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Published onJul 30, 2020

Several years ago, I was approached by community activists working in an out-of-the way village in rural Hungary.1 The group served a Sinsi-Roma community living in a neighborhood affectionately called Miskolc, or “Numbers Street.” The Roma are discriminated against across Europe and often live in poverty.2 As we drove out to the site, Sandor Szöke explained the situation to me: these folks have been living here for almost 50 years, during which the community kept to itself and was generally left alone. The shift from Communism to a free-market economy had a certain effect. Nevertheless, subsistence living continued as it had in the past.

While Hungarian society has never been welcoming to Roma communities, a recent wave of pro-nationalist and anti-immigration sentiment threatened the community’s existence. These dangers are multifaceted. Economic threats take the form of labor-market discrimination, cultural threats take the form of educational segregation and exclusion, and physical threats take the form of direct acts of violence.

We were on our way to Miskolc because, as if to add insult to injury, the local mayor had decided to expand the local soccer stadium by building a parking lot directly over the Roma neighborhood, effectively overwriting the group and its history.3 Since there was no legal way to secure the land from its Roma inhabitants, a campaign of destruction began against its residents. Szöke recollected, “At night, thugs would come and strip out the windows, window sills, and door frames of unoccupied houses. Then the city inspectors would come and report that the place was abandoned, and thus mark it for demolition.”4

These tactics were carried out in residential areas, triggering one resident to commit suicide out of despair. This suicide galvanized Szöke and a local advocacy group working with the Roma community. A glance at the site clarifies the soccer stadium’s proximity to Miskolc. Yet the stadium is also right next to a large field. Why not just build the parking lot on the empty field? Szöke wondered. The solution seemed simple enough, though the activists faced a challenge: how could they raise awareness among Hungarians—and the international community—of a complicated issue in an out-of-the-way place? The campaign of violence occurred at night, by anonymous parties, and with no clear connection to the nationalist mayor.

Walking through Miskolc, I could see the broken windows, the lintels and sashes torn away and the interiors gutted. State-sponsored violence was being directed toward a historically marginalized and legally protected class of Hungarian citizens. Yet, to the untrained eye, Numbers Street looks like yet another broken-down post-Communist village, with linden trees expanding into the spaces where people had once been. From my perspective on the ground, the story could not have been harder to tell.

But I was in the village because Szöke had found a solution—a new way of seeing the problem and of telling Miskolc’ story. In the dead of night, he had snuck onto government property with a pickup-truck load of small stones and a co-conspirator (who declined to be identified out of fear of retribution). Together they placed the rocks in a singular pattern. Szöke’s logic was that if the mayor wanted a parking lot, he could simply use the adjacent field. The patterned rocks were intended to signal this possibility: together they piled the stones in the shape of a large parking sign, inscribed in the field, visible only by air.

Together, we worked on a video that combined drone footage with the activist’s overview of the problem, and their simple solution. As the video pulled out from the parking sign and panned from the stadium to the Roma community, it was quickly clear to any viewer that the expansion was less about additional parking than it was intended to purge the city of a longstanding Roma neighborhood (figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1 Park here (author photo).

This disruptive land art follows in the footsteps of artists like American sculptors Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. Most scholarly assessments of their large outdoor art (discussed in greater length in the next chapter) have focused on the extent to which their work was a rejection of the constraints of the New York City gallery scene and their concomitant embrace of the American West—or their idea of that West. They are also representative of the moment when artists made work with the knowledge that it could—would—be seen from space. Where a generation of scholarship on land art has focused on what is on the ground, the ability to actually appreciate this art is the result of photography from the air and the consolidation of those images into gallery exhibitions and books. The act of creating objects for visual consumption is a product of their visibility, and land art like Szöke’s only makes sense when cameras can be taken into the air. We take aerial photography for granted, and thus far I have emphasized the importance of new aerial platforms, regardless of payload. In this chapter, I turn our attention to the camera itself, ask where it came from, and suggest some things about where it might be going.


The slide-lantern show was a groundbreaking tool in the struggle against the transatlantic slave trade.5 It was a new way of seeing in both senses: visually with the naked eye, but also viscerally with a pricked conscience. The lantern show exposed viewers to the reality of slavery. Film from the liberation of Auschwitz had a similar effect—of forcing viewers to see two things at once: emaciated survivors and systems of annihilation. Viewing such images, advocacy writer Sam Gregory suggests, generates a co-presence for good that draws people together and spurs action.6

But how do we establish co-presence? Artists and movements deserve tremendous credit, but what of the gear itself? While much has been made of the role of photography in human rights advocacy7 and social movements,8 less has been said about cameras themselves. How, when, and where image-making can occur (i.e., where cameras can go) are critical questions as activists and insurgents square off against the state and other systems of authority.

In surveying the progression and development of geospatial affordances, it becomes clear that airborne cameras represent one of the most significant and potentially transformative payloads a satellite, kite, balloon, or drone can carry. While this volume has focused on geospatial affordances as platforms, in this chapter I focus on one payload in particular: the camera as a sociopolitical technology. Together with the novel, images of injustice have ushered in an era of humanitarianism that continues to this day. This is widely noted, but in that literature the advances are credited to the photograph, rather than the camera.

Photographs are celebrated. Cameras are ignored.

Inattention breeds under-theorization. As devices, cameras are often addressed obliquely, through their progeny, the photograph. When cameras are discussed, it seems they are only known by their fruit. The image is often the only thing about cameras that is of cultural and political importance—the means and mode of the photograph’s production disappear into the background. Yet cameras are a technology with a history all their own. They do not simply exist; rather, their meaning is political, cultural, contested, and in flux.

The camera predates photography. There is something important about this fact: we built tools for relating to light (camera obscura) prior to the development of processes for making the relationship permanent (collodion albumen). Our contemporary history of the device as an actor in social space is often traced back to a horse-drawn apparatus that required a wagonload of chemicals. Its form was later condensed into the Speed Graphic, Rolleiflex, and Leica cameras that made street and war photography possible. Today, cameras have eschewed any singular form and are rather an array of sensors behind a lens. The singular consumer experience of the camera is as likely to have been replaced by something that is not at all a camera, but is in fact a small slab of screen that does myriad things. The lens, in fact, is the only component that remains unchanged.

This may not seem interesting to people accustomed to taking pictures first with Polaroid and 110 and later 35mm, and taking films first with 8mm video and later VHS cassettes. In these transitions (from 110 to 35m or from 8mm to VHS) the thing got smaller, but the underlying principles remained intact. The device gripped in the hands shrunk in size, had more features, and cost less money. With the shift to digital imaging devices, storage, manipulation, and reproduction became virtually free. The digital took our images from film and print to sensors and screens. Yet, in this retelling, I have shifted almost subconsciously to the image, the photograph, the thing produced by the device. We can take more pictures, we can store more pictures, and pictures are cheaper to have and to share.

Pictures, pictures, pictures. Such is the edifice of the image.

In the pages that follow, I want to worship instead at the altar of the device, to focus on how changes in the means of (image) production have led to changes in the social and political act of image-making. We used to press industrial tools to the eye. We now hold the world at arm’s length and gaze at it until we are happy with what we are about to make of it. Such is the age of the selfie—we have come to look at ourselves in the same way.9 Gone, perhaps, is Roland Barthes’ notion of the punctum—the photograph’s prick—replaced by the pout of the self-assured. If new technology has multiplied the amount of our world that can be imaged, it has also undermined the photographic moment.

The civil contract of photography relies on a sense that a photograph is being made.10 This sense is no longer as obvious as it once was. Gone is the era when the act of bringing a camera to the eye was an obvious and political gesture that signaled a particular event—often personal, sometimes political, never nothing—was about to commence. Even the camera at rest in moments of political uncertainty represents a potentially hostile gesture to the powerful and powerless alike.

This line of thinking brings us back to the nature of the device in question. The merit of geospatial affordances rest in their ability to extend the visual, the public’s line of sight, beyond earlier limitations. If we were searching for an analogy, perhaps we can settle on that of a camera-delivery system. While geospatial affordances can carry myriad payloads, it is camera-equipped drones that generate the most attention and concern. This concern is related to our privacy—who wants to be spied on by a disembodied and decontextualized eye, an unholy union of the male gaze and the Platonic view from nowhere! The concern is also connected to the importance of one’s ability to see old things from new perspectives and to see new things altogether.11 What, then, is the nature of this turn of events? Answering this question requires a new line of thinking about the tools and tactics of photography (if not the photographs themselves).

New technology always attracts new attention—observers were in awe of the first daguerreotypes of war, and Robert Capa was widely heralded for his images of conflict. Once again, it is the image that has received the attention, rather than the underlying technology. It is too much to say that the camera has no sociopolitical history, but it is worth asking whether the camera having a history matters at all for anyone. Photography itself is a rather minor area of scholarship, if we take the number of citations of leading thinkers as an indicator. Cameras are the product of their technological milieu. This is, after all, why daguerreotypes lived between painting and chemistry, between art and science. That is also why the 35 mm camera shares so many design elements with other built and bored metal machines, including the Krupps canon and the rifle scope. And this is why new digital devices, cameras included, live within an ever-growing ecosystem populated by other chipped sensors.

Cameras are a product of their time—certainly when it comes to the means and mode of production, but also in terms of their relationship with social and political norms. It matters a great deal for politics and society whether a camera takes an hour to set up and the resulting image must be processed on site, as was the case with Matthew Brady’s photographs in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is quite different from the ability to shoot and store roll after roll of film as one advances with a military expedition, as was the case for Robert Capa. It is also quite different, socially and politically, if it is not just trained photographers who are specialists in their field, but instead everyone with a smartphone in their pocket and an uplink to the cloud that can speak out regarding political, economic, and social issues in real time. This puzzle gets even more puzzling if the camera flies out of human hands altogether. How does the view from above afforded by new camera technologies change the way we think about human rights, the environment, our cities, and ourselves?


Cultural criticism of photography from the likes of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag has tended to focus on the photograph and its cultural significance. For postmodern scholars, the technical act of photography was the pinnacle of modernist hubris. New work from essayist and critic Susie Linfield demonstrates that the tendency for prominent cultural critics to merge emotions and analysis simply doesn’t apply to noted critics of the photograph like Charles Baudelaire and Susan Sontag.12 For the skeptics of photography—Linfield places Baudelaire, Sontag, and Benjamin in this camp—a broad concern about the ends is an oblique condemnation and critique of the means. It is the lens’ affectation of truth that rankles so. This is not to say that the camera has been overlooked completely. Roland Barthes confessed: “The noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches—and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.”13 Later, in summoning his book’s name, he argues that “it is a mistake to associate Photography, by reason of its technical origins, with the notion of a dark passage [camera obscura],” suggesting instead the term camera lucida, to emphasize not the device but the moment it produced, the moment of seeing.14 Here we have, in two brief moments, the book’s namesake: first as nostalgia and last as portal. In neither case is the camera treated on its own terms, as a tool in use.

The eminent cultural theorist Susan Sontag, for her part, evokes the camera more frequently, but with a good deal less nostalgia. Within capitalist society, the camera has “twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it” in order to “define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for the masses) and as an object of surveillance (for their rulers).”15 Perhaps more insidiously, handheld video technology made the private narcissism of self-surveillance possible, further subjugating private lives to powerful interests;16 like cars and guns, they are active fantasy machines and fantasy weapons,17 and photography is sublimated murder.18 Sontag’s On Photography is best remembered for being about photography, but it does credible double duty as an epistemological and ontological salvo against the camera as both metaphor and machine.

Sharon Sliwinski is a social theorist whose work on photography has greatly expanded our appreciation for the way image-making informs human rights advocacy. This undertaking, clearest in her excellent Human Rights in Camera, has been accomplished without reliance on or reference to the device itself. The picture, Sliwinski argues, carves out a distinct role for the viewer—images of rights violations create an opportunity for judgment. This judgment rests on a series of aesthetic encounters, and it is these encounters that produce the cosmopolitan conception of humanity that we today mistakenly trace to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the image’s ability to elicit normative critique that matters. The argument is provocative, and rests on the analysis of pivotal images, from the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.19

Most writers on photography have little to say about the tools used in making the image.20 Author, curator, and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay represents an important exception. Azoulay has advanced a theory of photography built on a “new ontological-political understanding” of the art, which “takes into account all the participants in photographic acts—camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator—approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these.”21 The globalization of camera technology has created many images, but also “a new form of encounter … between people who take, watch, and show other people’s photographs, with or without their consent, thus opening new possibilities of political action and forming new conditions for its visibility.”22 While Azoulay turns to social relations between people, it is with an eye on the materiality of the camera as the mediating technology.

This physicality is evident in Azoulay’s assessment of Aïm Deüelle Lüski’s avant-garde and experimental image-making.23 In their exploration of horizontal photography, Azoulay documents Lüski’s challenge to traditional “vertical” photography’s approach to the world. Lüski is an Israeli artist and philosopher, rather than a photographer per se—although this would not be inaccurate either, it seems—and his signature intervention is the creation of imaging devices that free “the camera from its status as a means for something else and maintaining it as a participant in the event of photography.”24 The point is less whether the camera sees what humans see or mean to capture, but that the device captures what actually is (readers familiar with the work of Bruno Latour may find this intervention compelling). One of Lüski’s devices captures three horizontal planes, fusing with the scene and undermining the camera’s objectivity—all in an effort to answer the broader question: what is there?25 Lüski’s cameras are perhaps more philosophical and artistic interventions than optical devices—“the cameras do not satisfy the desire to see. Instead, they invite the observer to lose the external point of view at which the human and camera eyes are supposed to meet,” Azoulay writes.26 In this way the devices are explicitly not about the photographer’s narrative. Neither are they about capturing the world, or a scene, as seen or framed by the photographer. The result is new sets of relations between the camera and the world, sets of relations that stand apart from the photograph and the viewer.27

For Azoulay, “participants” matter: camera, photographer, subject, and spectator. In a refreshing rejoinder to the critical status quo, the photograph and those who view it are out of frame altogether. All that matters is the camera and those in its vicinity. Azoulay’s approach is so radical that work must be done to re-incorporate the image produced by this process and the observer of the photograph (distinct from the “spectator” of the original act of photography, suggested by Azoulay). This disaggregation—of the camera, photographer, subject, and spectator from the image and viewer—has important implications for how we think about the camera. In the pages that follow, I will suggest Azoulay and Lüski are on to something: the camera’s origin predates, and its future extends beyond, human agency.

This argument takes the form of an interpretive genealogy.


Image-making technologies have long been central to our understanding of human dignity. Sharon Sliwinski argues that images are not just an illustration of ethical and political issues, but also constitutive of them. In this sense, she claims, “the conception of rights did not emerge from the articulation of an inalienable human dignity, but from a particular visual encounter with atrocity.”28 If images are constitutive of what gets recognized as a human rights violation, then the camera device itself is an important technological artifact that shapes how issues are imagined and framed as objects of movement attention and action.

Shaky vertical video, for example, has become associated with the handheld cell phone camera and a sense of presence at the site of an event. This evidentiary vernacular is so widespread that a Norwegian filmmaker managed to fool journalists and human rights advocates with his “Syria hero boy” video that mimicked this style to tell a seemingly true story.29 Drone video showing a bird’s-eye perspective has become associated with the documentation of social movements and protests like the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and anti-Internet tax protests in Hungary as well as rights violations and environmental degradation worldwide.

Many of these examples demonstrate what Gillian Rose calls the technological modality of visual media—the technological apparatus that facilitates the making and displaying of images—and how they shape visual meaning making.30 In this sense, Sandra Ristovska argues, “as technologies shape the material relay of knowledge, they are intimately connected to the ways in which the public learns about and remembers atrocities.”31 In other words, visual technologies are centrally implicated in the construction of rights knowledge. Invoking my experience with Sandor Szöke helps clarify this further—our footage captured the broken windows of the homes, the blighted context of the village, and the immediate proximity to the stadium. In so doing, we highlighted the violence directed against Sinsi-Roma homes and lives while underscoring the fact that this abuse is situated within a broader sociopolitical, economic, and spatial context: specifically, the humble community’s proximity to the important cultural symbol of a football stadium.

How do innovations in camera technology, as a tool of documentation and witness, facilitate different ways of understanding human rights? Turning attention to the camera device itself, I argue, requires an eye for both the past and the present, perhaps with a sidelong gaze at the future. The story of the camera begins with a piece of architecture, specifically the notion of the camera as a room. The ability to capture light—to pin it down, to wed fleeting image with permanence—lagged by a millennium and a half. In what follows, I explore the evolution of the camera from its association with foundations and tripods to hands and sky.

Foundations—The earliest cameras on record trace back to the camera obscura—a dark space with an opening at one end, through which the light passed, and a flat surface at the other, upon which the inverted image landed. Kaja Silverman finds Mo Ti, the Chinese philosopher, musing about the “image-making properties” of such an approach as early as the fifth century BCE, followed by Aristotle a century later, and the Arab scholar Alhazen 1,500 years hence.32 Many other thinkers spent the years between the eleventh and nineteenth century exploring the implications of this technology.33 One important lesson that can be drawn from this origin story is the simple fact that, as Silverman observes, the technology stood on its own, figuratively and literally:34

Since the viewer had to enter the classical camera obscura in order to see its images, he [sic] was also a receiver. This would have been hard to ignore, because the device had no focusing mechanism. The only way the viewer could render its often hard-to-see images more legible was to move around the sheet of paper on which they were received until he found the point at which they came into focus—i.e., to participate in the reception process.

What I want to emphasize here is not the metaphorical foundation the camera obscura laid for later photographic technology, but rather the materiality of an actual foundation.

In its earliest days, the camera was a place, rather than a thing. It was a fixed space where light streamed constantly, should an observer care to look. The light did not care either way; it came and went as it pleased, with nothing to hold it down. As a form of architecture, the camera obscura served artists rather than activists. I have found no record of any use or moment in which the camera obscura was directed toward matters of political consequence. Quite to the contrary, Sarah Kofman argues that theorists like Nietzsche saw the camera obscura less as an object for recording, but instead as a “metaphor for forgetting,”35 forgetting being a kind of anti-politics in which information is acknowledged and then retired. The ability to permanently fix images as daguerreotype, and the invention later of glass slides that allowed for mass reproduction, ensured a permanency that allowed the image to pass easily into the political world, whether as a slide-lantern show or as a postcard passed hand to hand. The camera obscura did no such thing. Indeed, the earliest camera artifact presents an opportunity for reflection rather than reporting.

Tripods—Technology shapes witness. Much has been said of Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan’s images of the Civil War,36 but the reality is that they are the product of a particular set of technological opportunities and constraints, which in turn shaped how the war was visualized. The shutter speed technology of the era required legs (a tripod), and at its earliest stages the chemical process of development required an entire wagon for its transportation. The camera was a device that could neither stand on its own nor be held by humans. These large cameras define an era of advocacy photography that stretched from the Crimean War of the 1850s and American Civil War of the 1860s on through the turn of the century, when lens and film technologies developed sufficiently to render the tripod unnecessary. The importance of these technical facts for image-making cannot be overstated. Images of war had to wait until the action ended, leaving ample room to situate and stage. Portraitures of generals were popular, perhaps in part because cooperative subjects could be made to stand still. The same can be said for the dead, who allowed the photographer sufficient time for composition. As Lawrence Douglas writes, “in an age of slow shutter speeds, the dead struck the most cooperative poses.”37

The dominant technology—wet plate photography—required long shutter speeds and immediate film processing. Dark rooms were drawn on wagons and chemicals had to be mixed by hand.38 Early versions of the process had to be completed—from coating to development—in as little as 10 minutes. Early dry plates eliminated the need for a tedious chemical process, but extended exposure times considerably.39 The images produced during the conflict made a huge impression on the public,40 but the nature of the images themselves was shaped by technological constraints beyond the photographer’s control and decidedly outside the viewer’s field of vision. In sum, technology framed the nature and range of photographable moments: camera technology had a lasting impact on what was seen, recorded, and reported.

The era of the tripod marks photography’s earliest relationship with humanitarian image-making. Roger Fenton’s footage of the Crimean War in 1855—including his famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death”—was followed by what may be the first images of corpses, photographed by James Robertson and Felice Beato. While some of these images may have been staged—unsurprising considering slow shutter speeds and the influence of the theatre—their importance lay instead with the role they played in sensitizing the public’s conscience to the reality of violent conflict and in creating what Azoulay has called a “civil imagination”—the civic practice of reclaiming civil power—around the suffering of war.41 Here, photography costs the powerful something, contradicting official narratives of the glories of war, perhaps. This story about the power of the image is as credible of a human rights origin story as the novel.42 It took investment in camera technology, however, for photography to fully matter for human rights. This is why George Roeder argues that due to “the technical limitations of early twentieth century photography, the most striking images to come out of World War I were written ones.”43 The camera simply wasn’t up to the task of following the action. No wonder photographs were staged.

Hands—Faster shutter speeds facilitated the advent of hand-held photography and the emergence of a new ethics of authenticity. The slow speed and sizable entourage required by the tripod era meant that cameras occupied significant and visible time and space. There was no capturing an image in a traditional sense, only framing it. Faster shutter speeds liberated the camera spatially (from the tripod) and temporally (from the several-second wait it took to capture the image). This shift from the tripod to the hand had a significant impact on advocacy photography. Socially, faster shutter speeds meant the photographer did not need to secure the subject’s cooperation to make an image, since one needn’t ask them to stand motionless for an extended period of time. One only needed to take the picture. Imaging on dry plates—and later on film—also freed the photographer to make as many images as they had cartridges, without the need to process the film immediately.

At the turn of the last century, English missionary Alice Seeley Harris used the popular handheld Kodak Brownie to document Belgian atrocities in the Congo Free State. Sliwinski demonstrates how these photographs were used as an advocacy tool by missionary reformers but also as “a kind of forensic evidence of colonial brutality” in reports presented to British Parliament.44 The images were meant to provide “incontrovertible proof” of atrocities and to inspire international humanitarian intervention.

These early rights photographs helped illuminate the fact that the Congolese people had been grossly abused, and in turn framed these abuses as criminal. The reformers conceived of rights in direct response to the suffering registered by the camera’s lens, a form of compassionate responsiveness to that moment in which human dignity was thought to be lost.45

In other words, the Kodak camera contributed to a new organization of human dignity in international politics and the first articulation of crimes against humanity. It also inaugurated calls for moral responsibility premised upon the effective and evidentiary power of the visual. The use of these photographs by the Congo Reform Movement set the blueprints for subsequent humanitarian movements. The handheld camera became an inextricable part of the human rights advocacy toolkit.

The handheld era is also commonly associated with the rise of the Leica and similar high-quality, lightweight, cartridge-based devices. The gap between photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine and their successors Robert Capa and Sebastião Salgado was more aesthetic than technological—the style of their images and their image-making sensibilities may differ, but the underlying technological equipment used to make those images remained relatively stable. The emergence of the Leica and Rolleiflex in the late 1920s put light-weight and horizontal viewfinder-equipped roll film devices into the hands of generations of journalists and advocates, leading some to dub this the era of “Rolleiflex Witness.”46 Thirty-five-millimeter cameras fit easily into the hand and made on-the-fly composition easy. This format made possible Riis’ humanitarian street photography, Capa’s infamous work during the Spanish Civil War, Lange’s frank portrayals of the dispossessed and interned, and the immediacy of Salgado’s images of people going about their lives. We do well to remember these images, but I hope to continue to direct our gaze to the importance of the actual photo-making apparatus, of the equipment, in this process.

Rapidly interchangeable film canisters were eventually replaced by digital memory cards and film by sensors. Lenses, for their part, eventually evolved off of camera bodies and onto the backs of mobile phones, which are now the largest segment of devices in circulation. Yet from Riis’ use of the flash (magnesium powder on a frying pan) on through the fast shutter speeds of Salgado’s Leica and to a wave of handheld digital devices today, we see more similarity than difference. Mobile devices reverse the gaze such that it is no longer just the state that renders human rights claims legible. Mobile devices also enable activists to expand the horizon of what counts. What matters is that these devices are mobile and handheld, not whether they are digital or analog. From close range, the digital-analog divide appears significant. With a step back, however, we see that the era of the handheld device is but one important stage of several.

Generations of advocates were able to pursue their craft and bear witness in backrooms, alleyways, and battlefields the world over. What holds the handheld era together despite the digital/analog divide is the flexibility it provided to a broad range of photographers. Unobtrusive spontaneity was simply not possible in the era of the tripod. This unorthodox approach suggests that little has changed between CNN’s 1989 filming of Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and recent viral videos of police abuse captured by citizen journalists. A lot has changed in the ways these images have changed hands, but little has changed about the relationship between the device and the human agent.

So what about handheld cameras and politics? Handheld devices have long been pivotal in depictions of rights violations. The modern human rights regime is firmly rooted in the global response to the Holocaust, itself extensively documented by both Nazi perpetrators and by the Allied troops who liberated the camps. Outrage led to new institutions and norms around universal human rights and set the tone for a new generation of camera use by human rights advocates.47 I am arguing here that this is an era firmly rooted in an experience of the individual photographer, whose limber approach to image-making is facilitated by increasingly powerful cameras that allow images to be made on the photographer’s terms. Tripods are helpful, but not necessary. Images may be distributed slowly (hand to hand via magic lantern shows), broadly (in newspapers or via postcards) or instantly (as with a live smartphone feed to a networked and watching world). Here, too, the radical transformation of cameras’ product has attracted the most popular and scholarly attention. While the means of image distribution may have changed dramatically, the power of image-making has rested on the camera in the hands of the photographer. It is this era that geospatial affordances are now busy disrupting.

Sky—This selective and truncated survey of the history of the camera leads us back to the book’s focal topic. If the earliest cameras were rooms or relied on tripods and human hands, the present technological moment is producing a new wave of image-making devices that have limbs and lives of their own. What form these entities take is subject to much debate, as scholarship on cyborgs and artificial intelligence makes abundantly clear.48 Here, though, I am thinking specifically of satellites, balloons, kites, and drones and how they extend the threshold of visibility, contributing to different human rights imaginaries and advocacy opportunities.

Satellite imagery is an increasingly accessible tool for human rights advocacy. Lisa Parks has traced the use of satellites to document atrocities in Srebrenica as an example of efforts to “regulate the meanings of the war from orbit.”49 This meaning is managed by the state’s selective acknowledgment of forensic evidence of atrocity, Parks argues, and in this way can be interpreted as an atrocity in its own right.

Here the footage indicts both the agent and subject of surveillance.

New work coming out of Google Earth raises the possibility of near-instantaneous event monitoring. Commercial satellites are able to capture ever-higher resolution images of the earth’s surface in near-real-time, and small affordable satellites have put less-sophisticated imaging into the hands of non-state actors with a bit of technical know-how. Imagine the delight of journalists, police, scholars, and spies who may now receive an alert any time crowd density spikes in Tiananmen Square.

This is important information for scholars and advocates interested in public policy and civic engagement or concerned about the violent repression of civil society. Ubiquitous satellite imagery and selective imagery by balloon pose new opportunities. These opportunities are also available to states and corporations who want to enhance and expand control over information and resources. They also obtain for challengers, like insurgents, rebels, and protesters, who are interested in either resisting the powerful or in proactively securing new resources or information. While Google Earth provides ubiquitous satellite coverage for free, on-demand coverage is prohibitively expensive. Drones and balloons, therefore, are the technology that puts control of image-making into the hands of change agents. In a twist that will matter to only a handful of readers, the iconic camera company Hasselblad—founded in Sweden in 1841 and supplying to NASA the cameras that would make virtually all of the early iconic images of earth—was recently purchased from the private equity firm Ventizz. The buyer was DJI, the world’s leading consumer drone company.


The camera’s shift from tripod to hand to sky is significant for civil society actors. Small UAVs are able to provide a more constant stream of images than are available from satellites, and at much lower cost. Likewise, helicopters are able to do many of the things small drones can, but require financial capital for the craft and political capital for official access to airspace. Human rights advocates and social movements are very rarely in possession of these resources, making lightweight and easy-to-pilot quadcopters an accessible and affordable alternative. It goes without saying that putting a camera in the air makes new spaces visible. Walls and roofs and trees are no longer what they used to be. One need only think about the extensive efforts to harden American embassies after the attacks of September 11, 2001. A terrestrial glance at any embassy reveals a phalanx of physical obstacles, hardened guardhouses, and shatterproof glass. A view from the air suggests little thought was given to devices that could find their way into every nook and cranny, no matter the height or angle. The same can be said for skyscrapers, prison compounds, factory farms, prison camps, mass graves, plundered wealth, and any other secreted location relied on by the powerful.

An early implication is that the age of democratic surveillance is upon us. By democratic, I hope to signal the shift from the high-cost and top-secret tools used by the powerful to a more accessible set of resources used by everyone else. Camera-equipped drones do for the atoms of open air what hackers have done for the bits and bytes of the Internet.

Drones allows us to hack the world of atoms.

New devices allow us to gather new data and tell new stories, while also raising tricky questions about transparency and accountability. Who will hold a drone-equipped advocacy group accountable for footage of at-risk migrants? Will the rules be the same as those that currently apply to photojournalists or camera-equipped activists? Perhaps a new set of criteria will emerge. Will self-surveillance emerge as a pre-emptive tactic for actors challenging states and other powerful authorities? It seems reasonable to suggest that if police officers should be equipped with body cameras to look out at the world, they should also be tethered to drones that observe the officer in situ. If this seems like a radical proposal, we can then ask who is more likely to implement it—independent monitors like the American Civil Liberties Union, or police departments themselves, as a preventive measure? Critics may rightly observe that if police kill with impunity despite the ubiquity of mobile phones, then always-on drone surveillance might not matter. Indeed, the nature of the sociotechnical is such that technologies fit within larger sociopolitical realities. If stable repertoires of use are nowhere on the horizon, then laws and norms are even further off. If the powerful can commission satellite surveillance, as George Clooney has recently done over Darfur, then should The People be prevented from returning the favor, by for example using drones to surveil George Clooney’s residence or, perhaps, taxpayer-funded military installations?

For the foreseeable future, these questions will be answered by evolving social norms, rather than laws, since it is not at all clear what new laws should cover, nor how new regulations will be enforced. The specter of autonomous drones takes this debate in a different direction, away from direct human agency. Nevertheless, the privacy of the subject and the surveillance of individuals and institutions remain central. The technologies are new, but the tensions represented here are quite old. Camera-equipped drones, whether piloted by algorithms or humans, force us to confront anew the extent to which a particular vision technology is implicated in discussions about privacy and surveillance, control and resistance. In particular, the evolution of the camera has consistently unsettled whatever notions of space, time, and agency had evolved in an earlier era.


Space—A palmed Leica meant anyone could be photographed from a horizontal perspective. Curtains and walls—traditional privacy techniques for shielding oneself from view—continued to do their good work. Aerial imaging devices, however, move the camera to new places. It looks wherever it likes. The camera’s shift from the tripod to the hand was huge, as its meant passersby on the street were as vulnerable to being captured and photographed as were subjects in the studio (though with far less time to fix their hair and put on a public face).

On the street, perhaps, little has changed. At altitude, however, we see that previously private spaces—backyards, rooftop gardens, and penthouse suites—are no longer off limits. This fact has been widely noted by those concerned with privacy and surveillance. Such concerns are real, but a more critical analysis would suggest that drones merely expose the privileged to the everyday surveillance experienced by everyone else.

Invasion of privacy is a real and ongoing issue, but we should be sure to take in stride the new concerns of those with sufficient capital to have avoided earlier surveillance techniques through escape to private yards, roofs, and exclusive top floors. Surveillance is a longstanding issue for marginalized communities. Rather than being a new thing introduced by new technologies, such as automated facial recognition or unmanned autonomous vehicles, sociologist Simone Browne argues, intersecting surveillances are essential to undergirding and sustaining racism and antiblackness.50 In this way, a host of tools—branding, runaway slave notices, and lantern laws—have been mobilized to surveil blackness.51 Debates over surveillance are important, but we should ask broad questions about who is affected. To tip my own hand, I am more concerned about the state using drones to extend its ability to police communities of color than I am civilians using drones to spy on penthouse suites.

Geospatial affordances open new spaces for observation. While drones certainly impinge on the privacy of individuals in some instances, they also open new opportunities to hold the powerful to account. Clearly, the drone zone—zero to 400 feet above the ground—is a new frontier, perhaps a special area slightly beyond sovereign reach, an aerial extension of James Scott’s Zomia.52

Time—The rapid increase in additional imaging devices—beyond the handheld lens—impacts image-making’s relationship with time. In the shift from long shutter speeds on tripods to short shutter speeds in the hand, both have one clear factor in common: the presence of a human agent making key decisions. What should be photographed, and when, are critical. Image composition is a hallmark of both image-making and image-observing: Barthes’ search for the punctum in an image is mirrored by the photographer’s search for the right moment of light. The arty agentic instantness of that moment is being eroded by always-on video feeds, by intervalometers capturing images at regular points in time, and increasingly by remotely deployed devices that make images all on their own.

By de-momentizing (what else to call it!?) the moment of the photograph, subjects are denied the time to prepare. The shift away from the physical presence of a photographer under a hood or behind a viewfinder has social and political implications about the way that people feel they are living on Earth and on the street and going about their lives. In an earlier era, the camera was either taking a picture or it was not. The advent of handheld 35mm photography, especially on the street, meant that there was no particular moment in which the image was being made by the photographer. Furthermore, almost anywhere could be the place where one was photographed—on the street, in the alley, in the dark. If the handheld 35mm radically expanded the where and the when available to the human agent, independent imaging platforms have taken all three processes one step further, shifting not only our understanding of time and space but also of humans’ role in the process. Both satellites and drones operate in their own time and often make images continuously, or at regular intervals, or at the moment they are prompted by a nonhuman agent like an algorithm. If time is relative for the image maker, it is also irrelevant for the image-making: infrared equipped sensors can photograph by night, eroding whatever benefits we may feel come from the cover of darkness.

Agency—“We have grown accustomed to thinking of the camera as an aggressive device: an instrument for shooting, capturing, and representing the world. Since most cameras require an operator, and it is usually a human hand that picks up the apparatus, points it in a particular direction, makes the necessary technical adjustments, and clicks the camera button, we often transfer this power to our look.”53 So argues art historian Kaja Silverman.

It may be time to transfer this power back to the device.

The third implication of this broad shift to camera-equipped geospatial affordances is that the act of photo-making is increasingly out of our hands. If images are being made according to logics and criteria that exist independent of human actors, then we must address new questions about agency. Drones are able to navigate toward and then hover around objects identified by an array of sensors, independent of direct human input. Likewise, satellites orbit the earth, making and sending images all on their own. In each case, the resulting images are warehoused in server farms, awaiting analysis by algorithms programmed to tease signal from the noise. The moment of the photograph is disappearing into a sea of always-on sensors. The role of the human in every stage of the process is also in decline. There is no single isolated time when that thing is happening, no one finger on the shutter release—no held breath for the moment and release in an act of agency.

To date, the actors in our histories of photography have been human, directing the camera’s gaze, pointing and shooting, focusing and view-finding. Human agency is built into the design language of the device itself. The outside of the camera is made for the human user—knurled knobs for the grip of a hand and dioptric viewfinder adjustments for the human eye. By contrast, satellites, kites, and drones are integrated into human-built networks and engage with human-initiated and -mediated tasks and processes, but often do much of their work on their own.54 They are sent out by humans into other places—streets and skies and space—to see what they will, then report back to humans, or not. The near future will see the emergence of a new class of cameras that are deployed in response to data events. The moment of the photograph is no longer linked to the index finger, the plunger, and the eye.55

This is true for aerial camera platforms and always-on surveillance systems, but new technology is changing what the devices in our own hands capture and when this capturing occurs.56 Google is using the hand’s natural shakiness—earlier a liability—as an asset, since it provides the nano-variation in perspective needed to develop richer digital data. From there, its systems use machine learning (a convolutional neural network deployed on TensorFlowLite) to analyze digital images on-the-fly. The result is critical determinations about coloration and contrast, but in low-light conditions it also results in the generation of details that are imputed algorithmically rather than captured optically. In other words, according to Google’s Isaac Reynolds, the process increases “actual resolution so we can take pictures that resolve better than the underlying sensors might.” The point here is stark: what the sensor captures and actual resolution are two different variables. Intelligent photography, Reynolds suggests, provides better pictures “not because it’s helping you take a better shutter press, but it’s helping you choose the better instant.”57 The device owner is now less a photographer than an editor, choosing images made by another. What the camera captures is mediated by artificial intelligence, and what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

When a phone does its capturing is also evolving. The term “shutter lag” refers to the momentary delay between when you indicate you want to take a picture (by pushing a button or touching a screen) and when the image is actually taken. Google has gotten around this issue with a “zero-shutter-lag” solution on its phones, which begin taking pictures as soon as the camera app is opened. A steady stream of images are buffered until the user indicates which moment should be captured, at which point the devices saves a dozen or so images, which it amalgamates into a composite image. When, exactly, is the photographic moment, what Roland Barthes called the punctum? It is gone, disappearing in the algorithmic flow.

The rise in computational photography suggests the handheld era is reaching its own inflection point. Cameras on drone platforms may be out of our hands literally, but the cameras that we have here with us may be out of our hands metaphorically. These lessons only become clear when we direct attention away from the photograph, the image, the product, and toward the sociopolitical implications of the tool itself. This chapter is a case study of what a device-centric approach to movement artifacts and political tools might look like, were we to attend primarily to the tool itself and its implications. It is also my own love-letter to the camera, or perhaps a kind of farewell.

Naina Mule:

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