I am not sure when my fascination with surveillance images began but I have always found them to be beautiful and sinister – a perfect combination for me. The voyeurism seems more acceptable as the subject looks guilty of something, by default.
“It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn’t it the task of the photographer – descendant of the augurs and haruspices – to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures?” (Walter Benjamin, A Little History of Photography, published in Die literarische Welt, 1931)
Initial inspiration came from the surveillance images of the Suffragettes. These women were persecuted for fighting for something we almost take for granted, just over a hundred years later. The rise of fascism in the Middle East should be a sobering reminder of how precious, and fragile, are our freedoms. And yet we seem to be becoming increasingly intolerant of each other, quick to take offence, quick to condemn. We fall over ourselves to silence those who do not believe in the same things as we do.
I was very moved by hearing Monica Lewinsky speak at a conference last November, where she talked about her commitment to combat cyberbulling. I believe this to be a very good cause and decided to build my first Gesture & Meaning assignment around the idea that we all have ‘anomalies’ which, in another time or another place, could be considered to be anti-social, abhorrent, illegal and, in some cases, punishable by death.
In order to also explore some of the key discourses around social documentary photography, such as truth and power relations, I decided to photograph good friends but, where possible and without being too heavy-handed, to make them look suspicious. I set some key parameters in that a) I would only include people I had photographed previously and that b) their anomalies had to be real.
My end goal was to send my tutor a physical dossier of 12 images, each with an accompanying ‘Citizen Report’ which detailed their names, ages and distinguishing features but also included their anomaly and who had reported it to authorities (family, friend, employer, spouse etc). With this in mind, I kept the planning and preparation under wraps so as not to spoil the impact of the folder of images landing on Jesse’s desk.
Now that this has happened I can detail a bit more about the approaches I considered for this project.
Right from the start, I visualised the final images as being black and white, grainy and with a ‘cold war’ aesthetic. Vice: State Sponsored Voyeurism I felt that this would be universally understood as a surveillance type image, as part of a distinct visual language.
I even considered a cross hatch but felt this would quickly feel too repetitious across 12 images: Spy girl – Vogue Italia
As I had limited time with each subject, I had to learn quickly what worked and what didn’t. I figured out that people looking behind them would work and I soon found that some blurred foreground – like a wall or tree – added an authenticity.
I did wrestle with whether the pictures should be in colour and seem more 21st century. Obviously current (and future) surveillance reports would all be digital, which I felt could lose impact for my assignment submission. I also wanted the images to be ‘hero’ so could not work out a good way to make this look convincing. I probably should have watched TV spy shows as part of my research.
Going full on sepia and attempting a more ‘nostalgic’ feel was also an option but the clash with modern clothing and location for many of the shoots meant this simply did not work well. Plus it is a bit too sickly for my taste.
I also tested the ‘Old Polar’ setting in Lightroom to see if the 70s look worked.
Another thought train was whether to include more than one image of each subject. I had thought of screen shots of their Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles and other social media sites. I also considered staging some more mysterious images of them looking really villainous if taken out of context but I decided this was overcomplicating the story.
I trialled a number of compositional approaches – ranging from a long way off with a 300mm lens and quite abstract juxtapositions to quite close up, almost portrait style.
I have included some contact sheets to demonstrate the progress of some of the shoots.