07 May

Letter from London

The Lens Looks Back                                 May 7, 2009

By Parvati Nair

This spring, we Londoners have been thinking quite a lot about the role of cameras in our lives.

Granted that here in London, we may not be the most photogenic people in the world… but that doesn’t stop us from being the most photographed. We all know that every time a Londoner steps out of her or his front door, the unseen cameras relentlessly track us as we make our way through the city. Rough estimates indicate that the average Londoner can get photographed up to 300 times on a normal working day. We all know this, and occasionally, we catch a glimpse of ourselves on the television monitor as we enter or exit a tube station, fill our trolleys in the supermarket or stand in line at the cashier’s in a bank. We all know this… and we are inured to it. We are happy to carry on with our lives, even if we are being photographed every time we take a step, turn a corner, meet up with friends for a coffee or go in and out of work. In any case, we seldom see photographs of ourselves and, as the saying goes, out of sight is out of mind… Indeed, we may not realize it, but the enthusiasm with which we Brits follow the TV show Big Brother possibly indicates a distinct penchant for surveillance in our society and even for delight in the bizarre camaraderie of fellow-subjects who rub shoulders before an all-pervading lens. The irony, of course, is that as we indulge in the inevitable voyeurism that the TV show feeds off, we too are subjects housed in the city and watched by others whom we neither see nor know.

Only occasionally does surveillance intrude upon our lives and that, most often, occurs with the sudden flash of a camera as we exceed speed limits whilst driving or commit some kind of traffic offence. Certainly, a strange discomfiture accompanies the moment when a parking violation notice arrives by post, authenticated by a photograph of us or of our car caught in the act of infraction. Those are the moments when the colour drains from our faces, as we realize with some shock not so much the fact that we did something we shouldn’t have done, but rather the extent to which our every move on any given day is tracked, stored, open to scrutiny. The camera records and remembers even the moments of our lives that we have forgotten.

Tracked, stored, open to scrutiny…? By whom? For what?

By the authorities. To keep us safe. To ensure our civil rights. Ostensibly… after all, this is a city that has been victim to terror attacks, a city where burglaries occur daily, where pockets are picked, where knifings can sometimes happen. Surveillance is part of democracy and citizenship as we are taught it and as we live it here in the UK, and many of us, in the wake of horrendous crimes, such as that of the fatal stabbing back in 1993 of the teenager Stephen Lawrence (the lack of footage meant that no convictions were ever made), actually think that we’re better off with it than without it. In a city as vast as this and with a population that unofficially exceeds the 12 million mark, much can go wrong and we Brits have always been the kind who’d rather be safe than sorry.

Also to keep us safe, the authorities decreed a while ago that while the public are photographed repeatedly, we, in turn, could be questioned about our intentions if we photographed either the police or any place or vehicle of public transport. Public photography can be a cause for detention. The aim is to deter anyone taking photographs with the intention of using them for terrorist purposes. This is part of new anti-terrorist measures. Thus, not so long ago, a father and son from Holland, both fans of British double-decker buses, were held and questioned by the police here in London for innocently including in their three-day tourist itinerary a much anticipated visit to a local bus depot in order to photograph the parked buses. They had not known that they were laying themselves open to suspicion. They had not expected to be questioned as if they might be terrorists. Imagine, then, their terror at being suspected of terrorism. Adverts from the anti-terrorist hotline remind us that ‘Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seems odd?’ This implies that not only are we the subjects of incessant photography, but that we should be surveying one another as well, if cameras are in view. Also, as arbiters of oddities, it is assumed that here, in a city of 12 million, where over 300 languages are spoken and where people of vastly different ethnicities, religious beliefs, social values and income levels co-habit, we all share a view of what is normal, i.e. not odd. The very notion, if you ask me, strikes me as odd…

In the light of these severe constraints on public photography, spring in London saw a protest march organized in mid-February by the National Union of Journalists to highlight the constraints – constraints, not prohibitions, but decidedly inhibiting nonetheless — on the freedom to photograph. There are two sides to the debate: some believe that the freedom to photograph is a democratic right; the authorities claim that everyday democratic freedoms, namely the free, safe and unfettered circulation of goods, capital and persons through the city, depends on all of us being surveyed whilst also being constrained in our own photographic ventures.

Not everyone is free or safe, though, when ordinary people have to think twice about whipping out the camera and while CCTV is silently at work to safeguard us… Indeed, it appears that CCTV does not always operate as and when it should. Back in July 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian living in London, was shot and killed in the London Underground by police who mistook him for a terrorist. Subsequently, the police have claimed that there is an absence of CCTV footage showing what happened at the scene. There is, in fact, a total absence of visual recording of that tragedy… an absence that has led to a lack of proper accountability.

In the last four years, the camera has become much more of an everyday accessory that we take with us, along with the wallet, the mobile phone and the house keys. If lomography (a movement first started in Austria that later spread round the world to promote, casual snapshot photography, phrases such as ‘take your camera everywhere with you,’ ‘use it any time, day or night,’ ‘photography is not an interference in your life, it is part of it’ being among the ten guiding mottos of lomographers), was an eccentricity that appealed to a minority of photophiles just a few years back, then developments in visual technology make practically all of us into photographers today. The ubiquitous presence of the camera in our lives has meant that we increasingly record life as we live it. Indeed, perhaps we even live more intensely when reality comes to us filtered through the lens. The camera has become the tool through which we apprehend, understand and relate to the world around us.

An odd tension surfaces here between, on the one hand, laws that constrain public photography and, on the other, the growing public practice of photography in public. Could it be that surveillance society has by default turned us into a society of photographers?

I said earlier that the camera records and remembers even the moments of our lives that we have forgotten. No doubt this is so. Also true is the fact that, recently in London, we have seen that the camera records and remembers even the moments that some of us would rather were forgotten. The G20 summit here in London was notable not so much for what went on amongst the prestigious leaders of the world’s most powerful nations inside the convention hall, but for what happened on the street outside. For some days after he died, the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, struck by a police baton as he walked home through the crowd, was reported to have collapsed, been drunk, even been disorderly. It was only when the Guardian published video footage sent in by the public that the truth was acknowledged. Tomlinson had been hit on the abdomen by a policeman, whilst simply wending his way homeward through the crowd. It could have been any one of us instead.

Tomlinson was innocent and uninvolved in what went on around him. He was not a protester. Who knows, he may even have been disinclined towards the protesters. His name will be remembered, though, for the fact that the sudden and tragic loss of his life did not happen totally in vain: at least, it vindicates the democratic power of the lens when it looks back at those who look.

This is not meant to pit the police against the public: that would be absurd. It is to point out the politics of the lens, to note that a top-down, one-way gaze from the authorities to the public reifies the subject who can neither look back, change nor challenge his image. It leads to fixing and stereotyping of voyeur and subject alike, dangerous precursors to fascist enterprise and the breakdown of civic freedoms. There is more democracy in the exchange of glances… and with it the acceptance that there can be more than one line of vision. Public photography, as we saw at the time of the G20 summit, photography in public by the public, is a crucial reminder that here in this multifarious city, another point of view is always possible…

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