Making Photography in a Surveillance State
August 9, 2021 12:38 PM   Subscribe

Last summer’s uprisings were likely the most photographed in history, with not only mainstream press in attendance, but near-every attendee equipped with their own networked camera, live-streaming and hashtagging the protests, creating layers upon layers of unquantifiable documentation. The rampant circulation of these images—often shared in real-time— propelled the movement on and offline, allowing the summer’s events to swell into a global uprising. When these images were quickly co-opted by the state, with law enforcement using them to retaliate against BLM activists, photographers online began to employ a variety of visual answers to the problem of privacy, blotting out the faces of protestors with digital ink.
posted by klangklangston (9 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were also identified and criminally charged because of similar public images. I would have found this article potentially more helpful at thinking through these issues if it had addressed both situations as examples of the larger topic.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:49 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]

Yeah, this reads like it was written pre-1/6. It's... a bit strange not to at least mention it. At the very least, we should acknowledge that technology—whether cellphone cameras or facial recognition systems—can be used for good or ill. The underlying technology and systems don't know or care if they're being used at a BLM or StopTheSteal event.

The linguistic choices we adopt tend to reflect our feelings of how technology is being used. When we approve of its use, it "identifies" "rioters"; when we don't like it, it "doxxes" "protesters".

I am largely of the opinion—borne of several decades of watching it play out online, coupled with the growing realization that the "online" and "offline" words are not as far apart as we thought in the 80s and 90s—that anonymity generally starts off as a well-intended thing, a feature meant to protect the vulnerable and enable the oppressed, but in virtually every case when not carefully regulated, becomes a tool of harassment and bullying, and a means to protect and enable truly vile behavior.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:34 PM on August 9 [12 favorites]

Forensic Architecture's Police Brutality at the Black Lives Matter Protests.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:39 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]

And people still question why protesters adopt black bloc tactics.
posted by knapah at 2:22 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

O'Leary does actually mention the capitol riots once:

Of particular concern: the probably-very-illegal facial recognition software developed by privately-held company Clearview AI,5 with a database of over three billion images scraped from the internet, is licensed by at least 2,400 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, ICE, and Interpol (not including a 26% increased usage of the software after the Capitol riot in January). (emphases added)
posted by doctornemo at 5:43 PM on August 9

That parenthetical mention slipped right by me. Which makes the article's one-sided perspective even more egregious.
posted by PhineasGage at 6:10 PM on August 9

Well, sure they are comparable, but Jan 6th was really a very different population, with many different behaviors and a lot more money and power. Are you suggesting what, that white supremacists would again be under hoods if they used the signal app? I think we've seen that before already.

Racism makes the technology different. Racism makes the issues different. Racism makes the people subject to photography very different, in their access to legal, technological, and social power. So I have to disagree, talking about Jan 6th is a very different article than TFA.

If I had to pick, I would be more concerned about what effect surveillance has on populations much more vulnerable to the violence of the state on the regular basis. It s a more detailed, nuanced issue.

And there are a lot of technological differences, the technology does, in fact, discriminate against people with more melanin.

TFA also mostly discussed the dynamics of the photographer population being of a different social caste than the people photographed, which, again, is not a nuance at all for the Jan 6th population, many of whom were photographing themselves and giving out their business cards. The owner of a regional supermarket chain near me advertised his business while demonstrating. It was different.

There may also be a difference in ideology, in that one group seeks a mass tactic to demonstrate something of their own numbers to themselves and to political players, so that individual identity isn't as essential as the moral confrontation represented by the group.

The Jan 6th group had more of a heroic, violent purpose; and less of a motive to subsume individuals into a moral or political collective; and so I think that can be another explanation of why so many of those individuals chose to advertise themselves, or why the photographers on scene chose to broadcast their identities. This group often foreswore even the masks that were recommended to be worn for a separate reason.

Anyway, having read the article, I have to disagree that it must talk about photographing white supremacists from the Jan 6th insurrection to have validity.
posted by eustatic at 7:11 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

That this is controversial here is, frankly, astonishing. If your plan to deal with a coup attempt at the national capitol is crowd-sourcing evidence for minor charges months later, despite huge and negative consequences for public discourse and global activism . . we fundamentally disagree about how societies ought to be organized.
posted by eotvos at 6:02 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]

I thought this was interesting, thank you for posting! I like the way the anonymizing choices create different artistic statements, something I hadn't really considered.

I'm a street medic so I go to a lot of protests, including a number last summer, and one of the things I have had to do routinely to protect my patients is to put my body physically between them and photographers, who often get very angry and rude about this! I think my backpack probably shows up in a bunch of basically unusable attempts at pictures of people who have just gotten pepper sprayed or injured in some other way, either by cops or fascists. These photographers, some of whom identify themselves to me as being from major media outlets, are generally not respectful of the privacy and safety of protestors in an incredibly vulnerable moment and will try to argue with me about things like how important it is for the world to see what's happening. I have some sympathy for this perspective, but I don't believe it outweighs the wishes of the photographee who I believe is entitled to privacy and dignity and as much anonymity as possible under the circumstances (unless they want to be photographed in which case have at it, more power to them).

Unfortunately we live in a world where both repressive agents of the state and far-right bad actors can take advantage of photographs taken by even well-meaning journalists and I think a lot of people in "traditional" media think this is a fair tradeoff for publishing the images and I don't really think that's their decision to make, especially when, as demonstrated in the FPP, there are a number of options for anonymizing protestors while still visually communicating what happened and without minimizing the emotional impact.
posted by an octopus IRL at 6:24 AM on August 10 [10 favorites]

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