We heard four personal presentations about each of the panellists’ work. Baker took us through the curatorial process of his recent show Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, and made some fascinating observations about the changing relationship between artist, surveillance, and image. He suggested that common to many images in the show, from the earliest to the most contemporary, was a desire to ‘catch the city when it isn’t looking’—a suggestion that posits the artist as spy or observer and the city as a singular, yet amorphous, entity. Baker also pointed out a growing trend among more contemporary artists to expose surveillance, and render visible the often invisible technologies through which we watch one another. These kinds of images create a space in which we can participate in thinking about the infrastructures and architectures of surveillance.
Katy McGahan and Sue Woods spoke to us about their roles in preserving films worthy of heritage retention for the Public Records Office. The BFI acts as a public-access service for the Central Office of Information under legislation that states selected films must be observed, catalogued and preserved. Sue Woods is directly involved in this archiving process. Katy McGahan also spoke of her interest in the history of films used as evidence in courts of law. We were shown a clip from the very first of these films (aptly entitled Evidence) from 1935.
We were then introduced to Neil Paterson and his work for the Met. Police Historical Collection. Paterson produced a series of photographs held in his collection (which includes over eighteen-thousand objects), and, in keeping with our interest in objects, distributed a policeman’s jacket from the 1860s; examples of truncheons; a clacker (used to raise the alarm before the use of radio); and a sword. He gave us a brief history of the collection and explained some of the problems faced by localised collections in preserving their artefacts. I was particularly fascinated by the incidental ways objects and photographs specific to the history of the police gave us so much insight into the ‘everyday’ life of London. Paterson told us this was true across most of the collection—for example, their records about food legislation between the wars gives a great deal of insight into the nation’s diet at that time.
I was excited by two themes that ran through all four of our panellists’ presentations and dominated our discussion. The first was the application of self-surveillance. Baker suggested many visitors to his exhibition were concerned with the ethics of the show—one of our questions to him asked what kind of moral issues he faced in the curatorial process—and many of the images surveyed surveillance technologies. Visitors to the exhibition were even given the opportunity to survey the hidden cameras and surveillance technologies that may survey them. McGahan and Woods referred to the self-censorship of the National Records collection, which until 2000, was subject to a thirty-year period of non-disclosure. Paterson provided us with information about the police force’s self-censorship in the monthly bulletin ‘Police’s Orders.’ Any officer caught committing an offence while on duty would be publicly reprimanded through the Orders, with their punishment duly announced, too.
The concept of self-surveillance intrigued me. ‘Surveillance’ carries with it connotations of state-operated control and force—even irrationality. Jann Matlock, in her introduction to the evening, suggested we think about surveillance in a more ambivalent way. In French, surveillance means ‘to keep a watch over.’ Parents might ‘keep a watch over’ their children in an act of surveillance that is less politically-charged than a state ‘keeping a watch over’ its citizens. How can we, then, think about the self-surveillance of institutions like the Metropolitan Police, or the volunteered self-surveillance of visitors to the Tate Modern? Are these instances of self-surveillance evidence of a widespread and public paranoia? Or is self-surveillance an expression of our desire to ‘keep a watch over’ ourselves?
Our desire to look and our fear at being looked at was the theme of my second point of interest: the legality of the image. Baker told us the gallery took the advice of a legal team before assembling the exhibition and thought about the ramifications of people looking, as well as being looked at. McGahan and Woods described to us the legislation governing the selection of films they archived, and the practices that dictated the conditions in which the films were kept and viewed. Paterson mentioned a recent change in legislation that prevented officers from taking photographs while going about their work.
The legality of an image and its potential status as evidence determines the ways it can be publicly displayed. Why, I wonder, are we so anxious about photographic or filmic representations of the everyday? Any numbers of people see us walking down a busy city street. Why should we think differently about people seeing a photographic representation of that event? Simon Baker proposed that it was the potential misuse of our images that created so much anxiety. He suggested that we become vulnerable when someone else assumes ‘ownership’ of our images through taking our photographs. Paterson added that a photograph can only narrate a specific moment in time and fails to provide evidence of action. There is a great deal of importance in thinking about what photographs were not taken of an event. How, then, does this affect our understanding of photographs and films as evidence? In light of these ideas, can we argue that the photograph has any legal status as evidence at all?