Security guards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London didn’t like the look of James Bridle.
As he walked around the hotel’s exterior photographing its security cameras, Mr. Bridle — an artist and writer — looked, to them, undoubtedly suspect. Who was he, they wanted to know, and what exactly was he doing? They detained him and called the police, who subsequently demanded to see the artist’s ID and threatened him with a charge of “going equipped.”
“It’s what you threaten a burglar with if they’re carrying a ladder or a crowbar down the street,” Mr. Bridle said. “Just carrying a camera made me suspicious.”
Mr. Bridle, who had been researching surveillance as part of an art residency, had set out to walk the perimeter of the city’s congestion charge zone — an area in central London where motorists must pay to drive — with the goal of documenting as many closed-circuit security cameras as he could find.
When he reached the Grosvenor, about halfway along the 12-mile route, he’d recorded 427. That number included not just the cameras that record the license plates of vehicles driving in the zone, but also private cameras, and other public cameras operated by the local authorities. On subsequent walks through the zone, he captured hundreds more.
“As soon as there’s a person with a camera there’s a target for people’s interest and they start asking questions,” Mr. Bridle said. “Because CCTV cameras are disassociated from human vision, they don’t get people to ask those same questions. But I think they should.”
London may be one of the world’s most surveilled cities — one report estimates that the average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times a day — but its growing network of cameras is part of a worldwide trend. In 2015, the global video surveillance industry was valued at about $20 billion, and is expected to grow to $63.2 billion by 2022. In 2014, the year Mr. Bridle was stopped by the Metropolitan Police, there were 245 million professionally installed surveillance cameras around the world.
Mr. Bridle’s series, “Every CCTV Camera,” encourages us to interrogate that vast network the same way Mr. Bridle himself was interrogated by the police. Who is watching all these cameras? And why?
If the cameras are connected to the internet — like more than 20 percent of them — the answer is almost anyone could be watching, and for almost any purpose.
In 2013, the photographer Andrew Hammerand demonstrated that fact when he gained access to a networked camera in a planned community in the American Midwest. The town’s developer, Mr. Hammerand learned, had installed the camera on a cellphone tower atop a church in the town’s center to monitor the progress of the community’s construction. The live feed was posted on the community’s website to entice prospective residents. But perhaps unknown to the developer, the camera’s control panel was also available to anyone with the right URL.
For about 18 months, Mr. Hammerand operated those controls for several hours a day, zooming, panning, tilting and adjusting the exposure to his liking before making a screenshot. He ultimately made tens of thousands of them.
The scenes Mr. Hammerand presents in his series, “The New Town,” are pretty banal. Residents walk their dogs, kids play in the park, people stand in driveways. Through the grainy, long-distance lens of a security camera, however, the views take on subtly nefarious undertones. A man Mr. Hammerand spotted working with a hammer looks, in one photo, like he’s about to commit some terrible crime.
“I think that reaches into this idea of paranoia,” he said. “If you are watching something, you almost expect something to happen. But in reality nothing happened.”
What started as a matter of curiosity grew, for Mr. Hammerand, into a source of concern. Why should a stranger be able to glimpse so many people’s lives without their knowledge or consent? Sometimes while Mr. Hammerand was scouring the neighborhood, the camera suddenly panned or zoomed wildly. Other online users, he guessed, were fighting to control the device. Mr. Hammerand knew his own intentions with the camera were artistic in nature, but he couldn’t guess the motivations of others.
“Someone easily could have used this in a worse way and looked in people’s windows at night,” he said.
Arguably, photographers are ideally positioned to explore the implications of a culture of pervasive monitoring, since art photography itself — intentionally or not — has often been a part of that culture.
To create her “Dirty Windows” series, for instance, Merry Alpern spent six months in the 1990s at a friend’s window — she wore all black to avoid detection — photographing explicit scenes in an adjacent brothel. About two decades later, Arne Svenson used a telephoto lens meant for bird-watching to document the more quotidian goings-on of his neighbors in their apartments for his series, “The Neighbors.” Many of the world’s best street photographers have also worked surreptitiously, photographing strangers on the fly to capture authentic moments.
Few, if any, of those photographers had mass surveillance on their mind. But many of the photographers involved in today’s “artveillance” world intentionally adopt the voyeuristic gaze of modern surveillance tools to reveal their inner workings.
“What’s beautiful about their projects is that they’re in part pedagogical,” said Randolph Lewis, professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “They’re showing people that these systems know a lot more than you realize and they do a lot more than you might assume.”
If Mr. Hammerand’s work is a warning about a world in which anyone could be watching you, Esther Hovers’s serves as a warning about a world where no one is watching — at least, nobody human. As the number of security cameras grows, it isn’t feasible for people to keep watch on them at all times. Software picks up the slack.
In her series “False Positives,” Ms. Hovers visualizes the capabilities of security cameras in the future, which are programmed to automatically spot unusual movement patterns that may signal a criminal act.
“The systems I’m talking about still very much serve a supportive role,” she said. “For someone who has to watch like 40 or 50 different monitors at once, this intelligent camera can give a preference and say, ‘Please watch this screen.’ The future of it is for it to become more autonomous.”
Ms. Hovers read about such cameras in a newspaper article about Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which was experimenting with the technology. While she couldn’t learn much about Schipol’s specific system, researchers explained the underlying technology’s principles. Ms. Hovers used that knowledge to create — with the help of strangers she enlisted in the spur of the moment — scenes on the streets of Brussels that demonstrate some of the so-called anomalies an algorithm would likely detect.
In some images, the anomaly is easy to spot: Two men sprinting through the middle of the sidewalk, a group of people moving in a coordinated way, a man standing alone in a crowd. In others, however, the anomaly is hard to pinpoint. One wonders, is it the guy running? Or could it be the man walking in the opposite direction from everyone else in the image?
“I like to keep that a little bit vague because I actually want to encourage this judgment of what’s normal,” Ms. Hovers said.
As Mr. Bridle can attest firsthand, a person that may look suspicious to security personnel can be completely innocent. For that reason, he and his peers argue, the subjects of surveillance — that is, everyone — should flip the script and direct their skepticism toward a network that is often accepted as part of modern life.
“Surveillance is so often presented as inevitable, as something we have to do, as something that almost the technology itself demands,” Mr. Bridle said. “That just isn’t the case.”