2007 secret pictures
A public intervention—a pinhole camera will be used to surreptitiously photograph the activities that take place around the courts of lower Manhattan. A visual narrative of these images will be printed as a tabloid. The tabloid will be distributed to the public at the same location.
I write this on a computer that has a mini lens ready to snap and transmit a portrait of me at the push of a button. Most cell phones come with a camera as standard option. Low-resolution digital images freely crisscross the globe—occasionally there is an abrupt interruption. Take for example the reaction of the state to the transmission of photos of caskets of returning US soldiers or the Abu Ghraib snapshots. There was an immediate attempt to restrict the seeing of those pictures. The pulling of the images from the public domain, exemplify a swift decisive reaction by the panopticon or all-seeing state. Both of these image events of disclosure were possible because of the small digital camera. To the credit of the medium, once the cat is out of the bag it is impossible to vacuum clean—so great is the tendency to proliferate. As tensions increase, new restrictions on the originating source are put into place—for example, soldiers can no longer post images or videos on certain websites.
Restrictions on picture taking are increasingly commonplace, specifically since the events of 9-11 (itself animage event of enormous magnitude). Photographing tunnel entrances, bridges, reservoirs, government buildings are now restricted, though an attempt to forbid photography in the New York City subway failed. This trend is exemplified by the story of Pakistani-born Ansar Mahmood who was arrested in Upstate New York for posing for a souvenir snapshot, taken by a co-worker, with a water-treatment plant in the Catskill Mountains in the background. Amid the post-9-11 hysteria, employees of the plant had alerted police that a possible terrorist was photographing this vulnerable target. (He was ultimately deported on minor immigration charges although he held a green card and had substantial community support).
Upon entering the Federal Court at Foley Square in New York City all electronic devices, cell phone included, must be surrendered to insure that no recording takes place. The confidentiality of legal proceedings is protected and a place of power is secured. This restriction on recording, however, is one sided, as surveillance is omnipresent, not only in this setting but throughout the urban landscape where electronic eyes proliferate.
The private project—the small black box
Using a pinhole camera I propose to take pictures of the activities surrounding the court buildings of lower Manhattan—one of the most highly surveilled areas in the city. Although picture taking is not illegal, it is restricted in this area. And even where it is permitted the presence of a camera arouses suspicions. My picture taking is an attempt to deal with some of these contradictions. There will be no visible lens that reveals the presence of a recording device. A camera that looks like a matchbox is unlikely to attract attention. Although not illegal, this clandestine action carries with it an aura of illegality. The pinhole photograph has a distortion that flares out increasingly from the center due to the absence of a corrective lens. As the exposure time is long, at 1 to 2 seconds, human activities will tend to record as a blur, in contrast to the architecture that will remain visibly stable. The resulting image has noir quality that metaphorically evokes the subversive nature of the project.
I will stalk the perimeter capturing secret pictures using this unobtrusive and unrecognizable recording device—the ex-ray machines, the briefcases, the stacks of legal documents, the stairs that ascend, high pillars, the windowless buses at dawn, the media events. . . Because I cannot look through a viewfinder and quickly decide which image to shoot the pinhole remains a disinterested arbitrator. It captures what is visible to it. The photographic judgment of choosing the right moment is absent. I will return and repeat this activity till a poetic narrative of images emerges.
The public project—the tabloid
The visual narrative will be reproduced as a tabloid publication. The images will be accompanied by text that documents very objectively the time, place, and a description of the event that is photographed, absent editorializing or poetic content. The poetics is restricted to the visual record, a secret interruption of business as usual. The tabloid edition of 5,000 copies will be distributed by hand for free to the public in the area surrounding the court buildings where the images were taken. Distribution will continue until all copies are gone. I anticipate this will take about one to two weeks. This subjective interaction with the public will serve as a counterpoint to the impersonal and cold nature of the site.
This project poses a timely ethical question: should one have the right to record what one sees and to disseminate that information freely? It is provocative to engage in the act of photographing around the very place (the courts) where a challenge to the restrictions this question addresses would be arbitrated. secret pictures confronts the intimidating one-sided nature of surveillance by metaphorically staring back.