This Week in Photography: Surveillance is Everywhere

 

Each week, I write about what’s happening in my life.

And in the wider world around me.

It’s the way of the columnist, and as you know, I’ve been doing it a while. (Is my constant humblebrag about the length of my APE tenure a running joke yet?)

But at times like these, it’s much less fun to write about what transpires outside my moat and gates.

(In case you’re wondering, my moat is stocked with mini-alligators. And they have huge appetites! Stay back, motherfuckers!)

I’m making myself laugh right now, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom, with the fan on for white noise.

Like many work-from-homers, I used to have the run of the place, five days a week, while my wife was at work and the kids at school, but no longer.

We’ve all been together for a month now, and I must say, we’re holding up pretty well, mentally. (Though we do have a lot of space, this being rural New Mexico.)

So I’m sitting here, alone, unobserved. The shades are drawn, and I have total privacy.

Right?

But what about the webcam on my computer, which I have not taped over?

Is it possible someone’s hijacked it, and they’re watching me? (If so, should I put on proper pants?)

Now I’m staring directly into the camera, (and not at the words typed on the screen,) but with autocorrect, I think I’m doing OK.

Could someone be watching me through my own computer?

A hacker?
Facebook?
Amazon?

Am I OK with it, knowing this COULD be happening, even though I know it’s unlikely?

(Pause.)

I don’t know if I’m OK with it, but I would say I accept the machines are watching us, and the algorithms are processing what the machines are watching.

In China, the level of surveillance they’ve created meant the government could threaten to kill you if you inappropriately interrupted medical workings during their quarantine.

In America, we can barely seem to organize a block party at the national level right now, so I don’t think our algorithms are tracking Uncle Wilbur when he takes the family truck out for a joyride in Northwest Nebraska on a fine Spring Sunday afternoon.

And… Scene:

Aunt Martha: Wilbur, what in the hell do you think you’re doing? You know you’re supposed to be staying at home like the rest of us.

Uncle Wilbur: Martha, you stay out of it, you hear.

AM: What do you mean stay out of it? I live with you, you hardheaded boar! How am I supposed to stay out it? Your germs are my germs.

UW: Well, I’m not going to get any germs. I’m just going out for a ride is all. I need to clear my head. What’s it to you, anyway?

AM: You mean you’re not gonna stop anywhere? No talking to people? No getting in anyone’s space? You are 73 years old, and I see this as an unnecessary risk is all.

UW: Well, thank you for speaking your peace, Mother. I’m going to ride for ten miles, no more, and I won’t even roll down the window more than three inches.

You have my word.

And… Scene.

So that’s how Uncle Wilbur ended up out on the highway. Where it was quiet.

And he was unobserved.

As to the rest of us, surveillance is real. Online and in the physical world.

(Someone is always watching.)

I’m thinking on the subject because I’ve just finished looking at Sheri Lynn Behr’s excellent “Be Seeing You,” a self-published book that turned up in the mail in Spring 2019, just after I took a break from writing about photo books.

Thankfully, the art gods have been kind to us again, as I think this is the perfect time to see this book, in current context.

It’s very well thought-out, in terms of pacing, how much information it gives, and when it gives it.

As I’m always recommending you think about such things, when you make your book, I wanted to highlight the strength here.

From the title, cover, and first four images or so, you know what this book is about, (surveillance) and that there will likely be a mix of photographic styles within.

There are text interruptions, with some black graphic accents against stark white, and the first says “The more we see, the less we pay attention.”

Meaning, the more information that floods our brain, the less any one detail is ever likely to pop out. (Small needle, big haystack.)

The next image is from the outside staircase at the Broad building at LACMA, in LA. (It was once new, but now I’m not even sure if it’s still a part of the newest masterplan there? Does anyone know?)

Of course I’ve been there, and never saw the cameras watching me, as I’ve been to certain places from the book like NYC, of course, or Padding Station in London.

I’ve also watched “Luther,” and “The Simpsons,” and both are featured, as one subset of photographs seems to be the representation of surveillance culture on TV screens.

Those pictures are melded with documentary images of cameras out in the culture, and then pictures of real people in the real world as well.

There’s a menace in this book that shows Sheri takes this subject personally, where I guess I’ve been rather lazy about caring before.

Now that there are real news stories about tracking people by their antibodies, of course the world has grown much closer to seeing things Sheri’s way.

I’m using her first name casually, as she and I have met at festivals many times over the years. I’ve published her stuff here before, but also been critical of it at the review table, as she well knows.

I love that this book closes with a description of the various projects, just so people know what they saw. And then an Edward Snowden tweet, and a selfie in a mirror-dome.

This one’s really strong.

But I’m creeped out now, and maybe it’s time to tape over the webcam?

Bottom Line: Killer, self-published gem about 21C surveillance

To purchase “Be Seeing You” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

Jonathan Blaustein

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