“Surveillance” by Richard Proffitt. University of the West of England. BA Art & Social Context
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Surveillance: Part 1: Context

Contextualised Practice: Evaluation Report. Module: A842S3

by Richard Proffitt September 1997.
Updated in May-July 2015


  • An Interpretation of Surveillance
  • A Historical Context
  • An Interpretation of Surveillance

    Surveillance is a term which attracts a wide variety of notions. To survey something implies a kind of active looking with the emphasis on gathering information; considered in this sense, the concept could be (and indeed is) applied to an array of political and cultural appraisals and judgements. ‘Appraisals’ because information is related to a system of values and ‘Judgements’ because the system of values belongs to that of the surveyors, whose gathered information in conjunction with their value system allows the surveyors the authority to act upon the bodies of the surveyed.

    John TaggJohn Tagg professor of art history at Binghamton, NY, author of Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field and The Burden of Representation Tate in ‘Burden of Representation’ notes that “Photography arrives on the sense with a particular authority to arrest, picture and transform everyday life; a power to see and record, a power of surveillance”. Surveillance is inextricably linked with notions of authority and power.

    A Historical Context

    The development of the use of surveillance images begins with the anthropological systems of classification drawn from the pseudo-sciences of EugenicsEugenics
    is the belief and practice which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population. Wikipedia
    and PhysiognomyPhysiognomy
    is the assessment of a person's character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face. Wikipedia
    ; It’s here that ideological framework emerges first between the recorded image and the systems of values and classifications.

    Early anthropological photography envisioned a seamless link between photographic image and appearance. A photograph was considered to actually be the image of the subject that it represented. The photographic image becomes interchangeable with the true appearance. This apparent reality of the photograph seemed to justify its application as a tool of classification in a system of physical differences, which was the obsession of the Eugenic recording of the body. The use of photographic recording in Eugenics began with the documentation of people seen as deviant. With Physiognomy considering behaviour as being determined from physical appearance; the fields merged under the umbrella of Social DarwinismSocial Darwinism
    emerging in the 1870s, theories applying biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. Wikipedia
    which allowed ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘natural selection’ to become the theoretical firmament. Clearly such notions as these are highly problematic - apart from the glaringly obvious error of assuming that a photographic image can be considered as evidence of unfitness, criminality or deviancy - such theories served to fuel and justify social and economic inequalities.

    It seems wildly superficial to give credence to theories of Physiognomy, Social Darwinism and Eugenics today. However, it is from the use of surveyed photographic images in these fields that the visual language developed for modern surveillance systems. It is the way certain styles of representation are given that render the subject as ‘deviant’ or ‘criminal’; Police ‘mugshots’ are a classic example of this process. Similarly, the ways in which a CCTV camera represents the subject activates the power system of assessing criminality. The styles that do this are, for example: ‘zooming in’ to close up on the subject; low definition digital images; infrared images; juxtaposing date and time codes with portraits and so on. Seen through surveillance cameras, the subject is immediately criminal.

    Police 'mugshots' are a classic example of how context and style can dictate meaning and imply criminality

    When a piece of surveillance footage is shown as evidence, juries can be seduced and defendants intimidated by evidence which is very powerfully suggestive of guilt. Such evidence may not stand up to closer scrutiny. The seductiveness of CCTV seems to stem from its voyeuristic nature, its empowerment of the viewer (we are given the eyes of ‘Big Brother’) and its much vaunted status as a panacea of crime.

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    NEXT: Surveillance//part 2: The State