“Surveillance” adds a new element to Exposed. Thus far, the cameraman or woman has been just that–a human being. He or she has photographed other people in the tenement, on the street, in the dark, in the park, on the battlefield or gurney. The man (or woman) with a camera begins an unequal relationship with another where the power’s behind the lens. But “Surveillance” intimates a new character behind the lens, and it is inhuman.
No one works a surveillance camera and most of the time no one looks at the images. It’s just an “objective” machine impartially recording whatever happens into its sights for posterity or for erasure. The camera may not be hidden, but it’s irresistible.
Preserving the subject’s dignity is hardly an issue. There’s no question of reciprocity or fairness. Surveillance and compassion don’t walk hand in hand and ethical surveillance has to be a contradiction in terms.
Exposed‘s surveillance photographs have an appropriately impersonal tone, including those made by people working for a governmental authority. These are mostly archival images of shady transactions from the Cold War era; for me they have a strange ambiguity that the captions don’t quite clear up. There are also surveillance images of potential criminals, under suspicion because of their resistance to the legal status quo. To me these potential enemies of the state/protesters look natural, almost comical, more earnest than dangerous.
But the photographs that interest me most in this section are not real surveillance images at all. They are taken by photographers on their own authority. Some fall into what I’d call the surveillance style: it takes on the power of the unattended camera in the service of voyeuristic looking.
Others do something very different. That is, they turn the tables, or try to, on surveillance itself. They take on a subject without a human face: the power behind the institutional surveillance camera. It’s one thing to turn a camera on a relatively powerless human subject or on oneself. It’s another to expose Big Brother, his little descendants, or the less than visible institutions behind them.
More on Surveillance is coming next.
Meanwhile the Open Field event, Talking About/Looking at Exposed happens July 28. Take a look at the whole exhibition, count cameras, recaption photographs and weigh in with your responses.