Writing on photography

Photography and Non-Compliance

Despite the increasing acceptance of on an approach to photography centered around dialogue with subjects and their participation in the process of making the photograph, the subject-photographer relationship often remains unequal and even adversarial. In candid situations the photographer’s right to photograph, particularly in public, and the potential subject’s right to privacy or indeed anonymity are still regularly in conflict. Recent years have seen a number of cases centered around this conflict in its various forms, two particularly prominent ones being the case of Phillip Lorca di Corcia’s photograph of Erno Nussenzweig, and more recently the case of Arne Svenson’s photographs of residents of a glass fronted apartment block facing his.

It’s easy to ask why anyone should care about being photographed, the vast majority of us dump huge numbers of photographs of ourselves and our friends on to ill secured social networking sites, blogs, and so forth. But current trends seem to suggest the value of a person’s image, and the stakes involved in controlling one’s own image are both only likely to grow. Just as companies harvest and store huge amounts of data about our shopping and browsing habits, the advent of facial recognition technology has the potential to make our appearances a similarly valuable commodity to companies and governments, and seems likely to increasingly tie our hopes of privacy to our ability to control our own images.

In the 1850’s the renowned detective Allan Pinkerton devised the ‘Rogues Gallery’ as an early form of composited police intelligence on criminals, combining photographs arranged by criminal specialism with information about known accomplices, locales frequented and other relevant information. Photography subsequently came to be a vital tool in law enforcement, two disciplines which John Tagg has noted have grown in concert with one another for over a century. At the start of the twentieth century the invention of identification by fingerprinting added another impetus to police photography, as it became vital to photograph fingerprints in situ. Photographs of criminals (‘mug shots’) also became increasingly standardised in this time, with specific instructions issued in the United Kingdom on how they were to be lit and other details.

A friend recently posted a gallery of vintage photographs of criminals dating from around the nineteen-twenties. Skipping through these photographs I came to rest on one in particular. It showed a man, fairly unremarkable in dress and appearance, but entirely remarkable in what he was doing. Where all the others gazed at the camera, some defiantly, some indifferently, some sadly, this man had responded in the most subversive, and yet brilliantly simple way. He had simply shut his eyes. Slightly below his waist someone had scrawled on the glass plate ‘this man refused to open his eyes’.

I was completely caught on this, the idea that almost a century ago people were already thinking of ways to outwit the camera, to counteract photography’s pervasive eye. Since I’ve been looking at other forms of resistance, how had other people through time have found ways to exercise a little agency against this power. This post is a very brief summary of some of these methods. More reading revealed that eye shutting was just one of many tactics employed by criminals to make police photographs less useful in identifying them. According to one history of criminal investigation they also often ‘grimaced, puffed their cheeks, rolled their eyes, and otherwise tried to distort their appearance to lessen the chance of later recognition.

In the United Kingdom today, as in other countries, police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) are a common sight at demonstrations, equipped with video and stills camera they gather footage of known or potential troublemakers, or just anyone who happens to walk through their field of view. In response protest groups have turned their cameras back on these officers, compiling their own identification cards of FIT officers that mirror the photographic briefing cards the police disseminate to their own ranks before such events. Equally at some protests, demonstrators have been known to turn on photographers, whether police or press, employing tactics like spray painting lenses to prevent photographs later being used to identify those committing criminal acts.

Again changing tac, resistance to the camera has been a theme in some recent documentary projects. Recounting the making of his project The Enclave, on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (reviewed here soon) Richard Mosse noted how the heavily armed rebels he photographed ‘were deeply defiant, they didn’t want to be photographed and made that very clear, it was this sort of aggressive face off with the camera, not with you but with the lens’. Rather than turning away or preventing the taking of photographs by force (either of which would have been quite feasible), the rebels engaged in a sort of strangely performative confrontation with the lens. Another contemporary project, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work with the Belfast Exposed photo archive, included images that had been intentionally defaced by users of the archive in order to obscure the appearance of those shown in the photographs.

Moving finally to the most technologically sophisticated end of the spectrum, rumours have it that Eclipse, a 160 metre yacht owned by Roman Abramovich includes a laser system designed to detect and dazzle the sensors of digital cameras, preventing long lensed paparazzi from photographing the boat or those on it, although the credibility of this claim is questioned. Taking a step further into science fiction, in Phillip K Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, undercover drugs agents sometimes wear ‘scramble suits’, projecting the pre-recorded facial  features of millions of people on to a shroudlike membrane, making the wearer impossible to identify.

Evidently this is only a very perfunctory look at the past, present and future of strategies of photographic non-compliance. Equally the difficulty of resisting cameras inevitably increases as they become more ubiquitous and the moments at which one might be caught unawares in a photograph become more numerous. None the less I think it’s an interesting topic, fertile for more in-depth research in the future, particularly in the context of revelations about mass data gathering by spy agencies and the emergence of technologies that have the potential to extend the repressive possibilities of photography far beyond anything presently imaginable.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography