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Gazing Back at the Surveillance Cameras That Watch Us

Linked by Paul Ciano on August 24, 2018

Jordan G. Teicher, The New York Times:

Mr. Bridle, who had been researching surveillance as part of an art residency, had set out to walk the perimeter of the city’s congestion charge zone — an area in central London where motorists must pay to drive — with the goal of documenting as many closed-circuit security cameras as he could find.

When he reached the Grosvenor, about halfway along the 12-mile route, he’d recorded 427. That number included not just the cameras that record the license plates of vehicles driving in the zone, but also private cameras, and other public cameras operated by the local authorities. On subsequent walks through the zone, he captured hundreds more.

London may be one of the world’s most surveilled cities — one report estimates that the average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times a day — but its growing network of cameras is part of a worldwide trend. In 2015, the global video surveillance industry was valued at about $20 billion, and is expected to grow to $63.2 billion by 2022. In 2014, the year Mr. Bridle was stopped by the Metropolitan Police, there were 245 million professionally installed surveillance cameras around the world.

Mr. Bridle’s series, “Every CCTV Camera,” encourages us to interrogate that vast network the same way Mr. Bridle himself was interrogated by the police. Who is watching all these cameras? And why?

If the cameras are connected to the internet — like more than 20 percent of them — the answer is almost anyone could be watching, and for almost any purpose.

Arguably, photographers are ideally positioned to explore the implications of a culture of pervasive monitoring, since art photography itself — intentionally or not — has often been a part of that culture.

To create her “Dirty Windows” series, for instance, Merry Alpern spent six months in the 1990s at a friend’s window — she wore all black to avoid detection — photographing explicit scenes in an adjacent brothel. About two decades later, Arne Svenson used a telephoto lens meant for bird-watching to document the more quotidian goings-on of his neighbors in their apartments for his series, “The Neighbors.” Many of the world’s best street photographers have also worked surreptitiously, photographing strangers on the fly to capture authentic moments.

Few, if any, of those photographers had mass surveillance on their mind. But many of the photographers involved in today’s “artveillance” world intentionally adopt the voyeuristic gaze of modern surveillance tools to reveal their inner workings.

As Mr. Bridle can attest firsthand, a person that may look suspicious to security personnel can be completely innocent. For that reason, he and his peers argue, the subjects of surveillance — that is, everyone — should flip the script and direct their skepticism toward a network that is often accepted as part of modern life.

“Surveillance is so often presented as inevitable, as something we have to do, as something that almost the technology itself demands,” Mr. Bridle said. “That just isn’t the case.”

Paul Ciano

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