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Secret Histories | “Surveillance” Asks “Who Is Watching You?”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, presents “Surveillance,” a new exhibition that examines the many ways the camera has been used to spy.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Henri Cartier-Bresson, French (1908–2004). Brussels, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 14 3/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.1113.

Back in 1889, Oscar Wilde penned an essay called “The Decay of Lying” in which he famously observed, “Life imitates art.” This seems eerily true in the case of George Orwell’s 1984. As that year approached on the calendar, the buzz was thick. The Cold War was still raging strong and implications were—it’s them, not us.

Also: Secret Histories | “Covert Operations” Takes Us Inside a Brave New World

Then Apple dropped a Ridley Scott-directed commercial during the third quarter of the 1984 Super Bowl. It aired only once. With strong allusions to Orwell’s novel, it offered a white woman as liberator in a cold grey world, with the promise, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

Mishka Henner, Belgian (b. 1976). Staphorst Ammunition Depot, 2011. Inkjet print, 31 1/4 × 35 1/8 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2014.31.19.

Mishka Henner, Belgian (b. 1976). Staphorst Ammunition Depot, 2011. Inkjet print, 31 1/4 × 35 1/8 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2014.31.19.

What they failed to acknowledge was the introduction of personal computers would cut two ways. While offering a new mode for creation and communication, it also became the perfect mode of surveillance, inviting Big Brother right into your home. Although Apple has fought the Justice Department’s order to help the FBI unlock iPhones, it provides a platform on which telecommunications companies like Google, YouTube, and Yahoo (which was exposed last week) spy on its users on behalf of the NSA and FBI.

Just this Tuesday, the ACLU revealed that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram sent feeds to Geofeedia, a Chicago-based company that delivers real-time surveillance to 500 law enforcement agencies. After being exposed, Twitter announced it was suspending Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data, while Facebook, which owns Instagram, stated that Geofeedia was accessing its data improperly, and threatened termination if the improper use continues.

But surveillance is not new; it has always been part of the game. We would like to believe that we are protected under the Fourth Amendment, which asserts, “The rights of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Unknown maker, American. Rochester, New York, 1886. Albumen print, 5 5/8 × 5 5/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.340

Unknown maker, American. Rochester, New York, 1886. Albumen print, 5 5/8 × 5 5/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.340

However, under the USA Freedom Act, which renews three parts of the Patriot Act including Section 215, which allows for secret court orders to collect “tangible things,” a description that is virtually limitless in scope. Furthermore, it allows the government can collect the phone records of virtually every person in the United States—calling into question the very name of the Act. Just who is free in the USA?

This is what makes the Apple ad so misleading. The more we buy into technology, the further at risk we become, exposing countless aspects of our life, our habits, and our thoughts—as well as those of our family, friends, and colleagues. If the medium is the message, the message is, “Play at your own risk.”

Surveillance, a new exhibition explores the way in which technology has been used as a path to shadow people’s lives over the past 150 years. Currently on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO, through January 29, 2017, the exhibition focuses on the way photography has been used as the all-seeing eye. Featuring works dating from 1864 through 2014, Surveillance features works that explore spying, photography of the forbidden, military surveillance, happing satellites, and drones. The exhibition also offers examples of counter-surveillance that either prevent being seen or surveille the watchers.

Roger Schall, French (1904–1985). Taking the subway, ca. 1941. Gelatin silver print, 7 7/16 × 7 1/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Jeffrey and Polly Kramer, 2007.52.4.

Roger Schall, French (1904–1985). Taking the subway, ca. 1941. Gelatin silver print, 7 7/16 × 7 1/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Jeffrey and Polly Kramer, 2007.52.4.

Surveillance is an excellent reminder of how much things have changed since 1984, when it seems absurd if not outrageous to imagine police cameras posted on every corner, watching us. That was the stuff of totalitarian regimes—it could never happen here. And yet it did, and many have embraced it with their entire heart. They’ve been lead to believe that the “good guys” are protecting us from the bad and that anything the “good guys” say is fact. They believe the “good guys” have a right to violate the Fourth Amendment. Because “terrorism’ (as though the U.S. government is wholly innocent).

Looking at the photographs of Roger Schall, formerly a French news reporter who secretly recorded the Nazi occupation of Paris beginning in June 1940, we discover the links between all totalitarian regimes: the government’s belief that its citizens cannot be trusted, and every aspect of their daily life should be recorded.

Just in case…


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.