Hong Kong protest

Above: August 2019 pro-privacy protests in Hong Kong. Credit: YouTube.

State Power

The urban citizen is increasingly subject to surveillance when in public. In August 2019, activists in Hong Kong used electric saws to cut down recently erected government CCTV cameras. That protest was a fightback against the HK government's suspected use of facial recognition technology. In many cities complex CCTV systems have been installed without public dissent. The implementation of a sophisticated CCTV system across London was no surprise to J.G. Ballard, but the general apathy towards it was concerning to him: he was appalled that the congestion-charge camera system was established without any protest from Londoners.

The Australian Privacy Foundation has argued that such systems are highly invasive, "we are on our way to automated and real-time surveillance of public spaces," the foundation has said. We might recall John Tagg's famous statement that, "photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work ... Like the state, the camera is never neutral."

Equally, if photography has a basic use by the state it is to provide proof of individual identity. The photo-image remains key as a means of establishing identity--and from there inclusion in various systems of control. The state structures of bureaucracy and intelligence have co-opted photography at least since 1914 when photo-id passports became compulsory in the UK. (At the heart of any such identity system is the expectation that every human face is unique.). Foucault's concept of Disciplinary Power (continuous state power) begins with the school and the prison and extends out across the apparatuses of the administration of control.

In terms of theorizing photo-video, it is crucial to recognise that the state's surveillance and intelligence operations begin with the use of photo-imaging technology--the passport/identity photo and the CCTV camera, for example. If all other uses of photography were for some reason abruptly curtailed in a horrifying dystopian scenario, the passport/id picture and the CCTV feed would likely remain. It could be said that if a person is concerned about privacy and control, then in a way their first concern should be towards the abuse, misuse, or disproportionate use of photography technology by the state.

(5 November 2019)