Above: An example of the Met's Most Wanted poster. Credit: Oscopic.
Many of the pictures disseminated via the Met Police's Most Wanted list are CCTV grabs--a cropped still from video material. The criminal suspects are often depicted shot candid from above--unaware of the cameras capturing them just above the eyeline. The forensic images zero in on known wanted persons, but these suspects could easily be random members of the public. The Most Wanted poster is a (chilling) reminder of the fact that if, for any reason, the police would like to trace a person--as a suspect--then the technology and expertise exists to soon isolate images of any individual who makes their way across the city.
For a century already--since the early 1920s--the experience of being a pedestrian in the urban setting has included the possibility of one's likeness being filmed and captured candidly. In the era of CCTV, giving oneself up to the tele-photographic eye, as one walks the streets, has become entrenched and accepted as more or less unavoidable. In the 1920s it was the pioneering works of Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera), Walter Ruttmann (Berlin, Symphony of a Metropolis), and Jean Vigo (A Propos de Nice), that captured for the first time busy street scenes. In 1931, Walter Benjamin observed that in such footage no photographer-subject agreement is in play, even as a negotiation. In such photo-images there is no transaction and therefore, he noted, the images produced cannot correctly be called portraits as such, "It was no longer a portrait. What was it?" The same question still applies to the candid CCTV grab today: it's not a portrait, so what is it? Discounting the ubiquitous selfie, the CCTV still is perhaps our most era-specific photo-format: a picture made by an intelligent machine whose status is vexed and contested. In the age of mass observation, every pedestrian is a potential suspect.
(12 December 2019)