Informing for Consent


A patient restrained for the purposes of photography.
Sir James Chricton-Browne, West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, 1869.

Today’s post is a bit of a diversion from some of the topics I’ve been posting on lately, but I want to pick on the discussion taking place online around Chris Arnade’s photographs of commercial sex workers and the decision of the Bronx Documentary Centre (BDC) to include some of these photographs in their Altered Images exhibition. This exhibition features photography which has been staged or otherwise manipulated, and Arnade’s work is felt to qualify for because he sometimes pays his subjects or becomes involved in their lives.

I’m not really interested in taking sides here, I have good and bad things to say about the actions and words of both sides. However the BDC’s judgement about Arnade’s photographs (summed up in this rather unprofessional e-mail to him) has given rise to a pretty interesting discussion around ethics and consent in photojournalism which I’m keen to follow up. Consent is a topic which remains as problematic as that of manipulation for photographers, but one which by contrast is far less often dragged into the open and discussed. A sense of some of the issues in this debate so far can be found here.

Consent is obviously a spectrum of interactions and agreements, from the implied consent of a nod or someone looking directly into your camera as you photograph them, to the more formal consent of a face to face conversation and the signing of a model release. These implicit and explicit forms of consent are often cited as the benchmark for good journalistic practice, this in spite of the fact that both of these forms of consent have their own share of problems and often are more about protecting the journalist than the subject (particularly in case of things like signing model releases).

Some of the discussion about Arnade’s work has also referred to a third form of permission, known as informed consent, which is a much higher benchmark for consent but rather less understood and much less frequently employed by journalists. Informed consent is concept inherited from medicine, where it is defined by idea that a patient should understand as fully as possible the potential implications of an intervention before it is agreed upon and carried out. There are obviously cases where this is not possible, and these cases can sometimes spark major ethical debates for the medical community about how to act in a patient’s best interest.

As ever the benchmark in journalism for informed consent (when it is occasionally sought) seems to be much lower than in other disciplines. Journalists sometimes talk for example about seeking informed consent by ensuring that subjects are in a lucid state of mind before photographing or interviewing, and explaining to them how and where the material they are helping to produce will be published. True informed consent needs to go much further than this, and needs to include having a thorough and frank discussion with a subject about why they are being photographed and what the possible implications and complications of this decision might be.

Easy as the above is to say, seeking truly informed consent in a journalistic setting into something of a minefield, because unlike the relatively closed and confidential system of healthcare, journalism is necessarily open to the world and participates in a two-way flow of information and influence. The implications and impact of a given piece of journalism are very difficult to anticipate. This is even more problematic for anyone working with photography and photojournalism, given that the reality of photography at the moment is that photographers have little ability to control or predict how and where their images might circulate, and how they might be changed or attributed.

I’ve felt for a while that the only way to help a subject reach anything like an informed decision about whether they want to be photographed or not by me is to explain that beyond the implications of whatever project I’m working on, once that image becomes public potentially anything could happen to it. It could be used by anyone, in any context, and that even as the photographer I have relatively little power to stop that. Naturally this thought is pretty terrifying, which is probably why many people avoid having this conversation, it’s a pretty effective way to encourage someone to say no, but leaving the option to say no wide open to subjects is an important part of responsible journalism, and one which often seems to get shut down far too quickly. As photographers we’re often very vocal about our right to photograph, less often do we discuss what is right to photograph.

A big part of informed consent is also the idea that the context where the decision is made should be non-coercive and that there should not be an undue influence over the consenter by the person seeking consent. This is also problematic because there are often uneven dynamics in journalistic relationships, particularly where they involve working with vulnerable groups like those Arnade photographs. That said it would be easy to raise similar concerns about this photograph of a Liberian child soldier by BDC director Mike Kamber. What both of these examples also demonstrate is that it’s very problematic to try and retroactively extract consent (or the lack of it) from a photograph. We know well that photographs show a very incomplete and selective sliver of events, and to read a split second image as revealing of the dynamics and discussions that have taken place around the moment of it’s making is misleading.

I guess my point in recapping these ideas is that journalists seldom live by the high standards they set for others, that consent is often not nearly as clear cut as saying yes or no, and that if we really think we (let alone our subjects)  know how our photographs are going to circulate, or what fires they might touch off in the world, then we need to think again.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #6: Overall Impressions


Markus Brunetti, Facades

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. I’ve also looked at the excellent Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, and rounded up some of the great books I encountered in the various book awards. In this, my final post, I sum up some of my overall impressions of the festival as a first time visitor.

As you can probably judge from my previous five posts, the photography, curation and discussion that I found at Arles was almost all of a very high quality. But what was being displayed and discussed was also photography of a very specific sort. That is the sort of photography which has been practiced more or less constantly since the medium’s invention, the type of photography that involves a person operating a camera, taking photographs of things which are physically in front of them, and then arranging the resulting images into linear sets to be displayed on a gallery wall. And yet few would deny that the excitement of photography lies in the fact it is becoming vastly more than this now, and all those once concrete certainties about meaning, authorship, and even the definition of the medium have broken down.

For the most part I did not find this brave new world represented, or even very often discussed. Even where the work on show had the potential to raise these sorts questions, it felt as if these issues were brushed aside as if they were slightly embarrassing or even a little vulgar. While I wasn’t particularly keen on Markus Brunetti’s Facades series, the composite nature of the work raises interesting questions about the integrity and limits of the digital photograph, questions which were relegated almost to a footnote in the exhibition’s text. Beyond the conceptual conservatism of quite a few of the shows, there was also what felt like the usual preponderance of white, American and European male photographers on display.

There were moments where the festival branched into more innovative and international terrain. The Discovery Award was a notable example but it was equally notable for being an award with a shortlist selected by five independent curators unattached to the festival. Talking to people with a few more years of Arles trips under their belts than me the judgment seems to be more varied. It is hard to get a sense if this is just an off year, or par(r) for the course. This year’s festival is notably marked by a change of festival directorship, and under those circumstances the temptation might be to play it safe rather than take the risk of trying to make a mark or a statement. And yet new director Sam Stourdzé made a very public statement that ‘a festival is not a museum’, a sentiment I fully support but which seems not to have been realised this year.

Looking back I have to acknowledge that I maybe went to the south of France with unrealistic expectations. For successive years before my trip I had heard Arles talked up by friends and colleagues who had been and come back with glowing stories about the festival, and I may have taken these too much to heart. Socially the festival was great, and for some that might be enough. I was hoping though to come away feeling inspired about the possibilities of photography and energised to make new work, but that feeling never quite developed. All the same I’ll certainly be going again next year and it will be interesting to be able to compare the similarities and differences that I find. Here’s hoping that even if we still don’t quite manage to escape the museum, that we at least get a little closer to the exit.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #5: Best of the Books


Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In my last post I looked at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality. For my penultimate post I turn to some of the photobooks I encountered at the festival.

To start off with the Luma Book Award, there was a host of interesting books on show. Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces immediately stands out from the crowded tables, both for it’s simple materials and bold cover, and for the way it wears it’s politics clearly on it’s sleeve. Emulating the grainy CCTV photographs released by the Metropolitan police of looters in the wake of the 2011 London Riots, Mayrit employs the same strategy for the one hundred most powerful political and economic leaders in the City of London. Many of these images are then scrawled with hand written notes revealing the subjects complicity in dodgy dealings and criminal cases. It’s a nice example of the broader trend of great books emerging from Spain at the moment, many with an unashamedly political slant which stands in contrast to the photobook scenes in other countries.

Aptly Mayrit’s book is located right next to Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report which corresponds to the festival exhibition of the same name. Where I felt the exhibition sometimes fell short on revealing the links between tax havens and the world’s problems, the added space and possibilities of the book goes helps to ameliorate this and slightly better reflects the vast complexity of this topic. I still feel that slightly more abstract visual strategies might have been better suited to a topic which is so abstract, but still I would definitely recommend checking this book out.

A diminutive book which caught my eye was Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words, and it’s title and form called to mind Zdnek Tmej’s bleak and brilliant Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. Like many other photographers, Romanaova travelled to Kyiv from her native Russia during the Euromaidan protests to make portraits, but her approach differed in that she asked each of her subjects to think of an object with the same name in Russian and Ukranian, before photographing them with that thing. The resulting book is open to multiple interpretations, whether viewed as a reminder that Russians and Ukranians have more in common than in difference, or perhaps more problematically as a suggestion that Ukranians are underneath it all basically just Russians. The book itself is beautifully fragile, composed of tissue paper and delicate inserts, hardly a thing one can imagine being born in the smoke and fire of Independence Square.

From the Luma Dummy Book Award (disclaimer: I had a book in the shortlist) a few titles caught my eye. First of all the winner, The Jungle Book by Yann Gross is a competently photographed and constructed documentary work which explores the contemporary Amazon. Although I think not ground breaking in topic or execution it’s not hard to see why it won because it’s well made in every respect. Two former students of mine also had work in the shortlist and although I’m clearly biased I recommend checking them both out. Carl Bigmore’s Between Two Mysteries is a great dive into an almost absurd Lynchian vision of America where everything hovers between reality and fiction, while Miriam Stanke’s And the Mountain said to Munzur: You, River of my Tears is a powerful account of the remote and trouble fraught Turkish region of Dersim.

For reasons I’ve sometimes discussed here, I’m generally not keen on books that are overly complex in form or design, but Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery has to be mentioned as a remarkable piece of book construction. Featuring a series of complex paper pop-ups, the portraits within burst off the page in ever more surprising ways. Lastly Mark Duffy’s Vote No.1 is almost the opposite of Cosmic Surgery in that the book construction is ridiculously austere but perfectly suited to the subject matter. Consisting of rephotographs of politician’s portraits as they appear on their campaign posters (complete with unplanned additions like flies and staple holes), the book is a funny jab at the unjustified self-importance and fleeting lifespans of politicians and political hopefuls.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #4: Souvenirs of the Sphinx and North Korea


Wouter Deruytter, Souvenirs of the Sphinx

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In this post I’m looking at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propaganda and Reality.

The first exhibition is fittingly housed at the Arles Museum of Antiquities, a little walk away from the town but also playing host to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs which makes it worth the walk. Curated by Luce Lebart, Souvenirs of the Sphinx draws on the collection of Wouter Deruytter, a photographer who has amassed an extensive collection of photographs and drawings of this ancient monument. Starting with rather fantastical pre-photographic illustrations presumably made by artists who had not seen the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza first hand but only heard them described, the exhibition then traces through the advent of photography and into the modern era, concluding with several of Deruytter’s own photographs of the Sphinx and it’s interior.

What is consistent in the exhibition is  obviously the desire of those who witnessed the Sphinx to make a recording of it, invariably with themselves in the frame. It is maybe not surprising that a monument which had stood impassively in the desert sands for nearly fifty centuries would make an impression, it is like a physical embodiment of history, a structure which wears the damage of time, and is periodically threatened with being engulfed by the sands that surround it. To stand on the Sphinx must have felt like standing on history, and one senses from many of the photographs that the subjects were making one of two statements. Perhaps simply attesting that they were here, and in sense this exhibition is an apt one to visit before or after seeing the Dark Tourism exhibition discussed last week. Or perhaps more complexly in photographing themselves with history these explorers, soldiers and tourists sought in some sense to claim it for their own.

The second small exhibition I want to highlight is Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, which is really one of the few bodies of work I saw during my time in Arles which really made me feel excited about photography. For this piece Wielinga combines her own photographs taken during an extended trip through North Korea with socialist realist propaganda paintings of fierce soldiers, noble workers and idealised Korean landscapes. Digitally manipulating the two together, the result is a perfect mix of painting and photography, one which much like traditional propoganda demands viewers take time and engage in careful investigation to separate truth and fiction from one another.

What I think is particularly clever about the work though is the way that by taking two forms of propaganda (the paintings, and her own photographs, inevitably staged managed by government minders) Wielinga manages in effect to short circuit them both. By revealing the incongruities between these two images she reveals the bizarre fiction that is North Korea’s public image, and hints at the bleak reality that lies just beneath the surface. The work is also being projected in a remarkable venue, a damp husk of an old church, but really the detail of the images is such that they need to be seen printed and viewed close up, and although the multimedia piece on display offers some interesting insight into the production of the work it dosen’t provide the same resolution. The high quality images on Wielinga’s website are a good alternative though for viewers keen to see these images in the detail they demand.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #3: Dark Tourism and The Heavens


Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award and the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People. In this post I’m looking at two bodies of work I found very interesting, but which didn’t seem to quite do what they suggested they might. They are Ambroise Tézenas’s I was There: Dark Tourism and Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report.

Ambroise Tézenas’s Dark Tourism was on display in the Grand Halle at the sprawling Parc du Atelier on the edge of Arles, along with a half a dozen or so other shows and the Discovery Award. For me its promise to investigate the macabre tourist practice of visiting sites of disaster and destruction made it instantly stand out from the other shows. One of my strongest memories of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkeanu concentration camp several years ago was seeing people smiling, giving thumbs ups and taking selfies in front of prison blocks and gas chambers, and to this day I’ve still wondered why people would react to a site like this in that way. Was it ghoulishness, or embarrassment? I hoped Dark Tourism was shine a light on this and other rather more crass examples of the way the past is commoditised and experienced as a site of tourism..

While Dark Tourism did do this a little, I was mostly disappointed. About a quarter of the photographs on display do focus directly on aspects of dark tourism, featuring for example a former Soviet era military prison in Latvia where guests can stay the night as prisoners. Mostly though Tézenas seemed to turn his lens on the sites themselves, producing beautiful if generic images of blood stained sites in Rwanda, China, Ukraine and other countries. This seemed to turn a potentially very interesting investigation into more or less an extension of the very thing it set out at the start to critique. Also I couldn’t help but feel the subtext of Dark Tourism was rather unsubtle, and failed to acknowledge the myriad reasons beyond simple macabre fascination that might lead people to these sites. These issues aside it was still an interesting exhibition and a recommended one amongst those in the Grand Halle.

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report  sets out to investigate the pertinent topic of the global tax havens where billions in untaxed money are sequestered away by large companies. The introductory blurb to the exhibition promises to shatter the traditional image of tax havens as tropical island paradises, a promise which is somewhat fulfilled. It opens very effectively with a darkened room, the walls ringed with photographs of familiar products and brands, all of which made use of a single Swiss banking scheme to reduce their tax liability. This is a very real demonstration of how tax dodging permeates into all our lives, simply in the products we surround ourselves with. Following this the other rooms contain more conventional documentary photographs of locations and people who play a significant part in the international network. From massive company mailbox centres in the Cayman Islands, to secure vaults built in a legal no-mans land underneath Singapore’s airport. Woods and Galimberti seek to show how tax evasion engenders other problems, for example often generating inequality in the parts of the world where these activities take place. One of the more powerful photographs shows a man in his tiny ‘cage home’ a type of micro-dwelling in Hong Kong, the product of an overheated housing market and growing inequality between rich and poor.

The photographs and their range is pretty great, the only major weakness was the difficult of concretely demonstrating the relationships between the disparate things that these images show. Global tax evasion is defined by its networked state, its complexity, and the essential invisibility of it’s relationships, and to bring to light this murky world would seem to require a rather different strategy to the conventional photographic one employed here (the Hans Haacke work featured in this post is, I think, a nice example of an alternative). This exhibition felt like a constellation of dots on a scatter graph, where someone was yet to draw the line that connects them all. I also slightly amused to  see the exhibition sponsored by Olympus, given their questionable finance arrangements, outed by the company’s own CEO back in 2011. Perhaps by throwing weight behind this exhibition Olympus is looking to join the relatively small band of companies who are taking a stand against these sorts of shady financial dealings. In short, The Heavens, Annual Report is another very well photographed and well-constructed exhibition, a timely argument against tax havens, even if I rather felt it suffered in the end from the difficulties photographs find in showing the sometimes quite abstract relationship between one thing and another.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #2: Vernacular/Martin Gusinde


Martin Gusinde, The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. Following on from my brief survey of the selections for the prestigious Discovery Award I thought I would focus on a couple of my favourite exhibitions of the festival so far, first of all two that consist entirely of historic imagery, Vernacular and Martin Gusinde: The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People.

The curating or repurposing of amateur photography is very much in vogue and as much as it has spawned some very worthwhile responses it has also led to a great many exhibitions and books that are just timed to cash in on a passing fashion and are for the most part poorly conceived and curated. Fortunately Vernacular is neither of these things, but rather a small and very tightly curated display of images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat. It consists of three sets of found photographs, each one consisting of the same type of image. This might sound dull but the repetition of the same photographic tropes across dozens of photographs becomes increasingly bizarre, (an example of Freud’s theory of the uncanny according to the show notes, although this might be pushing it a little)

One of the three series demonstrates this particularly well. Each of the fifty or so photographs in the series Predator features alongside its main subject the shadow of a hat wearing man protruding into the bottom of the frame. What at first seems like a familiar photographic trope becomes increasingly disturbing as the series goes on, and the shadow goes from seeming like the benign presence of an inept photographer, to a sign of impending threat reminiscent of film noir villains like Peter Lorre’s child murderer in M. Similar but quite different tricks are at work in the other two series and the result is an exhibition which is engaging, funny and a little bit disturbing. Vernacular is a neat a reminder of how changing fashions and social norms reshape the meaning of photographs, and how important the cumulative effect of viewing multiple images can be on how we understand what they mean. As has often been said on this blog, no photograph is an island.

The second highlight for me so far has been Martin Gusinde: The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People. Gusinde was a Germany missionary who at the start of the twentieth century made a series of four trips to the far south of Latin America.  Arriving with the fantasy of meeting tribes untouched by western civilization, Gusinde soon found that in reality life was a constant battle in this remote region, and that the tribes of the territory were having their cultures and traditions increasingly eroded by European influence. He undertook a project to document them, in his own words ‘before they disappear’ and went on to produce over a thousand photographs of three tribes in the region. For obvious reasons you have to approach photographs like these with caution, given who they were made by, when, and for what. Leaving aside the basic assumption that these tribes were doomed to die out, and the quandry that Gusinde was very much part of the civilisation that was causing them to disappear, these remain interesting, beautiful and at times very moving photographs.

Gusinde photographed very broadly, capturing family groups, individual portraits, settlements and ceremonies. Some of the most remarkable photographs come from the rituals of the Selk’nam tribe, including a lengthy initiation ceremony known as the Hain which involved participants dressing as spirits and mythological figures by painting their bodies with ochre and crushed bone and wearing starkly minimal headpieces made of bark. Whatever his politics as a Christian missionary and his agenda as a self-appointed ethnologist, one gets a sense from the photographs that Gusinde felt very deeply about the plight of these isolated groups, and seems to have gone so far as to take part in some rituals like the Hain. As much as a record of a disappearing way of life then, these photographs also make for a fascinating record of one man’s interest in a culture profoundly unlike his own.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #1: Discovery Award


The Shilo Group/Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. To kick off, The Discovery Award is something I’ve heard people rave about in past years and so it was an obvious early point on my itinerary. The award tasks five curators with choosing two artists each who they believe deserve more recognition for their work. Here I pick out five of them that I think are particularly worth a look.

I’ve already written at length about Lisa Barnard’s book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden, and it was nice to see it included in this award. I rate the work for a number of reasons, partly because of the politics that lie behind it and also because of the visual strategies Barnard uses to try and make those visible. Perhaps mostly I like it though because of all the artists making work about drones, Barnard is one of the few who’s work goes beyond purely mechanical observations about the technology. Given the complexity of the book the display for the discovery award packs an enormous amount into a relatively small space.

Robert Zhao Renhui’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was another nice inclusion. Renhui’s project blurs the line between fine art photography, scientific research and perhaps also advocacy, by creating an extensive account of species which have been altered by mankind. This ranges from fish purposefully bred or coloured to give pleasing appearances, to bees which have spontaneously developed an addiction to soda. Viewed together these examples make for a rather damning indictment of man’s effect on the planet and it’s other inhabitants. Perhaps inevitably given the subject and appraoch photography is very controlled, even rather cold, which for me rather limited the amount of time I wanted to spend with it.

Pauline Fargue’s No Day is another display worth mentioning (and since writing Fargue has won the Discovery Award). The display consists of a series of a number of Fargue’s notebooks, produced over a span of twelve years and which function as places for her experiment with images and text. Within these books she cuts and pastes photographs, blending them with text and drawing and in the proccess producing a beautiful and inspiring body of work, modest in scale but and epic in scope. The work touches on no epic issue of the day, and the method employed is very simple, but as a meditation on photography and writing in one of it’s most intimate forms the work is very powerful. ‘Let no day pass without a line’ wrote Walter Benjamin but, he concluded, ‘there will be weeks’.

The Shilo Group (Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz) are a Ukranian collective who’s work responds to the current state of their country and their display consists of three bodies of more or less inter-related work. Negatives are Stored consists of a series of crudely overpainted old photographs ‘restored’ as the collective put it, through the addition of surreal drawings some of which are varyingly touching, funny and entirely crass. The second project, Euromaidan, was published as a book last year and might be the group’s best known work. It documents the protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square in grainy black and white photographs, reminiscent of the photographs of 1970’s Japanese protest photography. Lastly ATO does similar with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is for me the most problematic of the groups work given it’s allusions to photography of the Second World War’s eastern front.

The final space is occupied by A Kind of Display by The Cool Couple (comprising Niccolo Benetton and Simone Santilli) and deserves recognition if only for the performativeside of it. Their work, which focuses on the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the beard, includes a barbers chair and live barber offering visitors free shaves in the exhibition space. Aside from this their display consists of a series of beard photographs printed on barber’s smocks and three 3D printed heads of historic beard wearers. A little disappointingly the display itself rather fails to live up to it’s promise and doesn’t penetrate very far into what could be a very interesting (if masculine) topic.

New Project – Numbers in the Dark

spectrum analysis #11 edit

Spectrum Analysis #11 from Numbers in the Dark

The forces that shape our lives today are frequently invisible, or at least attempt to be. Intelligence gathering is one example of this, and an area of these activities forms the subject of my new project Numbers in the Dark. During the early years of the Cold War, shortwave radio enthusiasts began to notice unidentified broadcasts, transmitting strings of numbers read by synthesised voices. These enigmatic broadcasts, which responded to no requests for identification, have come to be known as ‘numbers stations’.

Numbers broadcasts continue to this day and while very few have ever been clearly connected to a specific government or organisation, all the evidence suggests that they are used by intelligence agencies to transmit coded instructions to their operatives in the field. While it might seem archaic, transmitting secret messages by short-wave radio confers numerous advantages even in the digital age. The system requires little specialist equipment, is virtually untraceable, and by virtue of the type of cryptography used it is also extremely secure.

While the instructions contained in numbers broadcasts might be profoundly secret, the radio broadcasts themselves are more or less public and can be easily heard by anyone with a short-wave radio. As a result dedicated groups of enthusiasts have emerged who commit countless hours to monitoring the peculiarities of each numbers station, naming them, noting schedules and recording any changes in their behaviour. These enthusiasts also sometimes employ tecniques like High Frequency Direction Finding to locate the approximate area of origin for these signals.

Numbers in the Dark employs research undertaken by these enthusiasts, in conjunction with an array of other sources including declassified documents, in an attempt to locate the global broadcast sites of twenty-two numbers stations, past and present. The results of this search are as perplexing as they are enlightening, revealing radio transmitters isolated deep in forests and on remote military bases, but also showing others that lie at the heart of affluent, well developed cities, alongside major highways and at the edges of popular beaches.

Once located, each transmitter site is mapped in high resolution using publicly available satellite mapping programs. It is well known that this technology is a descendent from the optical surveillance satellites developed by spy agencies following the Second World War, but more directly the satellites used today for commercial mapping are also often directly used by intelligence agencies. The Geoeye 2 satellite, which collects much of the imagery for Google Maps, also collects imagery for intelligence organisations like the American National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Numbers in the Dark is therefore in a very literal sense about turning the tools of the spies back against their users.

Alongside these maps, spectrum analyses are made of transmissions both from numbers stations and legitimate broadcasts. A spectrograph is a method of turning a radio transmission into a visible image. It is a technique which is useful for a variety of reasons, but which in the context of this project is also a pertinent reminder that radio waves lie along the same spectrum as visible light, and that what is normally invisible can be rendered visible under other circumstances. The last element of the project is an audio soundscape contained on a memory card, which takes listeners into the strange aural world of short-wave radio transmissions.

These media, alongside a series of texts, combine in a book where competing and conflicting narratives sit side by side. Narratives of certainty and objectivity, of rigorous research and hours spent pouring over maps, frequencies, schedules, and declassified documents. Narratives of doubt and subjectivity, of time spent reading the many conspiracy theories which revolve around these stations, and pondering the sometimes incomprehensible devotion of the people who monitor them. But above all the narrative of a world where unaccountable state power and wild conspiracy collide head on with the mundane and every day. Where intensely secret messages drift through the ether, broadcast from antennae in business parks and suburban neighbourhoods.

Numbers in the Dark has been shortlisted for the Luma Les Rencontres d’Arles dummy book award and you can see it at COSMOS until September. I will be in Arles from 5 – 11th July with an updated copy of the book, so get in touch if you’d like to meet up and view it.

Beyond The Panopticon


Plan of Millbank Prison,
Constructed 1812, on land originally purchased by Bentham for the construction of his Panopticon.

In a series of letters written in 1787 Jeremy Bentham outlined his concept of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. It was to be a structure designed to create the illusion in the minds of its inmates of continual observation by an invisible warden. Bentham considered it ideal for prisons, factories, hospitals, insane asylums, and ‘any sort of establishment in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection’.

Two centuries later his ideas have been only sporadically implemented, but the Pantopticon has become a central model and metaphor for many of our darker conceptions of what it means to look and survey in an ever more intensely imaged world. In large part due to it’s reinterpretation but Michel Foucault, the Panopticon remains one of the most frequently cited models for explaining how our behaviour is shaped and moderated by practices of looking, and the sensation of being observed.

The façade of the Panopticon looms particularly large in media theory, where it continues to inform conversations about the way photography (particularly state and institutionally operated forms of photography) shape our behaviour. That a more or less unrealised architectural technology, envisaged before the era of daguerreotype continues to be deployed to explain our behaviour in the era of the near ubiquitous digital camera seems to me to be very strange.

A number of writers have argued that Bentham’s model no longer makes sense, with varying degrees of convincingness and in the field of surveillance studies there have been attempts to move beyond the model of the Panopticon, giving rise to a number of ‘post-Panopticon’ models of surveillance. These arguments and alternatives have ranged from pointing out changes in the way control is exerted, to arguments that the original model has proved itself to be fundamentally flawed and ineffective. Others have pointed to the way we increasingly auto-surveil or expose ourselves to collective surveillance, for example by publishing every more intimate information about ourselves in the public domain.

I have a slightly different feeling, tied to some of my recent writings on surveillance and image aware algorithms. I sense that the Panopticon is still yet to attain the logical end form which Bentham’s ideas demand, but which would have been impossible to envisage in his time, or even in Foucault’s. What the Panopticon always depended on was the availability of a guard or watcher, present at least some of the time to detect transgressions and punish wrongdoers. In effect what this meant was that Panopticon’s name was a misnomer. Bentham’s conception of Panopticon was not ‘all seeing’ at all, it merely hinged on the idea that at any moment one might be observed.

A true Panopticon would demand an equal number of guards to inmates, each guard constantly observing. The impossibility of that is also the weakness of the system, that provided an inmate can control the sense of doubt the Panopticon is designed to cultivate, they can assume that most of the time they are in fact not being observed, and can get away with things they might be prohibited from doing. Any transgressions which go unpunished progressively weaken the observed person’s belief that they are subject to a near omnipotent gaze. This maybe in part explains the ineffectiveness of many cited examples of the media Panopticon, for example the United Kingdom’s vast number of CCTV cameras. We know from experience that most are unmonitored, and many don’t even work.

What I think we’re approaching now is a time when the human element of the Panopticon can be more or less dispensed with. The result is a system which no longer rests on the possibility that someone might be watching us at any given time, but by the more disturbing certainty that something definitely is. A combination of the massive proliferation of networked cameras into almost every arena of life, alongside the growing capacity of governments and other organisations to automatically harvest, store and process vast amounts of information in near real time suggests frightening possibilities for future surveillance. The growing sophistication of software designed to detect subtle behaviours completes a terrifying trinity.

A huge networked panopticon, algorithmically detecting or perhaps even pre-empting transgressive or subversive behaviour sounds like dystopian science fiction, but the pieces that could make it reality seem to be falling into place. Given a choice, would people agree to being monitored by such a disturbing system? The National Security Agency surveillance revelations reveal the problem of assuming that our assent would even be sought. More troublingly though, these revelations have perhaps laid the groundwork for the collective psychological change needed to accept the idea of a truly omnipotent form of surveillance. For all the outrage we might feel we more or less now accept that we live in a state of pervasive surveillance.

We understand information in fundamentally different ways to previous generations, as a commodity which we generate like heat, with almost with every movement, every keystroke. The NSA revelations have established as fact the previously radical idea that very few of our communications are safe from interception. The virtual world increasingly mirrors the real, physical world, and as we accept the idea that one of these worlds is prone to such all seeing surveillance, that reality is sure to follow in the other.

A New Vision


Still from concept video for the Visual Media Reasoning (VMR) software package,
currently under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Photography is changing, but some of the most significant changes remain like an undeveloped picture, latent and unseen. Paul Virillio once suggested that in a world of ubiquitous cameras and photographs, we will no longer dream of images, but instead will dream of being blind. It’s an aphorism I’ve repeated many times here because it remains for me a very profound one, and it’s one that seems closer than ever to being made true.

Photography is no longer the physical medium of old. Gone are the dark slides, polaroids, roll films. A minority of people still use these things, but they are akin to the living historians who spend their weekends dressing up as German soldiers. It might be eye catching, but they have still lost the fight, and every time they don their uniforms they replay an old defeat. The photograph of today is something immaterial and innately non-visual. The photograph is now a document of text, numbers and symbols which must be conjured into a visual form each time we want to view it. This transformation has implications far beyond an imagined death of photographic artistry or skill that it is often seen to represent. It has consequences for the very definition of photography, consequences which most who discuss the medium appear to still be waking up to.

At the same time there is a vast and growing deluge of imagery in the world, a source of angst even for those who simultaneously herald the realisation of photography’s supposed democratic potential. What we forget in our anxiety about this flood of photographs is that not all photographs are created equal. Much of this deluge is unseen, and what amongst it we notice and wring our hands over is a small proportion, and a very particular type of image. Many more people despair, and many more column inches deplore, the plethora of inane selfie taking than do, say, the huge mass of satellite mapping reconnaissance imagery generated each day. If we agree that we need to talk about the production of imagery in our world, it would seem that to date we have mostly been talking about the wrong producers.

Part of what causes us to fear, or even turn away from this mass of imagery is maybe that it’s quantity short-circuits the thing that photography is supposed to be about. It becomes painful to look when we can never do more than scratch the surface of these petabytes of pixels. But the gradual rise of sophisticated algorithms able to really understand photographs suggests that the onus may soon shift from humans looking at these images, to machines doing it for us. From there, the further application of new or ‘big’ data principles to imagery might mean it becomes possible to analyse vast numbers of photographs in real time. Something of a primer for this idea can be found in a recent piece An All Seeing Eye. In the future the individual iconic photograph of the burning monk or the terrorist attack will perhaps become far less important than the aggregated data of countless citizen produced images of the same event.

Already mass spectacles like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings are recorded by countless photographic eyewitnesses, and those images are later used to forensically reassemble the events. But this is manual, and in the future it may be automatic. As computer vision becomes more sophisticated the photographs we rely on to diagnose, judge, and perform a host of other functions may come to never even be viewed by human eyes. All of this is heralding a world where machines are not used as portals through which people might view, but as viewers in their own right, no longer providing us with imagery, but with ready prepared insights into those images and what they mean. Exactly what this new vision might mean for us is something I will be exploring more in forthcoming posts.