the subject has been usurped

Lots of chewy stuff in this M L Sauter joint, jumping off from the seeming climb-down of G**gle’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto—which, as Sauter notes, was less of a stoppage than a sort of metastasis, with the ideological cancer scattering away from the site of the obvious tumour—in order to talk about surveillance and image recognition through Sontag’s theories of photography.

It’s all good stuff, though mostly too far outside of my own wheelhouse for me to comment on beyond commending it as good. But I wanted to clip this paragraph because, as someone who developed a hard-to-articulate but very real loathing of photography at a young age, and in particular of being photographed, it really expresses something that I’ve never managed to explain adequately to myself or others:

A photograph constitutes a violation, and capture, of its subject, “by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” The accuracy of the knowledge photography provides in this case is irrelevant. In Sontag’s analysis, the subject of the photograph has been usurped from their creative place at the center of their own story. Their own subjectivity, their ownership of themselves, has been dented by the satisfied knowledge-seeking of the photographer and the photograph. The photograph is not simply a document. It contains the psychological impact of surveillance itself. Data collection and production, through cameras and other sensors, similarly is not simply an information bit. It is an artifact of surveillance, of usurpation. It is the testimony on the subject that supersedes the testimony of its subject. As reality is judged against photographs, so is reality judged against, and expected to accord with, data.

The first half, in particular, really captures the sense I had as a child of somehow being trapped in amber by photographs taken of me… though given this seems not to be much of an issue for a lot of folk around the same age, I’m going to assume it’s also tangled up with the psychosocial dynamics of my family and upbringing (which, without wanting to go all Tiny Violin about it, was very much an experience of lacking agency over my own story).

Then again, I’m not much of one for photographs of other people, either. I often get asked if I have pictures of my family, and while I’m pretty sure there’s one or two images of my sister and my mother somewhere in my digital archives, they’re not at all ready to hand… and I have no images of my father at all. This seems genuinely strange to most people—and perhaps it is, I don’t know. “How do you remember them?” With my mind’s eye, I suppose… which I fully understand to be extremely malleable and unreliable in its depiction of characters and narratives. Does a picture, or an album of pictures, provide anything more than a persistent icon behind which those memories might be filed? No idea. Maybe I should read that Sontag stuff.

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