Taking a Closer Look at Surveillance Culture Through Photography

What right do governments, corporations, and individuals have to collect and retain information on your daily communications? What tools—both today and in the past—have been used to monitor your activities? What are the immediate and far-reaching effects?

These questions unite the nine bodies of work selected for the fall 2014 exhibition “Watching You, Watching Me.” This upcoming installment of our Moving Walls documentary photography series explores how photography has been used both as an instrument of surveillance and as a tool to document, expose, and challenge the impact of surveillance on civil liberties, human rights, and basic freedoms.

The projects were selected through an open-call process, and we were inspired by the range of ways documentary artists are tackling the challenge of using photography to visualize something that is both omniscient and covert. Many projects we received highlighted the technologies and mechanisms that enable surveillance, while others focused on the activities of governments, industries, and corporations that are creating and employing such tools. Some projects were international in scope, while others explored the theme from a very personal point of view.

There were a range of artistic approaches, from appropriating existing imagery (for example from historical archives, networked CCTV cameras, or Google Street View), to using surveillance-related technologies in the image-making process, and employing more traditional documentary language to capture fleeting historical events.

The nine artists and projects selected are as follows:

  • Edu Bayer, “Qaddafi Intelligence Room.”
 Bayer documents late Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s security headquarters in Tripoli, just a few days after it was abandoned when rebels stormed the capital.
  • Josh Begley, “Plain Sight: The Visual Vernacular of NYPD Surveillance.”
 Begley draws on AP-released documents to create a collage of photographs used by the New York Police Department’s Demographics Unit in its surveillance of Muslim-affiliated businesses and institutions.
  • Paolo Cirio, “Street Ghosts.”
 Cirio uses appropriated imagery of people captured on Google Street View to create street installations at the very sites where they were originally photographed.
  • Hasan Elahi, “Thousand Little Brothers.”
 After an erroneous tip linking the artist to terrorist activities led to a six-month-long FBI investigation, Elahi began to voluntarily monitor himself by photographing mundane details from his daily life and sending these images—now totaling nearly 70,000—to the FBI.
  • Andrew Hammerand, “The New Town.”
 Hammerand uses a publicly accessible networked CCTV camera in an anonymous midwestern American town to create images that reflect on issues of surveillance and privacy.
  • Mishka Henner, “Dutch Landscapes.”
 Henner appropriates censored Google Earth images of significant political, economic, and military locations to draw attention to the Dutch government’s attempts to prevent their own civic buildings from being monitored.
  • Simon Menner, “Images from the Secret Stasi Archives.” 
Menner presents images found in the East German State Security Service archives to reflect on how photography was used by the Stasi as a tool to train spies, conduct secret home searches, and track people’s movements.
  • Julian Roeder, “Mission and Task.” 
Roeder highlights the border surveillance system EUROSUR, which connects all border control systems of individual EU member states, allowing them to share and exchange information.
  • Tomas van Houtryve, “Blue Sky Days.” 
Reflecting on the changing nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare, van Houtryve uses a drone to create aerial photographs in the United States of the types of gatherings that are targeted in foreign air strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, as well as locations where drone use has been approved on American soil.

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Great! Thanks for sharing incredible work. Shall narrowly miss the exhibition.

This is sahra from afghanistan, i have some photo documentary from Argo ( tha place has earthquake ) 4 months ago, I would like to have exhibition to get support for those people. The photos are amazing, could you please support me in this case. Best sahra

Human rights should be highly considered in the above cases. In as much as people who for information gathering reasons use technology to get information should also be aware of invading privacies of others. One must be noted of any such investigations in searching for information before embarking on such acts. I must be aware that, the conversation between me and someone will be recorded or interview conversation will be recorded before granting me such interview. That's human right! You do not go about recording people or getting information without prior notice of the person except, in political reasons or dangerous moves unscrupulous person or group of persons are trying to then, you investigate to curb the situation. Or treasonable attempts or any bad habit that will affect humanity in a negative effect, you have right to do so, but, not in somebody's rights within the law in the country.


I wish to write on Edu Bayer's documentary which really show case of a good security photographs.

I am writing to inquire how you feel about Andrew Hammerand's work in relations to violating human rights? In several interviews posted online, he openly admits to accessing the camera he made pictures with through hacking methods. These are not publicly accessible cameras. It is important to distinguish the difference between publicly access vs. cameras that, through the lack of know-how, were compromised by the more technology-savvy. Is this not a grave ethical violation in your mind? And should it beg the question of unscrupulous methods of gaining imagery, more so, or at least tantamount, to that of public surveillance? In the spirit of OSF, I would imagine that you want work that questions public surveillance and not work that, through the action of the photographer, is towing this a questionable line of invading privacy. Thank you. I will send this as a written letter too.
Here are the links to his interviews:



Hi, Kit. Thanks for your thoughtful comments on Andrew Hammerand’s work. Indeed, it’s an issue that we discussed at length when considering this body of work for inclusion in the exhibition. To clarify, the camera that Andrew accessed was not “hacked” illegally, but is an unsecured camera that was accessed using readily available search parameters. The camera feed is live-streamed and accessible to the public through the town’s website; anyone who has a web browser can watch and control it. The artist states: “Part of my interest is specifically to point out that there are loopholes in systems of ‘security’ that allow actions like this to happen.” With all that in mind, we feel that the artist’s cooptation of an available surveillance tool raises important and provocative questions. We view his work as an artistic intervention that highlights an invasion of privacy that is already underway, and Andrew uses his art in order to bring this to light and foster critical thinking and dialogue about it. For this reason, we feel that this work makes an important contribution to the show. Indeed, the work raises difficult questions, but these are debates that we feel are an important aspect of the exhibition. Thank you for your comments, and we look forward to following the conversation that they have inspired.

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