Project Looking, observation and surveillance?

This project involved reading a passage entitled Panopticism by Michel Foucault, which came from his book Discipline and Punishment. The essay is a reflection on Jeremy Bentham’s architectural design for the perfect building to keep people under surveillance – the Panopticon.

The design of the Panopticon comprised of an outer building shaped like a hoop. All of the rooms/cells in the hoop  have windows at both ends so that an unobstructed view into all of the rooms is possible when looking from the centre. At the centre there is round watch tower with subdued lighting and screens which mean that it is not possible to see into the tower from the rooms in the outer hoop.

Panopticon design by Bentham

The result is that those incarcerated in the cells are visible at all times. The inmates know that they can be seen at all times, but they do not know whether they are being surveilled at a particular moment in time. The structure works as a system of control. Those in the cells come to behave at all times as if they are under surveillance. From the perspective of those in a position of power this is  a very efficient means of keeping large numbers of people effectively under surveillance by a small number of ‘guards’.

My sense is that Foucault uses the Panopticon as a metaphor for similar systems of control which are becoming more common in today’s society. Consider for example speed cameras on British roads. We all know that they are there – they are big and yellow and well signposted. We all know that they may or may not have a camera in them. So we do not know if we are being surveilled. Yet generally we behave as if we are – we slow down. There are increasing numbers of physical control systems in our society and indeed yet more when one considers the policing and surveillance of the myriad forms of communication, telephone calls, emails, internet usage etc.

The course notes indicate that a major contribution of Foucault’s thinking is that we are all now very much aware of the differences between looking, observing and surveilling. I thought I would just set out my own interpretation of these three words. For me…

  • looking implies that we are holding something or someone in our vision but with no particular intention in mind, at least to begin with
  • observing implies that we are paying particular interest in the subject under our gaze with a view to interpreting or analysing what we are seeing
  • surveillance implies that we are looking at something with a view to controlling it in some way, as is the case in Foucault’s notion of Panopticism

The projects asks the question as to whether Foucault’s ideas shed any light on the dichotomy of the contemporary desire to be seen (e.g. reality TV, celebrity, social networks etc) and the desire for privacy (laws which ban photography, curbs on the media, injunctions by members of the Royal Family etc.).

Looking for example at social networks such as Facebook. They act just like a Panopticon. We place our thoughts,  photographs, details of relationships and such like on a public website available for all to see. We know that our pages may be being studied at any time but we do not know if they are under surveillance at a particular moment of time. For all we know we may be being stalked by unsavoury characters. So why do people do this? Why do we willingly subject ourselves voluntarily to a system of surveillance. My guess is that it is our way of achieving fame just like our celebrity heros and heroins. These well known (or even less well known) personalities serve as role models. They too have Facebook sites. They too are surveilled by the media. So we follow their lead and place ourselves in the public domain. This boosts our self esteem. We feel like celebrities ourselves.

With regards to the growing desire for privacy, I think that this is a reaction against the undoubted fact that there is more and more surveillance of our lives and that we are being controlled by ‘Big Brother’. We want to see ourselves as free agents and so rid ourselves of unwanted systems of control.

The next task involves looking at the work of some video artists and to think about why many use themselves as the subject in their videos. I found some interesting content by an Austrian artist Pipilotti Rist. In her early work she featured as the subject in many of her video installations. Here is a Youtube link to one of her videos here

To be honest listening to interviews with the artist I believe that her appearance in her own work was for practical and economic reasons. Setting this aside thought I think there is another issue to consider. Placing someone in a video which will be shown in a gallery, is tantamount to placing the person under surveillance. The subject is under the control of the video producer and the controlling gaze of the viewer. One way to avoid this association is for the video producer to become the subject also.

The final task involved sourcing photographs which have come about as a result of looking at, observing and placing under surveillance.

First two which result from looking are from Garry Winogrand’s somewhat controversial book Women are Beautiful (Winogrand).  These are quickly taken photographs snapped by Winogrand in the street. They reflect the male gaze and objectify the women pictured. However, as they represent a fleeting moment on the street I feel they could only have come about as a result of a quick look.

From Women are Beautiful 1965 by Garry Winogrand

From Women are Beautiful 1965 by Garry Winogrand

Turning now to photographs which arose out of observing. The first of these is from Walker Evan’s Subway Photographs, in which Evans secretly photographed fellow passengers on the New York subway. This photograph was shown in the 2010 Tate Modern Exhibition  Exposed  voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” (Phillips). Evans would have been sitting opposite his subjects on the train observing them and in his own time decided who might be his best subject for the photograph.

Walker Evans Subway Portrait

The second photograph is a Brassai portrait of Picasso. Portraits by their nature seem to me to be a situation where the photographer has the time to observe and click the shutter at the moment of his/her choice.

Pablo Picasso by Brassai

The next photograph, which I feel arose from surveillance, is also from the Exposed exhibition. It is by a Japanese photographer Shizuka Yokomizo. She created a series of voyeuristic images. The approach was to send a stranger a letter asking them to stand at a window of their house at a prearranged date and time. She then took the photograph of them and disappeared without contact with the subject. There is clearly an element of surveillance in these photographs.

Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 1 1998

The final image is a collage of photographs from Sophie Calle. Calle is fascinated by the interface between our public lives and our private selves. This has led her to investigate patterns of behaviour the techniques of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. Calle’s very first work involved following strangers around Paris (Calle).

Sophie Calle early work – surveillance of strangers in Paris

Winogrand G. (1975) Women are Beautiful  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Phillips S. (Ed.) (2010) “Exposed voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” London: Tate Publishing

Calle S. (2003)  Sophie Calle: M’as tu vue? – Did you see me? London: Prestel