Some say that the art of photography is about saving the moment from the onslaught of time. That it is a means to preserve historical memory, and to grant eternal life to the ephemeral. But there’s another school of interpretation that considers photography not quite as life-giving as that. In this analysis, the camera becomes a stand-in for the gun (that you point and shoot with); and the act of taking photographs becomes, in Susan Sontag’s provocative words, “a sublimated form of murder”.

This sort of unease at the sight of a camera is as old as photography itself. Over time, though, our understanding of the potential dangers posed by the form has grown; and our objections to it now have a more urgent basis in reality rather than founded, as with Sontag, merely on philosophical grounds.

The camera today has a menacing presence. In public spaces, it is all-seeing, conspicuous: brandished as an instrument of deterrence and necessary security measure (not unlike a gun). While in a private setting it is yet more effectively a total Orwellian nightmare: a thing that sees without being seen.

All contemporary photographers—or at least the good ones—have had to grapple with the moral implications of operating a camera in the age of surveillance. And some of the more interesting aesthetic responses to this quandary are now part of a show, called Watching You, Watching Me, which I recently attended at the Museum of Photography in Berlin.

Berlin: once the espionage capital of the world. The overall theme of the show finds resonance with its setting, here like none other. This city—its eastern half at any rate—spent decades in the clutches of one of the most sinister surveillance regimes ever assembled in human history. The East German Ministry for State Security, or Stasi as it was cutely referred to, had snooping down to a fine art. To the extent that every phone line in East Berlin was tapped, every house bugged, every move traced. 

Among the highlights of the present show is a Borgesian series of images of Stasi spies caught in the act of, well, spying. Many of these agents had, as it were, the tables turned on them. One grainy black-and-white image shows a Stasi agent peering through his binoculars while directly, hilariously, facing the lens of a West German camera. There are also pictures of on-duty Stasi agents who were watched by other Stasi agents—just to give you an idea of how twisted the plot really was.

With changes wrought by technology, the nature of surveillance, too, changed. The CCTV camera is our age’s equivalent of the creepy man with a pair of binoculars outside. (He is also sometimes inside.) But how has the CCTV grab impacted the photographic form? In one particular genre of photography at least—the genre that concerns itself with visitations of evil and scenes of crime—the CCTV camera has brought about a radical transformation: it has made it possible to take pictures of processes rather than outcomes. The criminal, like the aforementioned spy, can now be caught in the act.

In one particular genre of photography at least—the genre that concerns itself with visitations of evil and scenes of crime—the CCTV camera has brought about a radical transformation: it has made it possible to take pictures of processes rather than outcomes. 

One set of CCTV prints at this exhibition comes from the archives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States. Here you see pictures of bank robberies and holdups. In one, a man with a pistol kneels on the floor, possibly ducking to cover himself from the muzzle of the CCTV camera. In another, three men with pistols are holding hostages in a bank, and one of the gunmen is trying to conceal his face with his free hand. In both cases, the camera makes its presence felt: it’s the only other source of anxiety in those rooms, apart, of course, from all the guns.

Scanning through these images, another thing becomes clear: if you airbrush the guns out, it will be impossible to tell the victims apart from the perpetrators. In the flat and democratic gaze of the CCTV camera, all men are equal—everyone a potential suspect.

Detail from Thousand Little Brothers, by Hasan Elahi.

The work of the American artist Andrew Hammerand, also exhibited here, plays on the same idea. In his series The New Town, Hammerand set about “watching a Midwestern town with their own camera”. He made pictures of the residents, by making use of a publicly-available CCTV camera, set up by a developer on a cellphone tower in town centre. (Actually, the tower was installed on top a church, which lends more metaphoric depth to Hammerand’s project.)

“My role,” Hammerand writes in the catalogue, “as both narrator and image-maker complicates the ethical boundaries between my own acts of surveillance and social critique. Through my photography, I hope to question the ethical failures, structures, and abuse of power that arise from a ‘see-something-say-something’ culture rooted in fear and social manipulation.” 

A yet more personal version of this struggle, articulated above by Hammerand, can be seen in the large floor-to-ceiling photographic piece displayed here, by the Bangladeshi-American artist Hasan Elahi. Entitled Thousand Little Brothers, Elahi’s installation is doubtless the most impactful exhibit of the show. But what is it trying to convey?

A few years ago, after receiving a fabricated tip-off linking Elahi to terrorist activities, the FBI got on the artist’s trail. A long, official, and eventually futile, “investigation” ensued. And when his ordeal ended, Elahi began his artistic project: he started snooping on himself. He sent thousands of photographs of his daily goings-on to the FBI. Every minute detail of his life is recorded in this visual diary, from meals eaten to places visited. Thousand Little Brothers is a collation of 32,000 such images, arranged in polychrome bars that replicate the colours of the pattern shown on American television screens when regular broadcast is disrupted.

Hammerand’s and Elahi’s photos give us a good sense of how social attitudes can fundamentally change the way we engage with the world. But more than that, they together form a commentary on how our culture of “fear and manipulation” is fuelled by our love of images, and by our unhealthy, even dangerous, fixation with the camera.