Sunday, 22 May 2011

Big Brother is Watching YOU

Big Ben - the great clock tower of the Palace of Westminster in London - was striking the sixteenth hour when I emerged from a work conference in a building behind Westminster Abbey. A late afternoon sun cast a glorious glow over Parliament Square, and in the distance, the London Eye twinkled mischievously. It was a beautiful spring day, and the warm weather had brought the tourists out to play in the most politically charged area of London.



The square is the home of the most important state apparatuses - the Houses of Parliament(Legislature) to the east, Whitehall (Executive) to the north, the Supreme Court (Judiciary) to the west, and Westminster Abbey (the Church) to the south.

This is why when I was invited to said conference, I entertained visions of myself in a well-tailored power suit on Parliament Square, walking determinedly yet gracefully to my destination...you know, have that kind of look which would make people wonder what political office that glamorous young woman (ie. me) holds. Nevertheless, I was relieved to be told that the dress code was casual. Enter the ubiquitous jeans, and a generally more pleasant afternoon playing tourist myself, camera at the ready.

I was intrigued by the eclectic mix of politics and tourism, and the sunny weather which brought out a certain gaiety in the people milling around. All over the place, attentive security guards stood watch, their work made somewhat easier by the countless surveillance cameras littered about the place recording every move. London has over ten thousand state run cameras, but that day I wondered vaguely if all ten thousand were in that square. Ye gads and fishes, aren't we a highly surveilled society?!

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four , a novel which portrays the totalitarian tendencies of the government observing every thought and action of its people is the defining read of the surveillance society. It is the novel from which the term 'Big Brother' came. Nowadays we associate the term more with the reality television 'entertainment' of the same name. How ironic that the ‘Big Brother’ of the novel differs with the other Big Brother. This reality television experience feeds on the desire to be watched, in what is now considered to be ‘good’ television. In a role reversal, the watched now share the vision of the watchers, this time with their gaze on a small group of people in the Big Brother house.

Before photography revolutionized surveillance, there was Jeremy Bentham. I remember sitting in a media class at university and being fascinated to hear about this man who had a proposal for a prison called the 'Panopticon' in 1791. The arrangement of the Panopticon was such that the cells were designed in a circular structure with a tower which allowed warders to see all the prisoners without them (the prisoners) knowing the point from which they were being observed at any time. It meant that power was always visible, but unidentifiable.

But photography, considered a realist medium, has always been at the basis of western preoccupation with vision, and the association of vision with truth. Even though this is so, there has been a shift in its uses in surveillance, moving from the visual to the highly electronic. Surveillance is, if nothing at all, ambiguous, for its boundaries have gone beyond observing the criminal, as it now appears in many forms, and includes every member of the society. What is however common in all surveillance is that it is always linked to a specific purpose. In society, as workers, travellers, citizens, students, consumers etc, we are subject to some sort of observation, whether it is the supermarket monitoring the dietary choices of its customers, or the school looking at ways to manage its students. Surveillance has come to stay, and what's more, we all partake of it.

And because we see the camera as an apparatus of truth - something that registers the evidence of what has been - we continue to hold firmly to the belief that seeing is believing. But is that always right? In the wake of the London bombings in 2005, police surveillance of Jean Charles de Menezes, a man who was wrongly suspected of being a bomber, went horribly wrong, when it culminated in his shooting by the police. CCTV images had matched his description with the real suspect, and when the police shot him seven times in the head at Stockwell underground station they thought they were taking out one of the suspects. It was a fatal mistake, and an example of how surveillance is not a foolproof system of crime detection and prevention in society.

But whatever would we do without photography in today's world! When we travel to a foreign place, it is the everyday life of the people there that we want to capture in pictures, the supposedly ‘unseen’ aspect of what an average day involves, whereas ironically because we are documenting a reality that is not ours, the very act of ‘capturing’ life becomes a touristic move on our part. At those times life is inherently different in approach, simply because the location is new to us. And more often than not the sights we see constitute the ‘obvious’ tourist attractions – for example, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in Paris etc. Certainly, in our travels there are the more intangible moments that are essential to the experience as a whole. I read something on Freud’s theory of Das Unheimliche, literally the ‘un-home-like’, and usually translated as ‘The Uncanny’ which is the feeling of something being strangely familiar, especially when you're thousands and thousands of miles away from the territory you consider home.

As for my afternoon in Parliament Square...how revealing! I stood a fair distance away from a sour-faced security guard in front of the gates to No 10 Downing Street, and surreptitiously took a photo of him. I wanted to walk up to him, show him the image of himself, and declare in a grave femme fatale voice, 'This is a photo of me watching you watching me.'

He might not have been amused, but I would have been very tickled by it. However, I was too chicken to approach him..so I blew an insouciant kiss at the next security camera I saw instead. A girl's got to claim her victories SOMEwhere!

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