My current photography project explores issues of privacy and surveillance through street photography in Times Square. I thought of Times Square as metaphor for the American Dream - desire for fame, fortune, and love. The photos (although current) begin with the old Times Square of consumerism and sex, then depict “Disneyfication" and after 9/11, securitization.
The New York Times noted, Times Square "used to be [a] place to lose yourself in the thrilling anonymity of a crowd, to find yourself reflected in the eyes of strangers." No longer.
Certainly the issue of privacy is not a new concern. The conceptual photographer Martha Rosler reacted (1975) to exploitative documentaries of vulnerable people to create "ART" by shooting an entire series on Bowery alcoholics without a single photo of any person, alcoholic or not. More recently (2001) the subject of a Times Square photo sued street photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia saying his privacy rights (and a religious prohibition against graven images) were violated. The man lost. If you're in public you're fair game. (Review of book "Unfamiliar Streets")
What does privacy mean when a photo can be uploaded, processed by facial recognition software, and matched to online and real world activities the better to target us for merchandising... or, to "surveil" us to reveal "suspicious" intent in constitutionally protected activities? A recent NYTimes book review says, ‘[the]...extraordinary evolution of surveillance came from government and market together acting as a shepherd without the consent of the sheep. But if we are watched more than we realize, and more than we would like, it is also true that we have acquired an irrepressible eagerness to watch the lives of others. We pay to be the spectators of our own loss of privacy.”
Everybody and everything is looking. Every tourist carries a smartphone to take selfies. Every corner has multiple security cameras. The signs themselves ask, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING DOWN THERE?" Masked, and unlicensed, cartoon characters are both an alien menace to society and plucky immigrant entrepreneurs, seeking to .... OTOH, one of the biggest businesses in Times Square, Walgreens wants to become an "alien" i.e. re-incorporate outside the US to avoid taxes. Who is the bigger menace?
So how do you explore the issue of "privacy" without being exploitative yourself? And how do you make it "ART"? Humorously. I hope the combination of cartoon characters and “anonymized” tourists taking selfies while being observed by security cameras is enough to at least provoke discussion.
I also initially thought that by blurring people’s faces I was providing them wih a least a measure of protection, from me at least. I’m much too late on that. Another artist has been showing images taken by security cameras in the Square and elsewhere in New York. How did he obtain them? By accessing the presumably unencrytped wireless routers installed by “security” companies with his smartphone. Don’t you feel safer now?
Shall we equip everyone with a "face scrambler"? But then you would have give up the convenience of your cell phone with it’s built in gps as well. [That’s another story: NYTimes “How Companies Learn your Secrets”]. And, duh, to the NSA, concern with privacy itself is suspicious, so accessing the link above labelled “suspicious” might subject you to NSA deep surveillance.