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Watching the Watchers

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By David Greenwald

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM


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Eye Spies
In public or on the job, hidden cameras have us in their sights. Are we trading privacy for security? (July 2006 feature)

Three years ago, UCLA cinema professor Steve Mamber took notice of a growing trend: people purchasing small, inexpensive cameras that were easy to hide and could unobtrusively record the events of daily life.

As a film historian, Mamber saw in this something of a return to cinema's roots 100 years ago when filmmakers first set up movie cameras on streets to document the passing tide of humanity. Mamber decided to examine this hidden-camera video, and asked acquaintances if they or anyone they knew might have access to footage. To his surprise, many of them did, and soon he had the makings of a small but unique collection.

This raised the question of what to do with it. Mamber's response to what he saw as "both a widely pervasive activity and an oddly unexamined one" was to create an online archive, the UCLA Center for Hidden Camera Research.

Mamber talked to UCLA Magazine contributor David Greenwald about hidden camera surveillance, his collection and the value of studying this widening phenomenon.

Q: What sparked your interest in hidden-camera surveillance footage?

A: I am interested in documentary work, and I had written a book about cinema verité documentaries in which the filmmaker would follow someone 24 hours a day. The difference between that and hidden camera is that with cinema verité, the subjects agreed to participate. I realized at some point that that was really the only difference between that kind of documentary and hidden-camera surveillance. What struck me when I first saw this kind of footage was how similar it was to documentary filmmaking coupled with home movies and even the avant-garde — like Andy Warhol putting a camera on someone and watching him sleep for 10 hours.

Q: Indeed, a lot of the videos on your Website, like the one of a babysitter going about her daily routine, is pretty mundane stuff.

A: Hidden-camera footage needs a context. That is what I tried to do with the Web site, to provide a narrative context for the various examples that are on there, to explain what the viewer is looking at.

Q: What's your personal reaction to this material?

A: Initially it was to be horrified by the seeming invasion of privacy that it represented. But then I began to consider it in a broader context. Somebody once said about medical school that while you may study cancer, you don't make a judgment about cancer. So I don't make a judgment about the material I am studying. I was struck by how pervasive this activity is, and that is what I wanted to look at and examine.

Q: Why is it important to know about this activity?

A: We all are potential subjects of hidden-camera surveillance. We are probably, in fact, filmed much more extensively than we are aware of. People should know that there is technology out there, that it is pervasive, that is being used in this way. And it is important that we begin to develop a vocabulary to talk about it. I do think it would be wrong to immediately condemn it. It is something that is with us and it's not going to stop, so we need to find a way to talk about it and examine it.

Q: What about privacy concerns?

A: There are some activities utilizing this technology that are awful — people hiding cameras in the stalls of bathrooms or in dressing rooms, things like that. But on the other hand, there are potential uses of the technology that we all, in the main, would support, such as deterring crime. The line between individual privacy rights and public benefit is not very clear-cut. The line between public and private surveillance was crossed with the development of the Web cam. As soon as you could buy something for 50 bucks that sat on top of your computer and which you could turn in any direction you wanted without anyone necessarily noticing, that opened the door. How it is used is something we each have to be responsible for ourselves.

Q: From a cinematic point of view, what do we learn from studying hidden-camera surveillance footage?

A: Cinema in its earliest form was a device for investigating the world around us. I think that documentary impulse is still with us. So in a way it is a return to those roots because the technology is now so accessible and it is possible to put cameras in the hands of everyone. It is a documentary impulse rather than a commercial impulse. When I began this, it seemed to me like it was just an oddball niche activity. It surprised me to find there were other academics that were also looking at aspects of surveillance and how it relates to modern cinema, and the realization that the study of this subject might have a kind of legitimacy. I think that basically has been the history of media studies. The first people to study film within an academic environment were looked upon as kinds of oddballs. The same is true for the study of television. It was the same with documentary. I think that surveillance footage or hidden-camera footage or whatever you call it is the same kind of thing. It may look completely disreputable and academically worthless when you first examine it. But then you realize all the issues that it raises, and all the ways that studying it can be purposeful.

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