It’s a quiet, sunny morning on Tuesday, Oct. 25. My morning coffee in hand, I scroll through my Facebook feed and stumble upon a post from my friend Connor Henderson, a fourth-year photography and art education major. Henderson posted about his recent project, an art installation featuring an assortment of zoomed-in portraits displayed prominently outside of SUNY New Paltz’s Humanities classroom building.
The kicker? None of Henderson’s subjects knew they were being photographed, nor did they know that their visages would later become part of the photography student’s most controversial project to date.
The project was part of an assignment for Henderson’s Photobooks and Illustration class, the artist said. As a multi-platform artist who approaches his work from a “critical feminist lens,” Henderson loves to make people question the things they take for granted through his art.
“In creating this piece, I was definitely trying to do exactly that,” Henderson said. “We all had to create installations involving the ideas of ‘public v.s. private’ and ‘surveillance,’ so the project itself was for a class, [but] the idea for the project and the concept behind it came from me.”
About a week prior to the installation, Henderson took “hundreds of photos” of students, faculty and other campus community members walking through the academic quad. Around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25, Henderson assembled the installation outside Humanities. He didn’t try to be discreet, he said. After all, the location is a highly public space outside the campus’s main academic building. Regardless, Henderson didn’t attract much attention during the setup process.
“Not one person asked me what I was doing,” he said.
Henderson didn’t obtain permission from any administrators or facilities staff to set up his installation. Prior to the assignment’s due date, the artist told his professor about the project, and the professor saw no issue with his plan. However, soon after Henderson and his classmates installed their artworks, university police alerted the class and the professor that special permissions are required to install art installations on campus. It’s something Henderson, his classmates and his professor plan to take into consideration for next time, he said.
Like many of us, Henderson wondered if “we truly have any privacy” in today’s hyper-surveilled world. Omnipresent security cameras, traffic light cameras and even cell phone cameras constantly capture still images and video footage of public spaces. It’s an uncomfortable and slightly Orwellian concept, sure, but Henderson believes it’s our reality.
“I feel like most people just don’t really realize how much surveillance we have in our society,” he admitted. “We really are always being watched.”
Dr. Rachel Somerstein, a visual culture scholar and assistant professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz, explores similar themes of privacy and surveillance in her digital media and journalism course called Picture Culture. According to Somerstein, surveillance is a deeply ingrained part of our societal order. The 18th-century concept of the panopticon encapsulates this idea. Popularized by French theorist Michel Foucault, the panopticon in a figurative sense is a simple concept.
“We’re all always being watched all the time, and we’re also always doing the watching,” Somerstein explained.
In a more literal sense, the panopticon is an architectural design with a central tower for authorities or people in power. The concept is the same, Somerstein said: authorities could watch anyone in the structure’s vicinity, but people being watched couldn’t tell when they were under scrutiny. It’s a method for control, Somerstein explained.
“There’s the potential that you’re always being watched,” she said. “You aren’t always being watched, but you might be being watched. And that’s what’s supposed to encourage ‘good behavior.’”
How does the panopticon hold up in the digital age? For one thing, the architectural panopticon is still a standard model for building design in some institutions, such as hospitals, prisons or schools. Meanwhile, Somerstein believes we’ve all internalized the concept of the panopticon, whether we realize it or not. The fear of being watched keeps us in line, reinforcing order and law in our society.
“It’s why we don’t run a red light, even in the middle of the night when there’s nobody on the road,” Somerstein said.
Like Henderson, Somerstein believes the core concept of a “surveillance society” is very much alive. After all, it’s nearly impossible to “disappear” from the public eye in a world filled with millions of iPhone snapshots and countless hours of security footage. Like the underlings stationed beneath a tower in an 18th-century panopticon, we just don’t always know if, how or when our actions are being watched or documented.
Bearing the panopticon in mind, it isn’t surprising that Henderson’s art installation elicited such a visceral reaction from spectators: the artist received multiple reports of subjects featured in the installation ripping down the photos and destroying the collective installation, he said.
“I assumed that people would probably be a bit shocked, confused and possibly curious,” Henderson said. “I honestly didn’t anticipate any type of reaction near the volume that I received. [It’s] really awesome, in my opinion, to have so many people talking about a piece of art I created.”
Despite his surprise at the intensity of the campus community’s reaction to his project, Henderson wasn’t at all upset by the response. He even received some angry messages from fellow students. Some people were “quick to jump to conclusions,” he said, especially since nothing he did as an artist breached any sort of privacy laws.
“There are actually very specific laws that protect photographers and artists and state that you can photograph anyone you want in public spaces, whether they want their photo taken or not,” he noted.
In fact, according to Somerstein, Henderson’s project is hardly unmarked territory: photographers who, like Henderson, documented people in public spaces have faced similar backlash from the people featured in their artwork.
“Each time [these cases were brought to court], the rulings were found in the photographer’s favor for the reason that you can take pictures in the United States of people in public space without asking,” Somerstein said. “It’s legally OK, [but] I think that it’s very provocative. It speaks to the fact … that there’s something more than a picture taken when you have your picture taken.”