Under Surveillance

I’m not sure what I think about Simon Høgsberg’s ‘The Grocery Store’ project,which I read about in a post on DVAPhoto. It’s certainly remarkable, made from around “97,000 photos of people outside a grocery store in Copenhagen” which were then analysed by the  facial recognition algorithms in Picasa  – freely downloadable photo software  – to identify people who appeared in multiple images.

It’s worth reading the interview with Høgsberg by DVA’s M Scott Brauer which explores the how and why of the project and some of the issues, particularly around privacy involved, though I feel this could have been investigated more.

The images were made by Høgsberg “returning to the bike rail outside the supermarket with my camera” and zoom lens on 159 afternoons and “Freezing face after face with a click.” They certainly seem often to be very carefully chosen moments – as you can see from exploring some of the 2067 images that make up the web project – which is a very impressive one, with the images laid out on a single zoomable page as a grid “of sequences of images crossing each other in horizontal and vertical lines. Each sequence shows the same person caught on different days” and ” are arranged in chronological order.” It’s easier to look at than explain.

On Høgsberg’s web site there is more about how the project was carried out and his discovery of the face recognition in Google’s Picasa, software which enables you to “Organise, edit and share your photos” and share them with your friends on Google+L

Picasa uses facial recognition technology to find and group similar faces together across your entire collection of photos. By adding name tags to these groups of faces, new people albums are created.

The link tells you how it is done.  Picasa is software I found rather annoying when I played briefly with it (here is a set of images of Paris I shared in 2006, complete with a multiple spelling mistake), but it seems perfect for this project.

Høgsberg gave some people in his images tags, starting with A1, A2, A3… and Picasa then sifted through the images to find the same people in other pictures. One man, E46, turned up in 276 of them. These sets were used to construct the project image.

There seems to me to be some theoretical problems here. Lets consider three people, who we could call A, B and C, and assume that there is a picture including A and B, another including B and C and a third including A and C. If the set of pictures of A is laid out horizontally  then the set of pictures including B could be laid out vertically, with the picture including both at the crossing point. But  if you then want to add the series including C, it can either be set to include the image together with A as a vertical, or that together with B as a horizontal series, but not both. And if A and B appear together at several different times, what then? Don’t even think about A, B and C all turning up at once…

Perhaps these kind of problems are why only around 2% of the images taken appear in the final presentation, though I imagine the interest and quality of the images was also a consideration.

But these are technical matters, and it is perhaps the privacy implications that concern me more. I wonder what ‘E46’, ‘R51’ and the others make of this project and their inclusion in it.

Its also a project that makes me think about the millions of images gathered every day by security cameras in various public places, and the kind of analysis and use to which they might be put – with the aid of far more powerful software tools than that included in Picasa.


2 Responses to “Under Surveillance”

  1. ChrisL says:

    A narrower viewpoint but an old idea:

    Today there is much local comment and interest in the archive and I have rarely seen privacy raise its head as an issue. I suppose it all depends on how the images are used.

    • I think that taking as many pictures of the same people as this project would qualify as stalking! I don’t know what problems if any the photographer encountered, but I think here you would almost certainly find the supermarket security and police taking an interest if you came and sat with a camera taking pictures at the same place for hours again and again. Though it would not I think be against the law.

      I also think that little of the MO work was published at the time – a few pictures in the papers, though of course his later town essays appeared in Picture Post. Most people like seeing pictures of themselves in the papers, (unless they were doing something they shouldn’t) even if they don’t like being photographed.

      More like this work are the subway portraits by Walker Evans taken in 1938-1941, and he only published these 25 years later at the time they were shown at MoMA in 1966, I think deliberately letting 25 years elapse at least in part because he was worried people might sue.
      The MO work is interesting, but largely relied on the lack of knowledge of the people being photographed- who’s experience of photography was mainly in front of a large box on a tripod with a man under a dark cloth on formal occasions, or perhaps a Box Brownie that they knew only worked on beaches in bright sun. I suspect most would not have recognised a Leica or known that you could take pictures in pubs etc.

      There was also rather more deference then to people who were obviously from the bosses class. When I began to take pictures on council estates etc in the 70s I got people who were worried in case I was from the council. But I think there was far less questioning of your right to photograph then than now, even though almost everyone takes pictures now.

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