Photography and Surveillance:
 Who is the watcher now?

Photography can save your life. Saying this is how governments try to convince us to let them impose their surveillance systems on our lives. They promise to protect us by watching over us, helping us avoid robberies and any kind of violence, even terrorist attacks, as this is the biggest fear diffused by mass media. Even though Big Brother’s protection can raise questions about liberty and privacy, photography and video cameras at the same time can  be real tools for justice and freedom for every one of us, whenever they point in another direction  and we are the ones watching over possible threats.

In the late 19th century, Jeremy Bentham conceived the design of a circular building, the Panopticon, with a central “inspection tower” from which a watchman could observe the inmates of a  building. More a system of power over mind to control one’s own behavior at all times than an ongoing real-time surveillance system, the idea of an unknown powerful watcher observing us, as in the panopticon surveillance system, is still present . It is probably even worse with Internet and the data surveillance, tracking our every move. But a shift has happened now that many people carry smart phones with cameras all the time. We are the watchers, and we can not only watch any suspicious event but record this and share it. And sometimes those records turn out to be potential evidence.

Bentham’s Panopticon Design c. 1787

Individuals with cameras in their hands are obtaining power. Not the power that enables the government to keep “the public safe and helping the fight against terrorism across the country” as the Surveillance Camera Commissioner of the UK government said in his speech, while stretching the limits of privacy.1

Rather, this  power can lead to justice, and save the lives of individuals threatened by unjustified used of power by any kind of authorities.

The camera is now a weapon to fight back, as it was the case in several cases involving cops and black people in United States. Images can now testify to injustice, and can be sometimes more trustworthy than words. In 2012, an example of law enforcement abuse was recorded by witnesses at a BART train station, in Oakland, California, US. Oscar Grant III, lying face down and handcuffed, was shot by BART Police officer Johannes Mehserle. He died the next day morning. Several passengers in the train recorded the shooting with their phones’ video cameras. The videos were made public through the Internet within hours than on the television but were also part of the investigation by the district attorney. Videos are still available on Youtube and testify clearly to the deadly unfair accident. More than the capacity of the video to be evidence for the trial of the officer charged for murder, it also made the case public, which provoked both peaceful and violent protests the days followings the accident and during the trial. The BART officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a penalty of two to four years in prison. Grant’s grandmother and daughter, Tatiana, also « received financial settlements from BART totaling $2.8m as a result of the shooting.” according to The Guardian.2

New technologies such as sound recording, video or photographic cameras created evidence in many other cases of police officers shooting at unarmed African American men. To cite few: Walter Scott, 50 years old, fatally shot by a police officer in South Carolina, while running away; Michael Brown 18 years old, fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
 Even if these pieces of evidence did not always help in convicting the shooter, these recordings of tragic incidents had an impact on public opinion and sparked debates about abusive law enforcement methods regarding race.
Cameras are seen among the black community of United States as a weapon given to the unarmed, or a louder voice for the one who are not heard, as Malkia Amala Cyril explains. She says in her online article for The Progressive that “technological tools of the twenty-first century (could) create equity and justice for all.”3 
 With cameras in our hands we are all staring at the Big Brother agents, we can be the watcher, the journalist, the defender. 
This shift in the use of photography for surveillance by individuals and not powerful professional echoes to the moment  when looking became easy and the act of watching, public.

Eastman Dry Plate& Film Co. advertising for The Kodak camera, 1889

In the late 19th century, the first the portable cameras enabled subjects to be taken photographed without them being aware of it. As times of exposure time and the size of the camera reduced, there were no longer constraints that required a willingly subject. 
The emergence of half-tone printing in the 1870’s and the development of small, cheap Kodak cameras allowed rapid circulation of photographs and the democratization of the new technology.
Portable cameras “brought on nothing less than a social revolution that affected the legal definition of self and privacy as well as the nature of embodied social behavior,” wrote the American film historian Tom Gunning.4 The detective camera, used mostly for surveillance by detectives, were made in deceptive shapes or designed to be hidden on the operator’s person, in a box, a hat, a gun, or even a coat. This early James Bond-like gadget was so popular that songs were written about it.

Sheet music for ‘Detective Camera’ as sung by Dan Leno, 1892, HG Banks, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Photography was not only for professional matters but became accessible to a great number of casual amateurs photographers. The great majority of these early snapshots were records of everyday life’s moments. By the 1930s new trends in art photography reconsidered these snapshots and recognized the vernacular tradition as a form of art.But then with the evolution of surveillance technologies, video camera, aerial photography drones and satellites we tend to think as surveillance as a big organization above us, such as CCTV in London, using highly technical devices which too far from us to reach. Yet cameras are also found in our pockets, and in a few seconds we can record an incident, and diffuse them to the wide world wild.

From the improvement of photography techniques and the invention of new media, the idea of the panopticon system was accepted because this new kind of panopticon did not affect the physical space of the one who is observed as it could have been in a panopticon prison. From Closed Circuit TV cameras (CCTV) operating in every centimeter of London, or through online data-surveillance, people can imagine that they are free, although they are watched at a level that Bentham never thought of. On the other hand, the possibility to create evidence and thus protect ourselves and our communities, thanks to this technology that now belongs to most of our everyday routines, can be powerful and reassuring  whenever it re-establishes a balance between the different groups of the society. It can  encourage actions towards a society based on more justice and equality. Gunshots can certainly kill you, but snapshots could save your life.

“The State is watching us, Let’s blind its eyes”
 Poster against State surveillance system, found on the walls of Paris 8 University, France


1. [Surveillance Camera Commissioner and Tony Porter’s speech, “Benefits of sharing CCTV and networks” January 2015.Web]
2. [“Fruitvale Station trial ends as Bart settles with Oscar Grant’s friends.”The Guardian, 21 May 2014. Web]
3. [Malkia Amala Cyril, “Black America’s State of Surveillance. »The Progressive March 30, 2015, Web]
4. [Tom Gunning, “Embarrassing evidence: The detective camera and the documentary impulse.”Collecting Visible Evidence.1999 Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 46–64.]

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