In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.
I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.
That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.
This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.
The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.
*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.
The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.
It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.
*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.
What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.
This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.
The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.
There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on bordercantos.com but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.
The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.
My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.
June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.
The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.
At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**
**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”
While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.
Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.
*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.
The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.
That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.
Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.
Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.
Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.
Seeing Princeton’s City Lost and Found show a week before Baltimore blew up* was very interesting timing. It’s weird to be working through my reactions to a show while a real world event unfolds which essentially references everything I’m working through. But this show covers the 1960s and 1970s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Which means it covers the Harlem riots, Chicago riots, and Watts riots—all of which are extremely relevant to the discussions we’re having today about Baltimore. We still haven’t learned the lessons from 1968.
*I’m really curious to see how that Wiki page changes since the whole riot/protest/rebellion/uprising discussion is also ongoing.
The show isn’t about the riots, but rather the way cities were evolving in the 1960s and 1970s as the demographics and industry changed. A lot of people and industry moving out. And a lot of people and infrastructure being left behind in ways that the powers that be viewed as requiring renewal or fixing or controlling. While the backstory is missing in the show, even the gist of it is enough to get started.
We get to see urban renewal plans, municipal commission documents, documentary photographs, street photographs, photojournalism, investigative art projects, performance art projects, guerrilla art projects, and more, all capturing various ways that the city was in flux and various groups were reacting to the changes, proposed changes, or lack of changes, that were going on. It shows us what the cities were like ~50 years ago and what the primary issues were then. Looking at everything, even before the Baltimore protests erupted, I was struck by how little had really changed since that time period.
*Whether they’re blacks living in formerly redlined neighborhoods or artists who need affordable housing or immigrants trying to start new lives here.
And the cities do need to be improved and renewed. While urban renewal is frequently code for gentrification or the destruction of existing communities, neglect and non-investment* are just as destructive. The plans all look glorious. Wonderful mixed-use developments. High density—affordable high density—living coupled with urban parks and communal greenspaces. Transportation** accessibility as a key feature of everything. Even a lot of balancing new developments with old architecture by incorporating the old buildings into the design. I look at these plans and wish that they’d built them since they address almost all the issues*** currently afflicting cities.
*Let alone actual theft in the form of subprime mortgages or “buying” homes on contract or the systematic destruction of property and businesses if, against all odds, these areas actually do flourish.
**One of the few things that betrays the age of these plans is how car-focused everything is. Though it is interesting to note that while New York was trying to improve access for cars, the LA plans were trying to improve walkability.
***Public transportation being the notable absence.
A new city built along these lines would be a thing of beauty. The plans still look futuristic because we just can’t do things like this. Part of me wants to tear my hair out because we’ve known that we need to do this for decades. The other part of me looks at the plans and understands why we can’t.
Because I also look at these plans and notice that the ideas for renewal all involve destroying and rebuilding entire swaths of the city. And I know that to do any of this, city government will have to eminent domain the cheapest available land occupied by the least-politically-powerful people. And that the land is cheap because of racist governmental policies and white flight. And that the new growth, even if truly affordable, will not—cannot—replace the former neighborhoods.
And this is all ~50 years ago and things are basically the same and this wasn’t a new problem even then and no wonder people are pissed and frustrated and the real wonder is why these kind of demonstrations don’t happen more often.
The reality on the ground and the promised beauty of the plans are two threads that this show is unable to reconcile. This feels like a weakness in the exhibition as much of my time in the galleries involved being frustrated by what felt like the absence of a thesis statement for the exhibition. But this absence also feels honest and when I wasn’t frustrated I was nodding my head in agreement and recognition of this. I want to see an easy answer. We wish there were an easy answer. There is no easy answer.
The only conclusions I can draw from the exhibition require me to think about what I didn’t see there. There are no plans that treat the city as something that needs retrofitting rather than being a complete teardown and rebuild. None that view anything beyond the architectural legacy of the area to be worth considering for selected salvation.* None that involve the communities and give them any agency over what they need. All of these are projects and visions that, if they exist, would live in the disconnect which is on display. I suspect though that they don’t exist, whether 50 years ago or today.
*Not that I disagree with saving architecturally-significant buildings. Just that it says a lot about priorities when it’s only the architecture that’s considered worth saving.
Photography as social document
Aside from the general reactions I had to this show, it’s also very interesting from a photography point of view. While a lot of the photos on display were intended as art photos, they’re not being used as art here—despite being exhibited in an art museum. These are photos as social history, social documents, items that tell us about the place, who lived there, how it’s changing, what life is like on the ground rather than from the planning offices.
It’s not about the photos as objects: Some of them are vintage prints. Some are slides. Some are mechanical prints. Some are halftones in magazines or books. Some—as with the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition—are digital prints from scanned negatives. It’s about the photos and the stories they contain.
I still looked at the photos with an eye toward the art side of things. But even as someone who often looks at the social context around the photography* I was even more tuned into this element here. The photos—and the rest of the art in the exhibition—were telling me the stories. I didn’t have to pull them out on my own. And there are too many stories to mention so I’ll just go over the ones that caught my eye.
Danny Lyon and Aaron Rose’s photos of the destruction of lower Manhattan at first have some ruin porn vibes going on except that rather than capturing the superficial beauty of decay and abandonment, these are about change and questioning the idea that progress requires destroying the past. These photos get compared to the photos that show new buildings going up. Same metal frames, same men in hard hats, and the same dust and dirt of power tools. Just a different side of the coin.
The planning commission documents contain essentially photo essays of street photography as a way of understanding that people live in the city. Where street photography often has a bad reputation, these documents show what it does well. It’s not just about the tropes and getting that decisive moment where everything in the frame lines up perfectly. It also captures a sense of place and time in a way that no other kind of photography really can.
There’s plenty of street photography on display just by itself too. Classic black and white work by Garry Winogrand or Leonard Freed. Color work by Helen Levitt or Bruce Davidson. In a different show I’d be appreciating the photos individually. In this show, between the planning commission documents and the magazine photo essays,* I’m fitting the rest of the photos into my own imagined social documents of how the city works and what it’s like to navigate one on foot.
Street photography is a human’s-eye view of the city. Even in the age of the automobile, this perspective is necessary to keep in mind. No matter how much the cities need to be fixed, if they don’t work on the street-level human scale they don’t work at all. And while I appreciate Martha Rosler’s attempts reject the theatricality of traditional street photography, the way she added distance between herself and her subjects resulted in a point of view that felt closer to a car’s-eye view of the city. There’s something about being in the middle of things in the city that’s absolutely necessary.
This is of obvious import in a city like New York but it’s also relevant to Los Angeles. There are a series of photographs by various photographers looking at the demolished but undeveloped Bunker Hill site in downtown Los Angeles. These photos are coupled with images of different redevelopment plans that were attempted over the years. Some were not pedestrian-friendly, others were. Part of the problem with the site is that the less pedestrian-friendly plans were tried first and they just didn’t work. The resulting buildings were not a place anyone wanted to be.
This emphasis on the importance of scale comes up in a lot of the more landscape-like photography in the city too. From Thomas Struth’s super-precise photographs of New York to John Humble’s photos of LA, you can see the contrast between new developments and the way they dwarf the older, human-scale architecture. We need both types of building in the modern city and making sure they work together is the challenge.
I really liked Arthur Tress’s Open Space in the Inner City* in that it felt like one of the few instances where the photography and plans where being discussed at a local level. These were originally mechanical prints rather than fine-art prints and the goal was to discuss locally about reclaiming existing open space into real parks. I’m not sure it ever got past this stage but it’s one of the few examples which even kind of sits in the middle of the divide between planning and local input.
*Holy crap he has a Blurb presence and you can get Volumes 1and 2 there.
Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas are also great. I’m kind of a sucker for panoramas in general but I enjoy the way these show the commitment to the automobile. One of the things missing from the New Topographics is focusing on the architecture of the highway system itself. Sinsabaugh’s work is interesting to view with that context in mind.
Hans Haake’s real estate holdings piece isn’t photography per se but does rely on photographs of each location to really make concrete the point about the way so few people control so much of the land. And how labyrinthine the holding companies are so as to obscure who’s actually in charge.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto was a nice discovery for me. His quieter Chicago cityscapes feel a lot closer to the kinds of photographs I enjoy making and I’ll be looking more into his work in the future.
John Divola’s MGM lots are a brilliant addition to the show in that they blur the lines between fictitious and real urban decay and the way it’s presented in the media.The lots are fake creations meant to look like New York or Chicago or anywhere else, but they’re also open space that will eventually be developed into self-contained modern cities with Los Angeles.
Bruce Nauman’s LA Air meanwhile is one of two references in the show to explicit environmental issues in the city.* It’s funny and snarky but also points out one of the things that is an issue now but which wasn’t under consideration ~50 years ago. The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s is barely mentioned in this exhibition despite all the grand plans involve improving automobile circulation in the city. While a lot of the race issues would remain the same in a similar exhibit of today’s cities, I’d expect a lot more LEED-certified or Cradle to Cradle ideas in the aspirational city plans.
*The other is Documerica which, while environmental, also feels like a slice of everyday like in the 1970s.
Another blind spot involves non-black ethnic groups in the cities. I understand why the exhibition is so black-focused but other non-white communities are also an important part of the New York, Chicago, and LA experience. I only noticed mentions of these other groups in a few photos by Jonas Dovydenas documenting ethnic enclaves in Chicago, Luis Medina’s photos of Latino gang members in the 1980s, and Asco’s Chicano activist work.
Of those, Asco caught my attention since they combined Latino traditions like mural painting with Chicano activism about how Latinos are mistreated in the city. Asco’s work, by being self-representational, also pointed out how little non-white self-representation was present in the rest of the exhibition.* As with the environmental stuff I’d expect a lot more self-representational work in a modern version of this exhibition.
I would also expect a lot more Asians—both traditional Asian communities under pressure to gentrification and the rich Asian gentrifiers who are displacing a lot of the old-time residents. But that’s for the modern show which also has to include the rush back to the city by booming businesses and young professionals alike.
Kukkurovaca and I have had an on-again, off-again discussion about doing a photographic Aarne-Thompson or photography version of TV Tropes. It’s a super interesting and often quite amusing idea since photography is incredibly trope-driven to the point where many times the appeal of a photograph is actually in the execution of the trope. I don’t see this as a bad thing most of the time* but tropes can be a double-edged sword.
*I think that the idea that good photography has to always be something new, or of something that’s never been photographed, is dangerously misguided.
If we ever did do a photographic Aarne-Thompson, a significant portion of it would have to be dedicated to racist or damaging tropes in the depiction of people—including how these tropes are typically created by white culture as a way of representing non-white culture.
I’ve recently taken to listening to Floyd Westerman’s Here Come the Anthros—mentally substituting “anthros” with “photogs” in the lyrics. It’s a much more fun description of the kind of photography which bores me and really gets at issues of representation and tropes and how people resent always being studied and depicted by outsiders. It’s why self-representation is so interesting to me and why I side with the ability for anyone to take a photo as being more democratizing than the ability of anyone to have a photo.
The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access.
A lot of self-representation goes right at the tropes: Carrie Mae Weems, John Edmonds, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zun Lee, etc. all show black women, men, families, fathers, bodies, etc. in ways that both differ from and explicitly call out the representational tropes in art photography. They’re filling in gaps in the way they have been represented and taking control over those representations. It shouldn’t be novel or noteworthy to see gentle portraits, working families, or caring fathers, but many of these projects still get picked up in a semi-viral “as you’ve never seen them” way.
There’s so much historical baggage and objectification going on that it’s difficult to subtly critique things here. Tropes gain strength through repetition and riffs, so getting close to a trope tends to result in getting subsumed by that trope. This blunts most intended critiques. It’s not that people don’t understand the point a subtle critique is trying to make, it’s that they’re triggered by the trope and decide that the critique failed to make its point effectively.
I’ve been thinking about this again because of a series of exchanges on tumblr last month over an image by Daniel Shea.
*Mostly tone policing of the “we’re on the same liberal team so stop being such a bully” type which directly dismisses the validity of Je Suis Perdu’s original reaction and tries to silence him for some kind of liberal solidarity.
I read the initial response as a gut-level reaction rather than a fully-realized critique. Tumblr, like twitter and any other stream-based media, encourages quick reactions where responding first is often preferable to responding best. So I tend to give responses I see on there the benefit of the doubt of being an opening statement in a conversation rather than a complete critique. The statement in this case indicates that something in Shea’s images triggered Je Suis Perdu’s white-gaze spidey sense.
It’s a perfectly legitimate response. One of photography’s racist tropes is the dehumanizing gaze with which it treats black bodies—especially young, fit black men—as objects to be admired and/or feared. This photo, without any additional context, can easily be read this way. If you’re a white guy and toss a portrait of a young, fit, shirtless, black male on tumblr without much additional context? You shouldn’t be surprised that it’ll raise a few hackles.
I like most of Shea’s response. He starts well by acknowledging his gaze and trying to deal with it. Unfortunately he also tries to claim he doesn’t have white gaze and is instead trying to be engaging and neutral. While he goes on to say that he doesn’t believe photographs can be neutral, it’s reads to me like he’s trying to have it both ways in saying “I have white gaze and am trying to critique it” while also saying “white gaze is evil of course I don’t have that.”
I don’t think the white gaze is inherently evil. My major problem is that it gets conflated with neutral—implying that everyone else’s gaze is non-neutral. It’s not, it’s merely the most dominant gaze, which is why it, and its tropes, are worth thinking about. The issue isn’t “white gaze or not” but rather “damaging trope or not.”
This isn’t about the idea that white guys should only photograph white guys or that they shouldn’t be “allowed” to photograph non-whites.* It’s about acknowledging your gaze, owning your point of view and the fact that it’s inherently non-neutral, and being willing to listen to the way other people react to your work—especially if the reaction is critical.
*Heck, all too often, instead of listening to why someone may have been upset, the immediate response is to paint the offended party as trying to censor free speech by using the “not allowed” language coupled with the “you’ve offended us by calling us racist when we’re not” claim.
When I say “own” it’s in the sense of not running from the label (or criticizing the reaction) if it gets thrown out there. It’s entirely possible to be both enlightened and racist—or both feminist and misogynist. It’s nearly impossible to grow up in this society without absorbing any of that bias and working on correcting that stuff is not an overnight process. Learning the tropes that we’ve internalized, understanding how they’re triggering, and figuring out how they work is the only way we can actually critique this kind of stuff.
Behavior is modified and shaped not only through being observed, but also through the shame of negative social feedback when video and stills of bad behavior are released on a national and local stage. This both corroborates the effectiveness of the Autopanopticon and proves the camera phone as an increasingly powerful tool for social control.
There’s a lot of fear of cameras right now. Some people are petrified of people with cameras—mainly from the privacy infringement point of view. Other people are scared of the government acting as big brother and spying on all of us in the name of “security.” In both cases, it seems like people are rarely scared of both government and photographers. It’s usually one or the other and becomes very easy to ridicule their point of view by pointing out how they’re not troubled by all the other photography going on in public.
I’ve mentioned previously that people are retreating from public space because we no longer trust it. That’s not exactly correct. I think we trust it to be itself; we just don’t agree with being monitored and letting someone else access and use our images and information. This is a legit fear. No one likes the idea of being monitored all the time, in part because no one really knows all the possible laws out there.
Heck, this is one reason why we have the 5th amendment and Miranda rights. It’s pretty easy to implicate yourself in something illegal if you don’t know all the ins and outs of the law. There’s also something intrusive and distrustful about someone monitoring you all the time. I wouldn’t want to be taped at my job and I don’t blame police officers for resisting it even though the events of this past summer have made it pretty clear that all cops should have cameras recording at all times.
Still, there’s too much benefit to government in having as many people photographing in public as possible—both in preventing crime and solving crime. As much as cops don’t like people filming them, they’ll be relying on those same videos as evidence when it helps their case.
There is even more benefit to big business—which is the interesting thing that fototazo doesn’t mention. His autopanopticon focuses on news and crime and media coverage rather than the more-likely personal data metrics trying to profile us and sell us more shit we don’t need.
The corporate side actually both scares and intrigues me more than the government side. Government’s interests are pretty obvious and center around behavioral control; there’s a reason why the Panopticon is a prison design. With businesses, it’s not always clear what the goal is. It might be trying to sell us things. It might be market research for new products. It might be market research about their competition. It might be part of an experiment in which we’re the subjects.
Lots of interesting angles. Most of them creepy. But I suspect all of them are going to be similar to the ways that we’re already tracked online.* Even with people retreating to things like Snapchat or tweeting and deleting or using search engines like DuckDuckGo, the web knows a ton about us. It’s not that privacy is dead but rather that being in a public space—which is what most of the web is—means you’re being surveilled by government and/or business.
*Full disclosure, I’ve stopped clearing my cookie information because the ads I get when I’m not being tracked online are creepier than the ones when I am being tracked.
From the photographer point of view, as much as we fear that our rights to photograph will be taken away as more people misbehave with cameras, perhaps we fear too much. Both government and business have reasons to encourage us to record each other as much as possible. And for us to share those recordings.
At the same time, while we photograph in public, it’s important to remember how to act like a grown up and be aware of who we’re photographing and the history of how that population has been surveilled in the past. A lot of the current anxiety about surveillance in the US is due to it being applied to populations which previously weren’t subject to this kind of thing.
The autopanopticon is a bigger change for the white middle class than it is for non-whites or the poor.
What we have decided to call surveillance is actually a constant interplay of various forms of monitoring that have existed and focused on black people, and specifically black women, long before cameras were around, let alone ubiquitous. Surveillance technology is a dissemination of cultural standards of monitoring. Our picture of surveillance needs to factor in not just tech developments, but the cultural standards that have bred surveillance, especially towards black culture, as part and parcel in our world.
It’s informative to realize how it’s been applied historically and the differing ways it’s still applied today. Especially since a lot of the tropes of photography buy into the surveillance of black culture and the treatment of blacks as spectacle*—both of which are key differences in how the general autopanopticon idea works. Where we expect the autopanopticon to be about specific people or events, a lot of surveillance is instead intended to generalize, appropriate, and commodify whatever is being monitored.**
As photographers, since we’re part of the monitoring machine, we have an opportunity to shape—even a little bit—the type of data being collected. Since we’re also being monitored, this is an opportunity to, in many cases, finally understand how it feels to be watched like this in public. Yes, it doesn’t feel good. But if it feels like a new concept, we’ve been lucky to have avoided it for this long.
And it’s something that should help us better sympathize with the ways people react to cameras the way they do.
If we’re disturbed by the fact that walking around with a camera results in us getting stereotyped as creepers or threats, we can either take a number and get in line behind everyone else who was there first or use our awareness of what it feels like to be stereotyped as a way realize what stereotypes we’re projecting on everyone else we see and photograph.