Pauline Hadaway

Pauline Hadaway's articles

Escaping the Panopticon

Associated Categories Art and Photography, Opinions

On Budget Day 2012, photographer and film maker @indyrikki was in Parliament Square taking pictures of UK Uncut demonstrators being moved on by the Police[1]. Within five minutes, he was circled by a group of police officers and uniformed ‘heritage wardens’, who ordered him off the square, claiming he was in breach of byelaws, which prevent people from remaining in the vicinity of Parliament ‘for any length of time’. Being unable to properly substantiate their legal claims, let alone provide a reasonable definition of ‘any length of time’, one of the police officers offered to telephone a superior for clarification. Meanwhile, as @indyrikki kept the camera rolling, the heritage wardens continued to barrack him, barking out orders to stop taking pictures, move off the grass, show his ‘photography licence’, provide ID and, most incongruous of all, to ‘stop acting so unreasonably’. As the photographer resolutely, but politely stood his ground, the wardens dispersed and were later filmed enthusiastically hassling tourists and shooing them away from the grass. As the first pair of police officers melted away, a second pair turned up, expressing bafflement at the behaviour of the ‘heritage wardens’:‘I don’t know what they think they’re doing, shooing people away like pigeons!’

All the elements of farce finally came together with the arrival of the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) ‘Heritage Warden Manager’, vainly attempting to throw light upon fine legal distinctions between the unrestricted rights of tourists to take photographs in the square and restrictions placed on commercial photo shoots and ‘politically motivated photography’, where photographs might end up on a website which is ‘pro or anti something’. Asked for a list of proscribed websites, the manager referred the photographer to the GLA Press Office. Finally, having followed up the incident, the campaign group, I’m a Photographer not a Terrorist published an apology from a GLA spokesperson:

The behaviour of one of the wardens shown in the video clip falls well below the standards required by the GLA. It was clearly not appropriate and the byelaws were not being interpreted correctly. We apologize for this lapse and action will be taken to address this.[2]

Photography, privacy and negotiating public space

Hedged around by questions of courtesy, consent and conflicting notions of public and private space, provocations around street photography go back a long way, almost as far as the beginnings of photography itself. The mass availability of the technology, alongside its potential for furtive surveillance and instantaneous imaging, inevitably challenges our sense of personal entitlement to choose what to reveal and what to conceal about ourselves in public. Perhaps in recognition of the intensely personal, not to say messy nature of photography’s contestations, the British state has historically preferred to keep its distance. Where a breach of the peace was threatened, the boys in blue might intervene. Otherwise, throughout most of the twentieth century, through wars, cold wars, public disorder, IRA bombing campaigns and countless national emergencies, aside from a small number of plainly identifiable ‘security zones’, British citizens enjoyed almost unhindered rights to take pictures of anything or anybody in public space.[3]

New kinds of muddled and meddlesome approaches to policing, indicating changes in relationships of power between citizen and state, are succinctly captured in films like @indyrikki’s, which record fraught public stand-offs between photographers and various categories of police and officialdom. Played out against humdrum urban settings, amidst mildly curious passers-by, confrontations typically begin with an order to stop filming, provoking infuriated and resolute resistance from behind camera. As the situation escalates, enraged officials shield their faces behind outstretched palms or address farcically inaccurate claims about the extent of their powers straight to camera, simultaneously holding forth on the perils of unregulated picture taking. While many of these furious displays end in stalemate or ignominious retreat, they dramatize a prevailing culture in which officialdom routinely imposes its authority through bombast and intimidation, rather than moral or legal interdiction.

Muddled and meddlesome authority

The growing tendency for officialdom to intervene in everyday life indicates shifts in power relationships between citizen and state and movement towards acceptance of a culture of arbitrary and sweeping regulation. When Suffolk Police challenged a middle aged man, photographing the Xmas lights switch-on ceremony in Ipswich town centre, they asked to see a license for his camera. Being told he didn’t have a license (no such license exists), the police officers subjected the man to a formal stop and search, ordering him to show and then delete all the images in his camera.[4] Two asylum seekers, arrested under the Terrorism Act were quizzed for 44 hours after filming themselves in Bute Park, Cardiff. The unfortunate pair, who had been in Wales for just two months after fleeing persecution in Iraq, were using a camcorder, when an undercover cop swooped.[5]

A middle aged couple, marched out of Farehamshopping centre for taking ‘unauthorized’ photographs of their grandchildren, were initially informed they would be banned for life for breeching the centre’s counter terrorist regulations. Expressing their disbelief and anger in a letter to the centre manager, the couple explained an entirely innocent intention to snap the children’s delight at grandma and grandad’s surprise appearance during a family shopping trip. Apologizing for his security guards’ failure to properly clarify the rules, the centre manager explained that the photography ban, although not terrorism related, was part of a general policy supporting ‘the security of the shops, where the taking of photographs needs prior permission’.[6]

Reading evil intent into the actions of a middle-aged couple taking snapshots of children in a busy shopping centre expresses a deeply suspicious and cynical worldview. Yet, in a risk conscious society, where supervision and surveillance are experienced both as imposition and entitlement, a genuine bewilderment concerning what is socially responsible and legally permissible in public places appears to have taken hold. In a climate of fear and suspicion, often fuelled by alarming reports of terrorist alerts or predatory paedophiles, official law enforcers and members of the public appear equally uncomfortable asserting their authority, whether enforcing regulation or defending common rights and liberties.

Imagining the panopticon

As a metaphor for understanding power relations in the organisation and regulation of advanced industrial societies, Michel Foucault’s theorization of the panopticon became highly influential in social and cultural theory from the mid 1970s. Foucault’s ‘panoptic schema’ conceptualises hierarchies of power by alluding to nineteenth century penal regimes, where discipline is maintained across closed systems, in which ‘separated individualities’ remain subject to ‘a state of conscious and permanent visibility’, under the all-seeing eye of authority. As ‘individual privacy is abolished and the multiple exchanges of the crowd are subject to official scrutiny’, the panoptic system constructs an all pervasive culture of control across the whole of society and its institutions. As atomised individuals, disorientated within a ‘sequestered and observed solitude’, we are, it is argued, not so much repressed by the social order as ‘carefully fabricated within it’. Bereft of credible languages or distinct ideological positions, we struggle to define, let alone validate our own interests.[7]

Not without challenge in both political and surveillance studies,[8] the theoretical dominance of the panopticon as a way of conceptualising power relations seems increasingly to resonate with popular anxieties in an era of mass surveillance and hyper regulation. Meanwhile, in calling attention to the camera, both as apparatus of surveillance and instrument for exposing the mechanisms of control, the figure of the all seeing eye has greatly influenced cultural studies and production throughout the same period. Darkly imagined as Orwellian or Kafkaesque, popular notions of the surveillance society are commonly shaped by fears of powerful, mechanistic and covert forces, manipulating and constraining our capacity to think and act as free, political subjects. As new technologies of electronic and biometric surveillance permit the eye of authority to invade the most intimate areas of our lives, it appears that the theoretical problems conceptualised in the panoptic schema may have taken hold as material forces in the contemporary world.

The surveillance society

Conservative estimates already place the number of CCTV cameras in the UK at around 1.85 million, suggesting that an average citizen going about his or her business in the streets, shops, schools, hospitals and transport systems of British towns and cities might expect to be captured on as many as 70 cameras every day.[9] Meanwhile new technologies permit smart cameras to scan faces or seek out ‘unusual’ behaviours in the crowd, while, in a significant expansion of state surveillance, there are even plans to deploy unmanned ‘spy drones’ as a security measure during the London Olympics.[10] Alongside the exponential growth of CCTV cameras – a situation, which has effectively abolished all rights to privacy in UK public spaces – more and more citizens are routinely subjected to intrusive scrutiny of their private lives through Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checking and vetting. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed over 4 million CRB checks carried out in 2011, contributing to a total of over 32 million since 2002.[11] Costing in excess of £1.5 billion, widespread vetting has extended the reach of official surveillance beyond professional regulation and criminal investigation into increasingly informal and personal areas of life. Over 6.5 million volunteers have been CRB checked since 2002, including, ‘parent volunteers at school discos, host families for foreign exchanges, people driving their elderly neighbours to the shops and mothers listening to reading in their child’s class’, giving rise to a situation where ‘running an after-school club is now subject to more stringent security tests than selling explosives'[12]

Almost ten years ago, Richard Thomas, New Labour’s Information Commissioner warned that Britain may be ‘sleepwalking into a surveillance society’[13] and yet, in a political culture where assaults on privacy and disclosure of personal information have become commonplace, complaints about the ‘surveillance state’ are often dismissed as liberal overreaction. Thus, David Goodhart rebuked the Convention on Modern Liberty, on the basis that people with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear: ‘Nowhere have I heard of innocent people suffering injustice as a result of either technology (CCTV cameras and DNA databases) and, as the father of four children who often travel on their own around central London, I find the cameras reassuring (on some estimates half of all British transport police convictions are won thanks to CCTV evidence).'[14]

In many ways, Goodhart’s views reflect popular sentiment towards the institutionalization of surveillance, where concerns around the encroaching power of the state have been supplanted by an even more powerful mistrust of other people. Apprehension of the motivations of our fellow citizens may encourage us to play down the corrosive nature of mass surveillance, but does individual complacency express complicity through internalization of the systems of control? As subjects of the authoritarian gaze, have we become enthralled by its perfect power?

Authority as visible subject in public space

Talking CCTV, perhaps one of the most strikingly ‘panoptical’ innovations of recent times, is a device that links surveillance cameras to teams of watchers, who monitor, discipline and scold citizens for dropping litter or committing other forms of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Commenting on the installation of talking cameras as part of Middlesborough’s multi million pound redevelopment of its town square,‘reputedly the largest civic space in Europe’, Sarah Boyes draws attention to the way this new ‘interactive’ technology extends camera surveillance beyond its existing remit:

Rather than being a passive surveillance measure, (talking cameras) represent an attempt by local authorities to play a more activerole in civic spaces: not just to watch people but to actively intervene in their everyday behaviour. [15]

Grounded in civil society, outside both state and market, Boyes defines public space as the place where citizens ‘bear responsibility for negotiating the terms of relationships and developing shared rules’. Alluding to the historic function of self organising civic space in once thriving industrial cities like Middlesborough (now one of the poorest towns in Britain), Boyes suggests that talking cameras dramatise the extent to which public space has been appropriated and increasingly regulated and defined by the watchful presence of external authority. Using the language of safety and public accountability, local council officials claim the cameras inspire ‘extra confidence’ and ‘actively reinforce the message that Middlesbrough is a place that is constantly thinking about community safety’.[16] However, in assigning the role of active citizenship to the cameras and their teams of watching operatives, local government officials may simply be drawing attention to the problem of constructing public space in the absence of an active public, whose role they have effectively usurped.

As Boyes notes, the advanced technologies that allow council officials to monitor and ‘engage with’ passers-by from distant control centres are predominantly employed as a way of telling people off for trivial misdemeanours: ‘One woman described being shouted at when the end of her sausage roll broke off onto the floor, and was quite incredulous. A teenager told me how he was scolded for throwing a snowball. Another young person remembered friends being reprimanded one evening for boisterously paddling in the new fountain. One local employee remembered hearing a disembodied voice late one evening saying ‘stop urinating on McDonalds’, but when they looked they saw no apparent culprit’. [17]

Escaping the panopticon

At once more expansive, yet arguably more flimsy and uncertain than the overarching force mapped out in Foucault’s panoptic schema, the disembodied voice of the speaking camera renders all seeing authority into a visible subject within public space. Far from expressing the totalising power of the surveillance state, these disembodied judges of normality have simply become fellow actors competing for attention and authority amidst the routine transactions of everyday life. Gripped by nostalgia for old fashioned civilities and community solidarities, while simultaneously captivated by digital solutions and technical fixes that might somehow re-awaken public interest and engagement, officialdom is increasing defined by its desire, not so much to seize as to share and even transfer power. Haunted by dread of social breakdown, fearful of reproach for failing to protect citizens from unidentified threats, perhaps the idiosyncratic and muddled character of contemporary authority is a consequence of serving so many indeterminate and conflicting agendas.

Although clumsy and uncertain, the new authoritarianism remains coercive and profoundly anti democratic. Unfortunately one of the problems of theorizing the Prison as the primary mechanism for maintaining discipline in contemporary society, lies in the danger of taking the politically disabling ideas of complicity and all pervasive power at face value. In a post ideological, increasingly managerial society, the extension of official regulation into the minutiae of our everyday lives already disables our capacity for self-regulation, making it difficult to imagine, let alone begin to organise a politically dynamic public space. By attributing our real sense of isolation and vulnerability to theoretical causes, identified as inevitable, over arching and permanent, the panoptic schema offers no escape plan and may even provide intellectual solace for continued political inertia. As muddled authoritarianism interposes itself further and further into our everyday social relations, the commitment to negotiate rights, responsibilities and the limits of freedom with one another becomes an act of resistance and solidarity.

First published on Either/And, for longer version:

Image:Wikimedia Commons

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