That was fantastically interesting! So good, absolutely excellent.
Where to start with this one? Ppff! Ok, so in a nutshell, All Light, Everywhere is about how photography and therefore film has its roots in scientific analysis, racism, militarism and oppression. Following those lines forward to present day, it focuses on police body cameras and aerial surveillance.
If there is one thing you should take away from this movie, it’s that taking a photograph is not a neutral act. It comes with a huge power imbalance, is crafted based on how the person holding the camera has chosen to take it, and comes with a flawed perception of having captured an ‘objective’ record of events.
It always has been. The history of the camera has been attempt to recreate the eye, sometimes with improvements. But an enormous flaw in our logic has been to act like the eye sees. The eye doesn’t see, the brain sees. And the brain is not a neutral observer.
This is your TLDR bail warning.
When studying for my Human Biology Higher, my teacher told me the eye was like a box brownie (shout out to Mrs. Ogg, the absolute legend). The retina is like the film, and when the eye opens, it captures the world the same was an image appears in a box brownie camera, image inverted and flipped. So why don’t we see the world upside down and back-to-front? Quite simply because our brains flip it back. The optical nerve is plugged into the back of the eye and takes this inverted data to our brains, where the brain goes, “The eye’s a fucking idiot” and puts it to rights. That leaves us with one problem though, raise your hand if you can spot it. We have a massive great big nerve cable plugged directly into our retina, where there’s no retina. So nothing can be seen where the nerve meets the eye, and we are blind there. All eyes have this blind spot, so why don’t we have two huge dods of black floating around our visions at all times? Simple, our brains colours it in. Isn’t that wild? That blew my mind when I learned that. Look out your eyes right now. Part of what you’re seeing isn’t real. It isn’t really there. You’re brain is projecting an assumption of what should be there.
And here we come to our problem. Because what we assume to be there, becomes there, because we assume it. The brain is on a permanent self-reinforcing bias loop.
So also is the history of cameras. Because a camera’s job isn’t to capture a neutral observation. It’s to show us an observation.
All Light, Everywhere begins with the example of the transit of Venus in the 1870s. As Venus comes between the Earth and the sun, to our eye we see a very small black dot cross its face. This pinpoint-sized eclipse was extremely important for making astronomical measurements. If we wanted to learn anything about the size of the solar system or the universe, we needed to measure with exactness the time it took for Venus to cross the face of the sun.
Big problem though, as Venus nears the completion of its transit, an optical distortion occurs, called the black drop effect, where the edge of Venus begins to appear like a teardrop hitting the edge of the sun. This basically led to different folk having different opinions on when exactly Venus had crossed the sun, which led to different proposed measurements which meant we couldn’t use it with any accuracy.
The solution was proposed that a machine could be made to do what the human eye could not – record the transit of Venus accurately. The 19th century was an age of technological wonders, in which scientists didn’t just look for the truth, but had every expectation to find it. So a kind of global competition began to see who could build to the most accurate observation machine. Into the film comes Pierre Janssen, a French astronomer, who builds a ‘photographic revolver’. Based on the design of the gun, the plates would be exposed on an automated rotation of every second or so.
What it doesn’t do is solve the black dot effect. What it does do is produce the world’s first film.
Nice story, where is this going? Well, the photographic revolver was followed by the chronophotographic gun, which became the ancestor of the movie camera. It is considered a pivotal invention in the history of film. Unfortunately film is not its only legacy, as the machine gun draws on its design. British airforce gunners were trained using a variation of it in preparation for the oncoming war for control of the colonies, namely the First World War. Cameras drawing on objects of war, and objects of war drawing on cameras is a long and interwoven history.
The inventor of the chronophotographic gun, Etienne-Jules Marey, along with English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, became the fathers of chronophotography, filming movement for scientific measurement and analysis. This included horses running, birds flying, and eventually human subjects. Just like with animals, in studying human movement, there is an attempt to understand, extrapolate and codify the human. As white Europeans, most of their subjects were white Europeans. This neutral observation to decide what is and isn’t how a human being looks, moves, and behaves is decided by white men from the more privileged echelons of society.
The last person we’re gonna meet from the past is Sir Francis Galton, a genius polymath and racist dick. When his cousin Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species, Galton became obsessed with the idea of hereditary, and began the collation of biometric data for research. He believed that huge amounts of human behaviours and characteristics were hereditary, and he invented the term eugenics to outline his theories. In searching for commonalities among those of shared behaviour, Galton invented composite portraiture, where he photographed numerous subjects of the same ‘type’ and amalgamated their appearance to given an average. How close or far you deviated from the average, could then be equated to how likely you were to commit such behaviour.
He presented composite portraitures of ‘healthy’ types, unhealthy ‘tubercular’ types, the ‘Jew’ type, and the ‘criminal’ type. By overlaying hundreds of pictures of criminals, Galton produced the average appearance of a criminal. The intention would be that it would make likely criminals more identifiable. As the film says, he produced a portrait which was of someone of his own invention, someone who did not themselves actually exist, but who nonetheless, were guilty of a crime.
Where am I going with all this? What has all this got to do with modern policing and body cameras?
Each of these three examples from photography’s early history were attempting make an a recordable objective truth. Each were ultimately undone by an inability to grasp their own bias, their own influence in the manufacture of the image, and their own subjectivity in its observation. Each drew on and left a legacy to the forces of violence, oppression, and racism.
“From what history, does the future dream?” asks the film.
Body cameras are used by the police to be an objective record of an incident. They are accepted in court as evidence, and even many campaigners for police accountability promote body cameras as a solution.
The film visits the Axon headquarters where most of the US’s police body cameras are manufactured, alongside tasers and drones. It also sits in on a Baltimore police training course in the use of body cameras.
Can I just break right here from the throughline of the film’s thesis to say how banal evil is. For those on the sharp end of the stick, it’s easy to imagine the forces of oppression as . . . well, impressive. You get to Axon headquarters where they are manufacturing weapons and surveillance and you are greeted by the hilariously sunny executive, who is just super jazzed to show you around this thriving enterprise. As rows of workers sit poking the electronic guts into their plastic packs, he gestures to the motivational signs hanging from the ceiling like a 1984 parody. “Go for the win” and “Be obsessed” hang above rows of uniformed process line workers making the same repetitive tests on weapons for the state. In the police training, the instructor has the same mix of tedious and perky of training instructors the world over. Folk roll their eyes at his enthusiasm for acronyms and belabouring of obvious points. Towards the end of the day, you recognise with total familiarity the look of people who’ve spent a day in a training course and just want to get home for their tea.
Back to the point. Body cameras are items manufactured by private companies for profit, and used by police to support their purposes. A body camera is designed to be as much like a human eye as possible. It’s not there to show with greater accuracy that you weren’t holding a weapon, it’s there to prove that the police officer, with their human eye, thought you were holding a weapon. Body cameras are set to a wide lens to give the maximum field of capture, as this is helpful to the police when used as evidence, but also exaggerate movement and can make objects appear closer that they are, which can distort interactions with other to make them look more frenetic and intimidating. Body cameras exclude the police themselves from the image produced, they are not a record of what the police did, but what was done to them. They are not a record of events, but a record of how the police chose to show them.
The film also visits the offices of PSS, an aerial surveillance company. Again, the CEO is a lovely man, who wants to emphasise as much as he can that his technology cannot identify people in the street. A person only appears the size of a pixel, a tiny black dot. “The only reason we know it’s not a bush is it’s moving,” he tells us. “The only reason we know it’s not a dog is because it tends to get in a car and drive away.” The notion of obscuring the humanity from your image is, in his mind, a selling point of the benignity of this type of surveillance.
You may remember hearing stories about PSS from its pilot project with Baltimore PD. The police commissioned Persistent Surveillance Systems to fly over the city with a bunch of cameras attached to it during the BLM street protests following the murder of Freddie Gray by the police. No one knew about it, not even the mayor. Needless to say, shit hit the fan when it was discovered and the project was grounded.
The CEO still believes in the work, and wants to get it back up and running. To this end he holds town hall meetings in predominantly Black areas, to explain exactly what the surveillance does do and what it doesn’t do. The communities there are understandably intensely concerned about the high murder rates, and are willing to listen to a proposed solution. The place it falls down is, as one participant puts it, “you need to turn the camera around”. The camera is always pointing into these communities of colour, and excluding what is behind the image, which is the rest of the city, profiting from the status quo. These “God’s eye” planes won’t see any crime inside the skyscrapers of the financial district. They won’t see it in leafy suburbia, where the streets are obscured with trees. It will only see it in the bare, stripped down streets of poor inner-city neighbourhoods. The film shares a quotation, which runs along the lines, the eye only sees what it looks for, and looking for it, already has an idea of what to find.
Like our blind spot, our minds have already formed an idea of what we expect to see, and in looking for it, we find it as we expected.
All Light, Everywhere runs the gamut from being a documentary about modern policing, a history of photography, and a philosophical meditation on how we know, or think we know. Being American, I usually expect anything of that sort to be heavy-handed and obvious, or self-fellatingly pretentious. But this is actually fascinating, providing an interweaving of points much more deftly and densely than I’ve relayed here. It is an insistence on the camera as a tool of power, a weapon, and by its nature incapable of objectivity. While many will persist that it captures the truth, the question remains, whose truth?