The Surveillance Economy of Photography

Rollei (603)
CCTV at Victoria, Lewis Bush 2013

As I noted last week, if you speak to a professional photographer they will often tell you how hard it is at the moment to make a living. Listen to those more inclined towards hyperbole (which in my experience is quite a few of them) and they will probably tell you it is nigh on impossible. Certainly an apparent mixture of falling rates and growing competition make photography a difficult field to make a living in. I say this from personal experience, as much as from casual observation. This coupled with my perennial inability to know what to charge for my own work has led me to spend quite some time pondering the wider economy of photography, the question of what a photograph, or photographs, are worth.

This obviously depends on the photograph in question (it’s content and quality), who wants it (and for what end) and as I observed in a recent post on limited editions, sometimes the rarity of that photograph as a unique object. While in certain circumstances the ascribed value of a single photograph can be enormous (Gursky’s Rhein II being the current exemplar of this), many people speak of  feeling that there is a wider devaluation of photography, a consequence of it’s massive availability.

In terms of quantity, professional photographs disappear into total insignificance in the shadow of vernacular and amateur photography, a vast and heterogeneous collection of images ranging from family photographs to amusing pictures of cats. As cameras become integrated into ever more devices, and photographing something becomes an increasingly normal response (whether the stimulus is a traumatic event or a pleasant meal) this imbalanced professional-vernacular ratio seems will only increase, perhaps to the point where there is no longer even a ratio for us to note. Professional photography will be like the proverbial fly on the vernacular elephant, or perhaps more like the proverbial microbe.

The question that has come to occupy me lately is whether there any economic value in this vast mass of vernacular photography, or whether it is, as is commonly assumed, an almost totally worthless glut of images. It seems to me that the advent of several technologies have conspired to make vernacular and amateur photography an exploitable resource in a way it never has been before, but also a resource we should be very afraid of. These are first; the mass use of digital photography, which has freed photography from the constraints of physical media, making it easier to amass and trade in huge quantities. Second; the widespread use of the internet, and particularly social networking sites, which have centralised large quantities of these photographs in a few convenient locations.

Where once vernacular photographs were scattered in the wind, (or at least in far flung shoe boxes and family albums) they are now willingly deposited on the servers of social networking and communications companies by the people who take them, indeed often automatically, sharing has become part of the process of photography. In the act of uploading and sharing legal ownership of these photographs often passes to these same companies, or at least becomes somewhat ambiguous and contestable. This mass of vernacular images becomes a resource ready to be exploited for economic gain. But short of searching through billions of images for the very few significant ones which might command a price, how could these companies ever make use of these photographs, so many of which are technically poor and seemingly of little interest to anyone but the maker?

The most obvious answer to me comes in the maturation of a third technology, facial recognition. Already worryingly sophisticated, as this technology continues to improve the type of dystopian consumerist vision of films like Minority Report – where involuntary iris recognition is used to tailor adverts to people on the street, or to track them  –  becomes increasingly believable in our own world. The physical security infrastructure for this is already more or less in place. In the UK there are estimated to be 5.9 million CCTV cameras, or roughly one for every eleven people, making us amongst the most surveiled populations on the planet.

Yet any large scale deployment of facial recognition would still require two things to be viable. Those are first; a sizeable archive of photographs showing the faces of people for the cameras to ‘recognise’. Second; some information about that person which could be matched to the image in order to make their recognition remotely useful. This information might range from the most basic (name, age, gender) to the most sophisticated (tastes, politics, proclivities). This critical connection between image and personal information is, of course, exactly what is made each time a photograph is uploaded to a social network and tagged.

Our use of many online services comes at the price of personal information, most of us already knew this, it was part of the deal, and the official corporate line that this information is safe, anonymised, or will not be used for harmful ends in the pursuit of a quick buck has been enough to satisfy many. These reassuring murmurs, whether honestly heartfelt or slyly deceptive, are besides the point. The information is there, whether to be sold by a greedy company or stolen by a tyrannical government, and that fact alone should be enough to frighten us. For all the outcry over the NSA/PRISM revelations, the direct impact of these activities were  felt by relatively few, even if the psychological impact of their disclosure was enormous. Social networks have already changed the landscape of privacy far more radically, and all the more pervasively because few us have really noticed the change. Worse I suspect, is yet to come, and when these greater erosions of privacy become evident we will have little satisfaction in knowing that they are ones much more of our own making.

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