmic). Finally, and crucially, seeing machines encompasses not only imaging systems, search, and storage capacities, it encompasses something a bit more abstract, namely the “styles” or “practices” of seeing that different imaging systems enable (i.e. the difference between what a view camera and an automated license-plate reading camera “want” to do and how they see the world differently). 2 Some readers may rightly detect a resonance between my use of the word “machine,” and the Deleuzian one. Crucially, the definition of photography I’m proposing here encompasses imaging devices (“cameras” broadly understood), the data (“images” being one possible manifestation of that data) they produce, and the seeing-practices with which they are enmeshed.

Some may object that this re-framing of photography is too broad, that the framework of seeing machines encompasses so many diverse technologies and practices that it is a meaningless concept. I think that the opposite is the case. If we were talking about seeing machines only a few decades ago, our conversation would have been overwhelmingly confined to what we would now consider analog or film photography and a small range of variations (including moving-image cameras – nearly identical technologically, if not culturally, to still-image photography). If seeing machines seems like an incredibly expansive definition of photography, it is a testament to our historical moment, a moment where imaging, or photography is, literally, everywhere. In other words, the idea of seeing machines helps us to see what photography, as it is actually practiced in the world now, has become. It helps us identify the remarkably diverse roles in society that image-making has come to play. Nonetheless, the implications seem bewildering.

If we accept the notion of photography-as-seeing-machines, it’s obvious that there are few guides to understanding this emerging photographic landscape. Susan Sontag’s seminal work has little to say about the infrared imaging system on a Reaper drone; applying Roland Barthes’ ideas to the billions of images in London’s city-wide surveillance archives would be utterly absurd. Traditional notions from photo theory and visual studies – from Barthes’ “mythologies” to Debord’s “spectacle” and their various derivations – are clearly not up to the task.

Indeed, as we start to explore the notion of seeing machines in upcoming posts, I think it will become apparent that focusing too closely on individual images is entirely to miss the point