The Autopanopticon and the New Hot and Cool

Still from CNN's Boston Marathon bombing coverage on April 16th featuring camera phone video made by a runner

[Editor's Note: This is long, but I'm not going to make posts in parts anymore to avoid arguments arising over half-presented material.]

The last several months I've been talking by Skype with fellow photographer Paul Kwiatkowski every week or two as he travels the United States by car. These conversations between MedellĂ­n and backroad motels across the States - frequently at night, always with beers in hand - have generated a number of conversational threads on photography that will be considered here over the coming months.

This post will raise the idea that we have become each other's watchmen through camera phones in a way as powerful as surveillance cameras and consider how behavior is modified and shaped not only through being observed, but also through the shame of negative social feedback when video and stills of "bad behavior" are released, showing the camera phone as an increasingly powerful tool for social control. It will consider how cell phone cameras in everyday life also help enable what Bret Easton Ellis has termed our post-Empire culture. Finally, we'll look at the visual unfolding of the Boston Marathon bombings as a case study of contemporary cell phone camera culture as a way to test the ideas presented and as a way to revisit and suggest updates to David Campany's fantastic 2003 essay "Safety in Numbness."


I'm sitting in a park on the side of the building where I live as I sketch out notes for this post. Looking around me at the dozens of people here, three are currently taking photographs right now, all with camera phones. I'm definitely in the background of one of them, possibly a second. Three more people have their smart phones out and are dicking around with them, the potential to take an image in their hands. A woman seems to be scrolling through her phone, but it's pointed right at me. She might be taking a picture of me. I can't tell.

A few minutes later, a heavy-set twentysomething year-old guy walks by with a prosumer dSLR around his neck. He looks awkward - and not just because he's wearing long black socks with shorts. He's carrying a camera that suddenly seems a burden in comparison to the sleek phones that can be operated with a single hand; its strap cuts across his neck and he's sweating which probably has nothing to do with the camera and more to do with his weight and the high sun, but it completes the point.

The two fixed security cameras behind me, attached to the left and right of the back entrance of my building, begin to seem superfluous in this environment. With over five billion camera phones in the world and with sDLR sales numbers starting to contract, we are increasingly creating and participating in a public environment in cities that moves us towards self-vigilance by camera phones: an Autopanopticon.

From the site zerohedge

Jeremy Bentham designed the original Panopticon in the late 18th-century. The tower-centric design allows for a watchman to have an observation angle on all inmates without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not at any one moment, meaning that they must act as though they are.

The camera phone's growing universality, noninvasive size and multifuncionality – we're not totally sure if it's a camera right now that's pointed at us or a phone - gives us the sense that others might be photographing or recording us almost anywhere in the contemporary public civic space. The ever-increasing recording in both still images and video of daily life via ubiquitous web-connected camera phones of increasing quality leads us towards a level of previously unimaginable mutual observation. Observation changes and conforms behavior. We all become both the prisoners and the watchmen of the Autopanopticon. We're not sure anyone is filming or taking a photograph, but they might be, so we'd better be very careful of being seen in the park with our illicit lovers, picking our noses or selling dime bags.

From Facebook feed of my friend Reed Herrick

The level of documentation will continue to rise with the sensor quality of the camera phones, both because of the increasing information available through them - see the recent news that eye reflections in higher end camera phone images can now be used to identify the photographer (and more) - and by making dSLRs redundant by equaling them in quality. This in turn makes us ever more dependent on this noninvasive and multifunciontal tool which lends itself to the Autopanopticon perfectly. Surveillance cameras will continue to cover more and more of our cities, but the larger trend in surveillance is between each other.

Video still from Michael Richards' Laugh Factory rant


Behavior is modified and shaped not only through being observed, but also through the shame of negative social feedback when video and stills of bad behavior are released on a national and local stage. This both corroborates the effectiveness of the Autopanopticon and proves the camera phone as an increasingly powerful tool for social control. A quick review of just a few national news events of the past few years created by camera phones: the racist rant of Michael Richards – better known as Kramer from Seinfeld - at a comedy club in New York City, Christian Dior designer John Galliano's anti-Semitic tirade at a Parisian restaurant and Toronto Mayor Rod Ford’s drunken, obscenity-spiked Jamaican patois video. Mitt Romney's 47% comments fit the conversation as well, although they were recorded with a Canon. Beyond creating news by capturing actions that otherwise would go unreported or be denied without evidence, occasionally cell phone images ARE the event: Anthony Weiner sexts!

Anthony Weiner, from TMZ.com
The camera phone plays the same role in local news. A two-minute Google search produces a camera phone still of a flasher used to help police search for him, the story of a camera phone still of a kidnapper's license plate taken by women who by chance ran into him again after he had tried to abduct them a month earlier and a murder in Los Angeles whose suspects were apprehended based on bystander camera phone video evidence.

If we lived in a fully realized Autopanopticon, one would imagine plummeting crime rates and other large changes in public behavior due to an internalized sense of observation and through the observation system's social feedback. There's no real overwhelming evidence to do so. The system is in development, not at a conclusion, and human behavior is too complicated and irrational to hypothesize any completely rational and predictable system. We haven't arrived and hopefully never will arrive at Michael Foucault's claim that, "Visibility is a trap." (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 200) What I want to do is bring together an existing set of separate facts and ideas under one label to generate a conversation that helps us to understand the direction of the currents in society to consider them and to educate ourselves.

Michael Beasley's Twitter picture, weed and
bong bottom right corner


Going back to news and celebrities, camera phones give us access to observing the everyday life of celebrities, advancing Bret Easton Ellis' notion of post-Empire in two ways. First, camera phones give us the reality, the "truth" that we crave from our stars today. They give us their dark moments, their rants, their naked bodies - recorded by themselves or by others - and in turn this generates the inevitable mea culpas that gives celebrities the chance to do illicit things and then come clean, a staple element of post-Empire.

Second, the camera phone, by enabling the direct and leveled visual relationship between fan and celebrity via Instagram, Twitter and other social media sites where celebrities can publish images instantly moves today's celebrity beyond the hierarchical distance from their fans created by Empire stars like Tom Cruise and Madonna. This creation of transparency enabled by camera phones and social media contrasts sharply with the blown-up mythologies Empire celebrities create around themselves that depend on distance from their fans.

As a personal example, much to my wife's dismay and confusion, I like basketball. One major basketball site has a player social media gallery. I can scroll through the Instagram images of my favorite players sitting on beaches and see the expensive shirts they buy and occasionally see them get in trouble when they post pictures of their new tattoo and forget that they are doing so in a room with a bong and weed in the background. It's daily reality, my/our post-Empire craving. This case also points us to one more element of the Autopanopticon: we don't just police each other through observation, but ourselves when we turn the lens around.

Screen grab of Soulja Boy's Twitter feed (@souljaboy)

We forget, sometimes, that Ashton Kutcher or Lady Gaga aren't sending those Tweets and photographs and videos and status updates to us, but to 15 or 40 million people. People hold out hope of a direct interaction with stars (except for one with Anthony Weiner): a retweet or mention or maybe even a follow on Twitter. They level with us and we're thus on the level with them; celebrity becomes a shared platform we participate in and delude ourselves about our status in life with.

Still from CNN's Boston Marathon bombing coverage on April 16th featuring camera phone video made by a spectator


I was in Florida visiting my mom when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred and watched the events unfold on CNN. Looking back at those five days between the bombing and the capture of the second suspect, we can see both the current evolved state and functioning of the Autopanopticon as well as consider the changing roles of amateur and professional video and photography in photojournalism since David Campany wrote his essay "Safety in Numbness" in 2003. As a preface, this is a limited case study based on rewatching CNN's news coverage of the bombings and limited to this event for this post. A larger reconsideration of Campany's article remains to be written.

The horrific events were replayed over and over on April 15th, 2013 in a professional video recorded by Steve Silva of Reuters. By April 16th, amateur camera phone videos and stills made by runners and spectators played as much of a role in the news as Silva's video. The videos were augmented by pro stills from Getty and archival images pulled from Facebook of the victims.

On April 17th we began to see the above supplemented by surveillance stills, many taken from the Lord & Taylor department store's surveillance cameras and also amateur videos from iReport, CNN's citizen journalism initiative. The fourth day after the bombings, April 18th, included surveillance video and stills from surveillance video as well as archival photographs of the suspects taken from websites once the suspects had been identified.

Still from CNN's Boston Marathon bombing coverage on April 19th featuring a tweet from the
Boston Police Department

By the 19th, the mix was complete: a man's Tweeted camera phone still of gunshots piercing a calendar on his wall near where the police had engaged in a battle with the second suspect, surveillance stills, live video from helicopters and ground cameramen, snapshots of victims and the suspects from various online sites, screen grabs of Boston Police department Tweets, amateur videos of the blast, professional videos of the blast, pro stills from the race and moving 3D graphics of the crime scene.

Looking first at the bombings as a case study of the Autopanopticon, this unexpected and random moment had been photographed and filmed by average citizens from all angles and these still images and videos began appearing on CNN less than 24 hours after the event. The FBI eventually looked at 13,000 videos and 120,000 photographs of the area of the bombings being made right before, during and after the event. The article linked to in that sentence doesn't break that number down into pro, amateur, surveillance, etc., but we can assume it includes significant numbers of all. Grant Fredericks, a forensic video analyst at the FBI National Academy, spoke about the coverage in the days after the bombing and before the capture of the suspects: "If you look at events in Boston, how many people were down at the site for setup or cheering on racers? Hundreds of thousands. And how many of those people had cameras? Practically everyone…There are hundreds of hundreds of still photos and videos of the suspect and police don't know quite how to get at it. But it’s there, guaranteed."

Obviously a marathon is an incredibly saturated camera environment, but it highlights through the extreme the more common. An average day in the park - as I started this post with - doesn't create the same level of coverage, but does increasingly create more. Case in point: not one, but several people happened to be pointing their camera phones at the sky in Chelyabinsk, Russia and filmed a falling meteor. The direct 911 and police department phone and text lines recently established from New York City to Chicago for sending in videos and stills of crimes in progress or from events - like the marathon bombings - where crimes occur also show we have arrived at a moment where there's a reasonable chance any space at any moment will be documented.

Sports Illustrated magazine cover, April 22, 2013


I would like to finish by revisiting David Campany's essay "Safety in Numbness" by way of the marathon bombing media coverage. In Campany's essay, simplifying here, he argues that video replaced still photography as breaking news beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the early 1970s as video cameras became standardized in journalism. Still photography in response has adopted a 'cool' position of reflection in the aftermath of events and ceded the roles of breaking news, recording action and documenting the moment to video. ('Cool' is a term he borrows from Peter Wollen.)

Campany writes:
Over the last few decades, it has become clear that the conception of events was supplanted by video and then dispersed in recent years across a variety of media technologies. In this situation, photographers often prefer to wait until the noise has died down and the event is over. The still cameras are loaded as the video cameras are packed away.  The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event, but in the aftermath of video. What we see first 'live' or at least in real time on television might be revisited by a photography that depicts stillness rather than freezing things.
That was 11 years ago. How have things changed in the radically different technological world in which we live today? How has the advent of cell phone culture and amateur video and photography changed Campany's equation?

For now, let me sketch out an initial rethinking of his ideas through the media unfolding of the marathon bombings and propose a redemarcation of Campany's 'hot' and 'cool' into a three-tiered system of - why not? - 'hot,' 'warm' and 'cool.'

Looking through the coverage of the marathon bombings discussed above, we see professional video played a large role at first. The looping clip made by Silva repeated extensively during the first day. Pro and amateur photographs and amateur videos began airing within the first 24-hours. The 'hot' coverage during the five-day manhunt mixed professional and amateur video and photographs continually from the second day onwards.

I would place a line between this 'hot' media coverage that begin during the first 24 hours and the second wave, the 'warm' media response, which would include surveillance video and surveillance stills which by their nature take time to review and release based on the investigation focusing on targeted suspects. A second element of warm media coverage would also include short-term reflection pieces, such as the now famous Sports Illustrated magazine of April 22nd, above, featuring the image that has become most associated with the marathon bombings and articles such as "Terror Yet Again," by S.L. Price, which is subtitled: "Tragedy has struck our games before the Boston Marathon. So why did the explosions on Monday feel scarier than the others?"

Lastly in the redrawn system comes 'cool' images, the long-term reflections, those that digest and look as much at the larger cultural context for the events as at the event itself. A photographer friend showed me not too long ago the beginnings of a personal photographic project based around the marathon bombings. These projects, belonging generally more to the documentary and art worlds than to photojournalism, complete a cultural digestive cycle of an event.

The new triad 'hot,' 'warm' and 'cool' no longer breaks quite as neatly along Campany's original lines of video is 'hot,' still photography is 'cool,' but they do maintain a relationship to the original scheme. In the marathon bombings, the 'hot' role of breaking the event does indeed belong to professional video of the event, in this case to Silva. While it took somewhere around a day for CNN to post amateur videos and also pro and amateur stills of the marathon, one can imagine that 24 hours will shortly seem an eternity. It already sounds very long, actually.  During the continued 'hot' news of the manhunt for the suspects, pro and amateur, video and still all mixed in the coverage.

Furthermore, the Boston Marathon bombing, by being represented visually by professional video first, I believe actually represents a remnant of a past era in terms of media coverage. The first person to make the first images of an event is today more likely to be an amateur than a professional and they are already almost exclusively turning to a device that allows them to create both video and still photography. This is a major shift since Campany wrote his essay which is based in the arrival of professional, portable video cameras to photojournalism.

Camera phones have evolved into a first-wave tool for photojournalism since the London subway bombings of 2005 when amateurs captured events via camera phone stills that professionals weren't on hand to make images of. The decision of an amateur to record a video or take a snapshot is based in the nature of the event, the nature of the person and their skill and familiarity with their phone. They might make a video of a fire, a still of a body, a video of a crime in progress, a still of a license plate. That quick decision to record or take a still doesn't follow the strict order of video first as in Campany's essay.

In summary, Campany's framework stands, but needs reworking and subtlety in today's new technological world and era of amateur recording and citizen journalism. Video and still photography interweave across the triad, being top-heavy with video and bottom-heavy with stills, but not fitting any attempt to singularly order them. Moving beyond the facts of the visual unfolding of the marathon, the new 'hot' of breaking news blends professional video with amateur video and amateur stills. 'Warm' introduces surveillance video and stills, professional stills and quick, short reflective pieces along with archival stills from Facebook and other online sites. 'Cool' remains a long-term reflective category which lends itself to still photography, but would also include video work in terms of documentaries revisiting events.

Camera phones will continue to revolutionize observation, for better or worse this article does not pretend to consider. They create an environment of increased auto-surveillance - of others and also of ourselves, of everyday people and of celebrities - that affects our daily behavior. When behavior becomes aberrant, we also see how camera phones work in real time to understand, disseminate and sometime help solve the realities of a media event, redefining Campany’s 'hot' and 'cool' photography in the process.