Cameras I: surveillance and human dignity


Cameras are important technologies when it comes to human suffering. They are used by violators, defenders and may also be the embodiment of human rights violations. How are cameras portrayed in human rights cinema? This edition focuses on surveillance cameras. Surveillance is generally perceived as an invasion of our private sphere. In a liberal mindset this equals an infringement of our human dignity. But is it that straightforward?

Turning the camera around

The documentary The Devil Operation (Boyd, 2010) shows how every minute of the life of Father Marco, a Peruvian priest, is captured by cameras. He is involved in peaceful actions that demonstrate the abuse of the local population by international mining companies. After a while, he becomes aware that cameras are pointed at him, and that they are controlled by a private security firm, which is hired by the mining companies. Marco and the people surrounding him are pursued and threatened. He is code-named “the devil” in this surveillance operation. Can we say that his dignity is violated? If so, cameras are used as a mediator. In an interesting turn of the movie, Marco turns the surveillance around. Acquiring cameras himself, he decides to follow those who follow him. If, indeed, his dignity is violated, we might argue that he re-established it, vis-à-vis the interrogators, by his course of action. This would show dignity as a condition that is actively developed in a relation between different actors.

An international fly on the wall

Unlike in the previous film, the documentary You don’t like the truth. 4 days inside Guantánamo (Côté & Henríquez, 2010) allows us to look through the surveillance camera ourselves. The directors came across footage that captured a four-day interrogation of 16 year old Omar Khadr by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Omar, a Canadian citizen, was taken to Afghanistan by his father after the war on terror had started. When he was fifteen years old, in 2002, he was captured by Americans after they attacked the house in which his father had left him. It was defended by Afghan fighters. He was found with two shot wounds in the chest. Omar was accused of killing an American soldier, for which he was interrogated and tortured by American officials. Afterwards, he was brought to Guantánamo bay. The low-quality footage of the surveillance camera shows how his Canadian interrogators try to blackmail and intimidate him. It is shocking to see such psychological abuse, particularly that it concerns a minor. The camera captures it all, also when the interrogators get angry with Omar for retracting his original confession, which he stated after torture. They claim that he is not speaking the truth now. His original story must have been correct. Sixteen year old Omar looks at them and says that he is telling them the truth now. They just don’t like the truth.

Here we might recall the previous film, in which it seemed that dignity was dismantled and reassembled in the reversible interaction between the one that watches and the one that is watched. For the present film, it is not clear whether the boy feels that he re-captures a bit of the dignity that had been taken from him. In the end, he looks defeated. Unlike father Marco, he did not have the option of inverting a camera: the camera was already pointed at the interrogators as well. On the other hand, the camera did enable Omar’s dignity to be construed in the relation between himself and his international audience. By showing his interrogators’ dislike of the truth, we might say that he established himself as an incredibly dignified teenager. Moreover, this might apply to the Canadian parliament as well, for which the film was screened. Again, we are faced with a relational, technology-mediated conception of dignity; but, one that works somewhat differently than in the previous film.

Ignorance is bliss

A last case, in which surveillance cameras take on an entirely different role again, is shown in one of my favourite shorts: A boy, a wall and a donkey (Abu-Assad, 2008). The film is only just over 4 minutes, so you may want to watch it (below), before reading on. We are presented with three Palestinian boys, who are desperately trying to shoot a movie. They have a crime story, they have guns, but they lack a camera. First, they squat the doormat of a sizable villa, using the camera of the intercom to record their masterpiece. We, as spectators, have the privilege of seeing the uncut “footage” it produces. During the first scene, a lady opens the door and throws a bucket of water on them. Soaking wet, the bravest boy demands the tape. To his great surprise he is explained that this camera doesn’t film anything, but just shows who is outside. Nevertheless, we, as spectators, do get to see what it “records”. Perhaps, a bit of their dignity as promising film makers is lost in this communication. This doesn’t stop them from mounting their donkey – three boys on one donkey (an unintentional pun on the symbol of the knights Templar?) – to march to the Israel-Palestine wall, where an actual surveillance camera is installed. Rather than showing what is “outside”, this camera seems to show what is “inside”. The same scene is re-enacted. This time, however, the boys need to act while shuffling sideways, according to what the ever-rotating camera points at. All of this to the background of the imposing concrete wall. Before reaching the end of the scene, a violent siren interrupts them. As a border patrol car speeds in their directions, one of the boys contemplates to his peers that it may be bringing their tape. Their dignity seems to be unaffected. This probably does not apply to other Palestinians when they approach the wall.

Human dignity as a relational, technology-mediated construction

On the basis of these cases, it seems clear that we cannot derive a general understanding of human dignity by examine a number of cases. Nevertheless, it seems promising to adopt a constructivist perspective on human dignity, as long as we take into consideration that it is constituted in relations that are likely to be mediated by technology.

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