Insecurity

Essay by Patrick Henry for Portfolio Contemporary Photography in Britain, issue #39 June 2004

United States of America, 2002. A sandy road leads towards a deserted beach. In the middle-distance, under a canopy of trees, four men are silhouetted against the evening sky. Gathered around a picnic table, they pore over some kind of document, deep in discussion. The scene is broadly reminiscent of an establishing shot in a film, but the composition suggests something else. The foreground, besides tyre-tracks and footsteps in the sand, is occupied by open space. Within our field of vision, the group is peripheral. The scene poses questions not only about the men and their activities but about the perspective that we are given. Who is looking at this scene, and what is his/her relationship to the men at the table? The picture is psychologically charged and richly suggestive, but also resistant. It refuses to disclose its secrets. We are drawn into the drama and promptly abandoned.

Stewart teases us with scraps of information about emotional states, situations and contexts. In scene after scene, as we move through the series, we encounter people who are out of reach – their faces turned away or obscured – in situations that we cannot grasp. Our point of view is sometimes that of a disembodied observer – as if the camera just happened to be there, recording the scene – and sometimes that of a protagonist. We are made to hover, undecided, between the ‘observational’ mode of documentary and the ‘point of view’ shot of film or television drama. Since they refuse to be tied down, we can read or imagine these pictures in a variety of ways: as fact, fiction, as metaphor.

Christopher Stewart’s Insecurity project began life nine years ago in Australia, and was recently published as a monograph by Centro de Arte de Salamanca1. The pictures have often been taken for staged photographs, but they are not. Insecurity is a documentary project. Stewart photographs the work of security groups, organisations that are paid to protect individuals and property. Some of his pictures show real operations, others show events staged for training purposes: simulated abductions and interrogations, or more elaborate ‘games’ in which groups hunt one another across vast areas. Each picture is labelled with a location and a date, but we are not told which scenes are real which are simulated. The people in the photographs come from a wide range of backgrounds. They belong to complex and secretive networks within which the lines between military, police, paramilitary and criminal groupings are blurred. Stewart has spent years developing contacts in these circles, but making arrangements to take pictures remains a precarious business. It is not unusual, even after months of planning, for things to fall apart at the last minute.

Documentary, in the words of Bill Nichols, ‘suggests fullness and completion, knowledge and fact, explanations of the social world and its motivating mechanisms’2. Stewart strips documentary of its didactic function, photographing scenarios which themselves occupy a grey area between reality and fiction. Even in training events it is not unusual for lines to be crossed, for people to get hurt. The pictures hide as a much as they reveal. Like Gerhard Richter’s iconic painting Betty (1988), a portrait in which the viewer  sees only the back of the sitter’s head, Stewart’s pictures cheat our expectations and mock our efforts to understand them. They are a parody of documentary and of its quest to enlighten us about the world.

There are, however, ways in which Stewart’s project is more faithful to its origins. In its definition of documentary, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the observation (from Punch) that ‘ most documentary films seem to hinge upon the exposition of some staple industry’. Seminal documentary films like John Grierson’s Industrial Britain (1931) and Coalface (1935) focused on such industries as the engines of national and, by extension, human progress. Stewart, too, takes as his subject a staple industry and explores what it can tell us about the contemporary world. What he finds, or proposes, could not be further from Grierson’s images of modern, orderly production. The business of security is, as the project’s title reminds us, the business of responding to, managing and producing insecurity. It is unregulated and geographically dispersed. Its structures are protean and opaque. In Stewart’s series, the paradigmatic industry of the twenty-first century is emblematic of modernity’s failures.

Finland, 1999. A middle-aged man in an army jacket stands at a bus-stop, one hand visibly clenched is a fist. The blurred leaves in the foreground suggest a partially concealed viewpoint, but who is watching whom? The image is one of potential violence but also of vulnerability. The man is powerfully-built but, isolated at the centre of the frame, he seems small. Overcast skies and autumn leaves add a touch of pathos to the scene. Stewart’s photographs return the gaze of power, making its agents visible, bringing them into the light. At the same time, however, they remind us that their human subjects are victims as well as agents of the power invested in them. On a psychological level they too are penetrated, and damaged, by the violence that surrounds them.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, published at the end of the eighteenth century, proposed a revolutionary approach to the exercise of power. Through a system of centralised surveillance, it held out the promise of a world in which the activities of the many would be constantly visible to the powerful few. In Stewart’s work, the dream of a secure, transparent world of stable power relations has vanished. His interplay of inside and outside, darkness and light, visibility and invisibility, dramatizes a world in which all bonds are contingent, everybody is vulnerable and watchful, loyalty is bought and sold. His landscapes of darkness and shadow have an almost gothic quality; like the zones of obscurity and disorder articulated in gothic fiction, such places were supposed to have been banished by the Age of Enlightenment. Stewart conjures up a world no longer controlled by law or institutions, a world in which the social contract has unravelled. He suggests that we have taken a step back towards what Hobbes described as our ‘state of nature’: a savage free-for-all in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’3.

1. Christopher Stewart, Consorcio Salamanca, 2003. With essays by Mike Davis and Joanna Lowry.

2. Representing Reality, Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bill Nichols, Indiana University Press, 1993, P.174.

3. Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, first published 1681.

 

Christopher Stewart and the Wages of Fear

by Mike Davis

From our adolescent readings of Orwell’s and Huxley’s great dystopian fictions, many of us saved a question. ‘How, exactly, would we know when Brave New World and Big Brother were on our doorstep?’ Would a society of total surveillance and order arrive big bang fashion, in black uniforms and jackboots, or would it creep toward us like a fog, slowly enveloping our daily routines and indiscretions? And who would sound the alarm? Would anyone bother to listen or, as the case may be, to look?

Christopher Stewart’s powerfully disorienting photographs detonate our Orwellian anxieties. Are they the warning from the totalitarian future that we have always dreaded? Or simply a reflection on the current state of middle-class paranoia? Possibly they are both - preliminary studies in the banality of dystopia.

These enigmatic and visceral photographs are more than vaguely threatening, they are also disturbingly specific and impregnated with a sinister familiarity. Like snapshots from a habitual nightmare. They evoke a feeling of discomfort and of wanting to be somewhere else. But this is the dilemma posed by Stewart’s dossier, a realisation that there is no somewhere else to escape to which doesn’t look uncannily like one of the places in his photographs.

The shadowland he documents is ubiquitous. Since we are unable to run from it, even in our sleep, perhaps we need to wake up to it and to confront it face to face. Something which is easier said than done. It is hard to see the forest when you are lost and frightened, standing at its center. That is why Stewart, if not exactly Mephisto, is such an invaluable guide, with his camera lens brutally focused on the crime scene. The victim and perpetrator here are always the same. If you don’t want to see old-fashioned Liberty battered and raped by the monster called Security, then look away now.

These photographs are not the staged melodrama or noir-ish tableau vivants so favoured by some contemporary photographers. Nor are they the mise-en-scène from a dark fabulist like David Lynch. If not exactly documentary photography in the classical tradition, it is its legitimate hard-edged offspring, what Stewart calls “post-illusion realism”. The scenes could be contrived, but they are not. Christopher Stewart is a postmodern Weegee in the nameless crime-racked suburbs. The pain, menace, stealth and unease are all real. So are the intrusions, the multiple knife wounds inflicted by our gaze.

Disturbingly, these landscapes are not East Germany pre-wall, or some present, still totalitarian part of the Ukraine or Belorussia. True, the ambiance is like a Le Carre novel set behind the Iron Curtain, a prevalence of surveillance, informers, cryptic burials, anonymous violence, and generally bad humour. But, believe it or not, this is the happy Free World. There are no travel warnings issued here. Welcome to the United States of America, Australia, Europe and the newly liberated Balkans.

But this is also a project, at least in its first iteration, which is also about modern and insecure working practices. The subjects, lowly paid employees of multinational security firms and their local imitators. The corporations themselves, of course, are fabulously wealthy, but the profits of the global security boom do not trickle down to the ‘production line’.

Security personnel, as a rule, buy their own guns and uniforms, work endless and tedious hours in the cold and dark, eat stale sandwiches and drink cold tea, and, occasionally, are thrust into situations of disgusting brutality. With a few ‘fantasists and fetishists’ finding psychic compensation in the uniforms, guns and swagger. But most enter this utterly unromantic world because they have no other option. A career in the surveillance of boredom with much standing in the rain and staring at strangers.

Many of the personnel depicted here also tend toward inherent and relentlessly depressing contradictions, on compulsory work-welfare schemes, their minimum wages paid by the social security department. The guarantors of bourgeois security, themselves, a short step away from homelessness or incarceration itself.

Indeed, one of the subjects in Stewart’s photographs told him “that he had a job where he was forced to find refuge on particularly cold night shifts in a large trash dumpster because the client, a medium sized industrial estate on the edge of an Australian city, didn’t supply him with keys to any of the buildings. Finding distrust an appropriate currency even when applied to the guard himself”.

But for Stewart, resolving narrative events in these images is less important than coming to grips with their moral, visual and discursive ambiguity. Ambiguity of meaning, ambiguity of feeling, ambiguity of agency: here is the constitutive ground of our current unease.

Moreover, the fleeting, but sharply focused scenarios in Stewart’s photographs are perhaps more familiar than we would care to admit. After all, troubling scenes pass us by every day and we seldom stop to unravel their meaning. Like good citizen collaborators, we budget our moral involvement. A fugitive figure standing by a wall, the surprisingly anxious look of a subway guard, the skulker next to the bus stop, the small man pinned to the ground by the larger. A quick glance and we move on.

Now, thanks to these images, the documentary record of our daily avoidances and little cowardices have caught up with us. Their addition commands our attention. Here, in serial view, is the grubby, often distasteful daily work of guaranteeing ‘Security’ to those who can afford it. It is a disturbing dossier with the solution looking little different from the problem.

What kind of society produces such images? Should Stewart's photographs be construed as footprints of a coming dystopia where market and state combine to murder privacy and civil liberties in the name of security?

I know, this is my obsession, not a line of enquiry mandated by the photographs themselves. Stewart is not a polemicist. He is not forcing a theory upon us or making a prediction about the future of democracy. Nor does he deal with the relationship between the private security industry and the emergent Internal Security State, especially in North America. Most of these images are pre-Terror, pre-9/11.

Nonetheless, Stewart clearly wants to know what we think. He provokes us to do our moral homework, initiating an accounting of where such images fit into our own local world.

So be it. My local world is San Diego, California, a tourist paradise, but also the most militarized city on earth, with 120,000 active-duty military personnel within its metropolitan radius. The famous Zoo and Sea World minutes away from nuclear super-carriers, Marine bases and the plant where Predator drones are assembled.

The celebrated seaside resort of La Jolla is also the center of a ‘stealth valley’ where firms like Advanced Science Applications, San Diego’s biggest locally headquartered corporation, develop software for the CIA and surveillance technology for the Border Patrol. In San Diego, in other words, the political economies of tourism, war and security merge in many strange configurations.

Stewart’s photographs capture one end of the security spectrum. As in the rest of Southern California, there are three or four times as many private security personnel in San Diego as official police and sheriffs. Their dreary jobs run the gambit from chasing the homeless away from the doorsteps of downtown condos and tourist hotels to scrutinising the checkout lines in the local supermarket.

Others, a step up the ladder, cruise affluent subdivisions where the lawns sprout little signs warning, “This home protected by armed response”. A smaller, more elite group composed of moonlighting cops and ex-FBI agents provide personal protection to the wealthy paranoids enclaved in gilded burrows like Rancho Santa Fe and Mt. Soledad.

Across the border, in San Diego’s twin city of Tijuana, where the narcotrafficantes’ sinister Chevy ‘Suburbans of Death’ roam the streets, personal security is an altogether more serious matter, with barrel-chested men in dark glasses an indispensable accoutrement of luxury lifestyles. But in San Diego, as a popular advertisement likes to boast, ‘security is a comprehensive concept’.

The next level up from rent-a-cop services, though, are the new technologies of panopticism in public space. A showpiece is West Hills High School in Santee, a San Diego suburb equally celebrated for its concentration of evangelical congregations and notorious for its recent school shootings. Now campus security is assured by the SkyWitness surveillance system that combines rooftop video cameras, facial recognition software, and sophisticated sensors in the bathrooms. Software programs, meanwhile, monitor students’ Internet traffic, logging “every web page they visit and every e-mail they send”. As a result, nothing is out of place and everything is under control. A “test lab”, according to the Los Angeles Times, donated by its vendors including Cisco and Sony, “in which to develop and try out a security system that the firms will ultimately market to corporate America and government agencies”.

Indeed, in light of the terrorist attacks in Bali and Mombasa, tourist complexes will probably be frantic consumers of such technology. Disneyland, of course, being a pioneer in total surveillance. But the eventual destination of SkyWitness will be the entire population, “tracked at factories, office parks, stadiums and shopping districts”. Ultimately, these local databanks may eventually become the components of a truly global and all-encompassing surveillance being developed in the guise of the Bush Administration’s Total Information Awareness system, built under the management of former National Security Advisor and Irangate felon, John Poindexter.

Stewart’s images are thus embedded in much larger, rapidly emerging structures of total surveillance. The daily cultivated terrorist hysteria in the West is revolutionising the demand for such systems and injecting billions of dollars of government and private venture capital into new research. The technology is extremely dynamic and it is unclear whether low-end, labor intensive security will continue to grow at breakneck rates or eventually be supplanted by electronic gizmos like ‘digital angels’ for personal security, SkyWitness systems for public safety, and Predator-launched Hellfire missiles for sanctions with ‘extreme prejudice’.

But for the moment, at least, the sullen and grim-faced workers in Christopher Stewart’s extraordinary photographs fill the gaps in the architecture of our ultimate ‘Security’.

© Mike Davis 2003

Mike Davis is the author of more than twenty books including City of Quartz, Prisoners of the American Dream, Dead Cities and The Ecology of Fear. A Macarthur Fellow, he is a Professor at the University of California Riverside. This essay was commissioned by Centro de Arte de Salamanca during Salamanca European City of Culture 2003 to accompany the publication Christopher Stewart.

 

Christopher Stewart

Insecurity by Joanna Lowry

A man is pinned to the ground. Two hands grapple with his arms, pulling them back, pressing them into his shoulder-blades. His face is contorted with pain. In a curious way he looks more like a bird being trussed than a man: his elbows like wings, his fingers like feathers. His assailant’s hands look so clean and the silver wedding band on his finger seems obscenely out-of-place in this story, whatever it is. For we really don’t know. We only know that in this image we are witness to an exercise of power imposed upon the body by some anonymous force, and the camera is a witness. And that this moment of witnessing lies at a tangent to the truth of this event which can only be found somewhere else, beyond the image, in the stories that can be told about it.

The history of photography and its beleaguered relationship to truth has its origins in the nineteenth century and the uses made of it by those institutions of the modern state concerned with the management and administration of the citizen: the police, the medical establishment, education. For those institutions knowledge was complicit with the exercise of power, and photography offered a peculiarly evidential kind of knowledge. Indeed the image described above has some resonance with descriptions of early photographs taken of prisoners, pinned into their seats by prisoner officers, subjecting them through brute force to the eye of the camera. These were images in which the closeness of the relationship between visibility, violence and the body was made acutely clear. In these early pictures however, the subjection of the body to the regime of power through the discourse of photography was at least transparent. Power, the law and the visibility of the body were locked into contract that seemed to be both necessary and secure. In this photograph from Christopher Stewart’s Insecurity series the ambivalence of the image mirrors the ambivalence of our contemporary relationship to the state and its right to the exercise of power and violence over the body.

One of the more disturbing aspects of contemporary society is the privatization of those institutions that monitor the boundaries of the law. The emergence of the private prison is only one instance of a sea change within a society which relies upon an increasing proliferation of private security and bodyguards to police its boundaries. The contracting out of these services to what is effectively a mercenary class involves a parallel loosening to the ties between the state and the implementation of the law. Indeed it is significant that these are organisations which are as likely to recruit from the criminal classes as from the law-abiding. Ex-cons and ex-policemen have equal experience of the hinterland in which the symbolic boundaries of the law give way to the violent coercion of the body. And this hinterland forms a liminal space in which the rules of truth and knowledge, released from the authority of the state, are also realigned. In the world of private security there is no structure of accountability, no space for the monitoring of evidence and the calling of witnesses – there is only the cutting edge of a fantasised relationship between us and them and the violence of the body.

Many of Stewart’s photographs document training sessions run by private security firms in different locations around the world. On these courses trainees are subjected to a gamut of simulates scenarios in order to prepare themselves for the real event. In these simulations a fantasised theatre of life in the security services are played out in which the violence borders upon the real. Participants are kidnapped, mugged, assaulted and interrogated: toughened up for the ordeals that lie ahead of them in their chosen career. The theatre may be a virtual one but the pain and the fear are real.  One of the functions of these training sessions is also to create a kind of mind-set in the participants, which they can then take out into their own very peculiar bit of the world: a mind-set in which the aggressor is always a threatened presence; in which violence is always a necessary option; in which their body is always on the front line. The boundaries between the stages scenario are so fragile, so permeable in the human imagination.

One of Stewart’s formative memories as the son of a police officer is of the making of the TV police series The Sweeney in the street in which he lived. This was a violent series dealing with the cutting edge of crime and corruption in London in the nineteen-seventies. The entire street became a stage set in which the fight between organized crime and the police was played out. It was the interpenetration between this fictional world and the professional world of his father that fascinated him then, and it is perhaps this same ambiguity in the relationship between fact, fiction and the law that preoccupies him in the world of security.

As though as a response to this the lighting in his photographs is always theatrical, and the dimensions of his pictures cinematic. Light from fluorescent strips forms strange haloes above peoples’ heads, starkly cold in a world dominated by night and shadows. A security guard glares at someone out side the frame of the image. His body is silhouetted starkly against a breeze-block wall, his fist clenched, punching at his own shadow. The two figures are yoked together by this gesture of aggression. There is something starkly expressionist about the play of dark and light in this image: the shadow of the man’s own nemesis stalking him, the sense of imminent fear and aggression. But who is this man? Who is he waiting for? What is he afraid of? In the absence of an answer – stripped of its context – the document reverts to allegory. Security guard as emblem of our times.

Photography and modernity has been dogged by the issue of the document. In the nineteen-thirties Brecht questioned the ability of a photograph to communicate anything about the social and historical relations that construct our reality: the photograph, he claimed, could only represent the trivial realism of the surface. Nevertheless it was this trivial realism that was also in a profound sense one of the most integral aspects of the medium itself. If photography did anything it provided one with a record: it was the question of the relationship of that record to the issues of meaning or of the truth that had to be put into question. In the wake of Conceptualism and the Post-modern practices of the nineteen-eighties it seemed as though documentary had been entirely deconstructed and evacuated by art to be replaced by artifice and parody. But the status of the document as some kind of witness refuses to go away, insistently reminding us that though the image is no guarantee of truth it is, nevertheless, a necessary staging post on the route to its recovery. Artists like Gerhard Richter who in his 18 October 1977 series, repainted the blurred, degraded images taken by police photographers of the bodies of the Bader Meinhof group in Stammheim prison, or Willie Doherty, destabilizing the narrative authority of his photographs and video works with voices from different sides of the political divide of Northern Ireland, are examples of artists who have attempted to work through the logic of the document and use it to open up that space and recognize its essential productivity.

Christopher Stewart’s documentary project follows in this tradition: it points both to its own “insecurity”, and to the insecurity to our own reading of the image. In one photograph a guard in an empty office space stands with his back to us, gazing at the white rectangle of a window, its pleated blinds drawn nearly to a close. At first glance he might be taken for a spectator in a museum, gazing at a painted monochrome. But just in his line of vision the blinds sit slightly apart and we catch a glimpse of a reflected images of ceiling lights leading into some imaginary reality beyond. That is where he is looking – not at the image, but at what he imagines to be behind it. Allegorical, of course.

Written for the catalogue for Imago 2000 Encuentros de Fotografia y Video, Junta de Castilla y Leon y Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca 2000