Pics or It Didn't Happen: The New Crisis of Connected Cameras

From celebrity nudes to Ray Rice’s domestic abuse to the ISIS bombings, an unresolved debate looms behind some of our biggest ongoing news stories.

Ahmed Saad / Reuters

In days or weeks, when the United States again drops bombs on the Islamic State, it will commence its first war shaped and driven by networked photography—the twinned phenomena of ubiquitous, Internet-connected cameras to take pictures and screens to view them. The gruesome video of ISIS militants executing U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff seems to have upended American public opinion, and now even almost-isolationist politicians have embraced intervention abroad.

On August 19, ISIS posted a video of journalist James Foley’s murder to YouTube. Links to the entire video of Foley’s murder spread though Twitter in minutes. Even now, though YouTube quickly took the video down, though institutional journalists quickly stopped sharing it, even though Twitter has systematically suspended accounts sharing images of Foley’s death, the video remains available.


And it almost didn’t matter, by then. Stills from the Foley execution video had appeared on newspapers, websites, and TV. They popped up on Facebook feeds. Americans saw his face, his shaved head. They learned of the Islamic State’s first American victim.

The news—the images—penetrated the dense, complex U.S. media sphere. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll completed earlier this week, 94 percent of Americans followed at least some coverage of the executions. Fifty-nine percent said they had sought out “a lot” of coverage of the killings.

And public opinion began to change. According to the same poll, 61 percent of Americans think military action against ISIS in Syria is “in the national interest.”

We are now planning such action. The President has addressed us about such action, despite the fact that, according to The New York Times yesterday, “American intelligence agencies have concluded that [ISIS] poses no immediate threat to the United States.”

Even if the NBC/WSJ poll biases respondents toward an affirmative answer, the turn in American public opinion is nothing short of astounding. And as pundit after pundit decries the ISIS bombing as driven by politics and emotion, we can guess why: This is the power of the image in the global network.

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A woman cries during the cremation ceremony of Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk in the country's capital. (Samrang Pring/Reuters)

Right now, almost every major news story turns on a single set of unresolved ethical questions: What should we do about the new proliferation of cameras? What should we do when the images they capture wind up on the Internet?

It is a debate about a distinctly new technological phenomenon, and we can see aspects of it everywhere: from the imminent war against ISIS to the leaked nude images of female celebrities; from the proposal of police body-cams to the NFL’s treatment of domestic abuser Ray Rice.

I’ve been thinking about questions like these since at least January, through work on the new crop of startups all making Internet-enabled, Earth-observing satellites. But I was reminded of it Wednesday night, when Matt Pearce, the Los Angeles Times journalist who published some of the best reporting from Ferguson, saw a commonality among these disparate stories.

Here are his tweets. He begins by talking about Tuesday’s Associated Press report that the NFL had seen film of running back Ray Rice knocking his then-girlfriend, now-wife Jamay Palmer unconscious in an elevator, but his scope quickly widens.

Pearce is exactly right, though I think the nascent area of debate here extends far beyond video. We’re, all of us, watching—and participating in—a cultural debate on the consequences and import of ubiquitous, Internet-connected photography. This debate is the product of a world in which 1.5 billion more people have access to cell phones than have access to toilets.

It’s a set of questions with implications both intimate and existential: Its eventual resolution will inform how we communicate with our loved ones and how we go to war.

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Andrew Burton/Reuters

Even the photography world is just beginning to name the phenomenon. Earlier this year, the designer and photographer Craig Mod detailed a transition he could see happening in practical photography. Just as he had once changed his equipment, moving from Fuji film to a Nikon digital SLR, he was now increasingly reaching for his iPhone.

“In the same way that the transition from film to digital is now taken for granted,” he writes:

the shift from cameras to networked devices with lenses should be obvious. While we’ve long obsessed over the size of the film and image sensors, today we mainly view photos on networked screens—often tiny ones, regardless of how the image was captured—and networked photography provides access to forms of data that go beyond pixels. This information, like location, weather, or even radiation levels, can transform an otherwise innocuous photo of an empty field near Fukushima into an entirely different object.

Mod coins the phrase “networked lens” for this kind of device. Objects with a networked lens cease even to be cameras anymore; often, they’re just nodes in the network (a smartphone, for instance) that can sense light. His piece’s title? “Goodbye, Cameras.”

Networked lenses can be emancipatory. Some of my favorite photographic projects have been shot with cell phone cameras. In July, the novelist Teju Cole and the designer Jer Thorpe worked together to create The Time of the Game, an online art project built around the experience of watching, as a planet, the World Cup final. Cole asked his Twitter followers to send in photos of their TV, then assembled them into a moving, global document of the common event.

“It becomes an insight into other people’s lives in a weird sort of way,” Cole told me at the time. “I liked all the photos, even the bad ones. There were a lot of photos with people’s feet in them. So many of them were completely unguarded insights into the lives of others.”

And networked photography undergirds some remarkable software. Instagram, Snapchat, and Tinder all experiment with and exploit different aspects of networked lenses.

Networked lenses have, in short, marvelous potential. But cameras that are everywhere and connected to everything else have graver consequences, too—consequences we’re just beginning to suss out.

And I think it’s this, the import and ethics of networked lenses, that we’re wrestling with in story after story. Networked images are simply different than the products of film cameras. They’re easier to edit and slipperier to steal. Networked pictures get away from you, via black hat Torrenting, social media drag-and-dropping, or illicit iCloud downloading.

And even if not every lens in every story is truly networked, we’re still talking about the same technological advances. The smartphone camera is part of a global proliferation of photography, generally. The cheap sensor in your flip phone and the cheap sensor in your surveillance camera are, if not twins, then cousins.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes a photo with his phone while another takes position behind sandbags in July 2013. (Muzaffar Salman/Reuters)

Networked lenses require further serious thinking, but here are some questions that to me seem particularly unresolved. We only have the beginning of provisional propositions here, and analogies that we’re struggling to extend and apply, but here are some key questions.

What should you watch? This summer alone, it hasn’t been hard to find digital images or video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer unconscious; of masked ISIS militants executing not only James Foley but also Steven Sotloff; of St. Louis Police shooting and killing mentally ill Kajieme Powell; of Michael Brown’s lifeless body; and of the bodies of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 victims.

In each of those cases, I have seen exhortations not to watch the video, not to look at the images.

Sometimes these appeals are argued from a place of respect. “The intent of the ISIS video is to strip James Foley of his humanity, to turn him into a symbol,” writes Margaret Eby. “We can pay tribute to him best by refusing to participate in the twisted one-act play, this allegory that his killers have scripted for us.”

Sometimes this respect becomes a call for consent: Did Jamay Palmer permit the video of her abuse to become public? If not (and it sure seems not), then the average viewer shouldn’t see it.

And sometimes these entreaties are paired with an appeal to the viewer’s mental health. Not only should you abstain from watching a video because it’s disrespectful to the victim, but you should also avoid it because it’s bad for you. Watch too many of these—watch even just one—and you will be worn down, made a little less hopeful. Yes, it’s your duty to know about the monstrosities committed by humans, but you risk losing something vibrant in yourself if you watch a document of every new one.

I’ve seen all of these arguments sketched by different readers—but I’ve seen all of them contested, too.

How should the media treat the products of networked lenses? In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and executed. Film of the murder was uploaded online, but, as Eby writes, that was “before the reign of social media, when images and videos did not automatically embed in your timelines, unbidden.” (The Internet as a whole was just much slower then too, and video content more time-consuming to obtain and download.)

Still, some journalists made the video available. “This is the the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I've ever seen,” wrote Stephen Mindich, the publisher of alt-weekly the Boston Phoenix, before he linked to the video.

This year, New York tabloids placed images from the beginning of the Foley video on their front-cover. Even The New York Times embedded a still. Should they have? Just yesterday, The Intercept’s Peter Maass argued that he thought more Americans should watch the execution videos in their entirety.

And this goes beyond snuff films, too: Should the media show images of Michael Brown’s body? Should it screen-cap Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer? Should it embed Instagrams of Flight 17 victims?

If not, should it give readers a way to access these videos? Or are we unwise to ask these questions: Perhaps films like these should always be handled case-by-case. Yesterday, a roommate of mine said he thought images from the Foley video should be shown, but not any that depicted the murder weapon.

A Jewish boy lifting his hand to prevent a Palestinian woman from taking his picture, near an Israeli police checkpoint in Hebron in the West Bank, in April 2012 (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

What do the product of networked lenses do, once you add them to a situation? We know something about the violence the American press should and shouldn't depict—there have long been rules, however loose, about those sorts of things. But we know less about how to handle and assess the consequences of showing, or not showing, those images when they’re available elsewhere. Are we preparing to bomb ISIS because of the horror of the images of the Foley and Sotloff murders? Should the press account for that somehow?

Or return again to the NFL’s suspension of Ray Rice. Though it was public knowledge that Rice knocked his girlfriend unconscious, he was only suspended two games for it. But he received an indefinite suspension once TMZ released video of the incident. Why is that—because everyone could see his violence now? Because the assault was shown to be as bad as it was?

What may different kinds of people do with a networked lens? What should they do? I’m thinking of two different events here, both since July.

The first: Black protesters in Ferguson were barred by cops of taking pictures of arrests. The First Amendment protects citizens’ right to film cops.

The second: Recent security breaches have allowed users to steal photos from various female celebrities, a tranche which included nude pictures they had taken of themselves. On Twitter, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton tossed off:

This struck me (and many others) as almost victim-blaming: Shouldn’t the real injunction be, don’t steal other people’s property and don’t sexually harass anyone? Who are we to tell women what they can or cannot do with their phones and networked cameras?

Yet with the state of online security as dismal as it is, maybe Bilton’s tweet constitutes good advice. We shouldn’t bar anyone from doing anything with their camera, but until we improve cultural consideration of and respect for women, maybe we can say, affirmatively but respectfully, that taking nude selfies constitutes a certain kind of potentially worthwhile risk.

What underlies both of these incidents might be obvious: Existing oppressions, whether misogyny, racism, or otherwise, practically limits how networked lens can be used. Yet this must inform how we consider the products and circumstances of any Internet-connected camera.

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A Chinese bride takes a self portrait before her symbolic wedding in Germany. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

And above all these questions, there’s an ultimate one: What happens when you change a camera into a networked lens?

And: What happens when you add a networked lens to a situation?

Who gains power: the people holding the camera or the people being filmed? (Some argue that cop bodycams would in fact empower the police. After all, who has time to review all that footage?) Whose behavior changes, and how much? What can we expect will happen to the images that result? (Will they disappear into a database forever? If so, what can be done to them there? How will that affect us?)

We don’t know the answer to these twinned questions—but we’re learning a little more every day.

This is not all to say every issue today is a networked lens issue. NSA surveillance as a whole isn’t, I think. But the agency’s mass-facial recognition is. Labor on the whole isn’t, but workplace surveillance is. Urban planning isn’t, but public security cameras deployed en masse are. Scope this all the way up and you have Google Earth.

At the close of his piece, Mod quotes Sontag: “While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.” Mod spins that, riffing, “Whatever can’t be networked becomes less important.” And whatever is networked can send us to war.