Border Management in the Space of the Viewer

How society controls itself via the societal space of the viewer, and how Julian Röder's photographer show this control at work

Hatje Cantz Verlag, 18. Juli 2014

Since the development of photographic recording technologies, every social conflict is a struggle for control of the space of the viewer. When two individuals look at one another, their gazes merge, and no fixed space results. However, a photograph creates the independent space of the viewer, in which one person is presented as an image and can become the object of categorizations, judgments, and projections beyond his or her influence.

Ethnographic photography thus played a role in the construction of the Other as an artifact, about which it was possible to develop theories and which served to concretize the technical superiority of capitalistically organized societies as a racial superiority. Such photography permitted the establishment of a space of the viewer that separated people into those who produce, look at, and interpret images and those who tend to serve as the subject matter for this kind of image production. Yet, the photographic document also gave rise to new forms of resistance. For example, in 1845 Jonathan Walker was able to transform the “SS” (“slave stealer”) branded on his hand after he was caught freeing slaves into a testimony of injustice through a daguerreotype. The image founded a critical public and induced fundamental changes in rights and values.i The proliferation of photographic means of production created what Ariella Azoulay has described as a new “civic space of the gaze, speech, and action”ii that transcended spatial and social boundaries. This space meanwhile structures all forms of violent and institutional conflict.

This shows particularly clearly at demonstrations, like the anti-G-8 protests that Julian Röder dedicated his Summits series. They generally represent a fight for rights, common properties, and public space. However, such struggles are always defined by the negotiation of the space of the viewer—who can use whom as an image. The covering and masking of the face, as still seen in the Summits images, is now widely prohibited, while authorizations for police surveillance have been broadened. At the same time, law enforcement has to take into account that any assault will potentially land on the Internet as a publicly-viewable video document. Power is thus divided according to who has the means to control their own image or make an image of someone else—either as a politician, a tourist, or a photographer with a sufficiently large audience.

Such privileges are usually shared by larger groups, for example by a global middle class, for whom it is a matter of course to take vacation photographs at distant places and share them with others in their living rooms or on the Internet. These privileges are what guide me in producing and looking at images, and they inform my habits. They constitute a system of dispositions: mental (What subject matter interests me? What feelings do they arouse?) and material (What kinds of exhibitions or media presentations can I afford to see? What kind of camera do I own?).iii This system of shared dispositions may be called the “social space of the viewer.” It forms a spatial structure that enables every single concrete space of the viewer, and in turn it is constantly being produced by these individual spaces.iv

This structure is based on technical premises (Who has control of the cameras? Means of transport? Internet access?); legal premises (What is my nationality? What privileges does it entail?); political premises (What national borders am I allowed to cross?); economic premises (What resources can I fall back on?); and narrative premises, such as national histories or common values (What is normal? What is threatening? What is desirable?). All these things determine my preferences for encountering a certain subject matter, even to the point of how I carry myself. Those who know that their health insurance or government will fly them home in an emergency have fewer scruples while taking pictures than those who are afraid of being prosecuted or deported. Wherever I go, I am the carrier and agent of my social space of the viewer.

The social space of the viewer enables or limits my gaze. It ensures that I will tend to produce or see certain kinds of images more than others. At the same time its structure is repeatedly constituted and affirmed by all of these local gazes and images that it enables—or minimally altered by means of unorthodox images or technological innovations.

The social space of the viewer is nowhere else but in the bodies and things that we use and link together in meaningful ways. However, because this space presents the rules and standards by which we do this, it is simultaneously relatively stable, on the one hand, and relatively invisible, on the other. It tends to mask itself with the images that it enables.

This occurs, for example, in classical documentary photography and its inherent purpose of witnessing events. Images of refugees or mine workers invite a moral response and a sense of identification with the depicted. However, at the same time, these images generate and affirm spaces of the viewer, in which the photographer and viewer hold the means of production, and those who are viewed are reduced to passive objects. The complicity with the social space of the viewer is employed while cloaking it at the same time. Julian Röder calls this kind of image-making, in which the apparatus of production ultimately celebrates itself, “look-at-this humanism.”

In his series Mission and Task, Röder explores his own agency within the realm of gazes. He does not aim his camera at symptoms but at a system of image production—taking a look at outposts of his own space of the viewer, which ensures his own privileges as a photographer with German citizenship. His photographs taken at the outer borders of the Schengen Area do not portray any victims, but only operators, viewers, or more precisely, observers. Like the two Greek border policemen in Grenzsituation, Nordgriechenland (Border Situation, Northern Greece, 2012), who have taken up position next to an Orthodox chapel overlooking the Evros River, which separates Greece from Turkey. This is one of the more porous borders that is defined by an increasingly dense network of surveillance and intervention. The directional axes of two gazes dominate the composition. The policeman on the left is looking at his colleague, who is looking through an infrared thermal imaging camera on a tripod. This latter gaze mirrors Röder’s own, who has projected his space of the viewer into that of the soldier: all three gazes are relativized by a scenario suggesting a theater of the absurd. Captured in the light of the flash, the chapel—a relic of an old cultural order—seems like a stage set; it renders the motif a symbol for the extent to which civil space is increasingly permeated by the asymmetrically weighted and monitoring gaze of military logic.v

Although the social space of the viewer does not end at a national border, it is codetermined by such boundaries, which in turn have always been secured by the space of the viewer. New imaging technologies permit the steady expansion and stabilization of these domains—like the multi-component surveillance camera photographed by Röder in Hochleistungskamera—MX 15 und frequenzmoduliertes Dauerstrichradar (High-Performance Camera—MX 15 and Frequency-Modulated Continuous Wave Radar, 2013), which was developed under the leadership of the French state-owned company Direction des Constructions Navales (DCNS) for the European Union’s border security program Eurosur.vi Borne by a surveillance blimp, it is designed to work in interaction with swimming drones and satellite data to provide seamless day and night surveillance of an area encompassing the EU’s external borders up to two hundred nautical miles.

The sea as a place of longing, depicted in the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Michael Schmidt as marking the limits of human accessibility, thus becomes a thoroughly mapped and functionalized space, which is conveyed by Röder’s photograph Überwachungszeppelin, Südfrankreich (Surveillance Zeppelin, Southern France, 2013) in a pointed but matter-of-fact manner. A boat belonging to the coast guard, a drone, and a zeppelin make their rounds in a self-satisfied performance of their duties.

Röder’s use of flash in the image Hochleistungskamera – MX 15 und frequenzmoduliertes Dauerstrichradar portrays the rounded tracking device in the idiom of product photography—as an attractive, puzzling fetish recalling a prop in a George Lucas film. The lenses reflect the device’s surroundings, showing the upside-down horizon and the individual blades of grass in the field where the zeppelin is parked. The ball emanates the power to reduce everything that it encounters to an object implemented in accordance with certain routines, which are established elsewhere and cannot be influenced by the individual. A view of the zeppelin’s cockpit in Wescam Operator (2013) makes obvious the asymmetry between the space of the viewer established by this constellation and that of a refugee in a boat, for which detection the aircraft is made.

Devices such as these solidify borders, which, being complex and highly sensitive in their manifold aspects, are more resistant than water, barbed wire, or cement. They are able to keep people at bay—preventing them from even encountering a border. They make it possible to send refugees back to their harbor of origin, even before any claim for asylum can be checked. Politics employ technology (or is it the other way around?), in order to be able to circumvent established law. This is where an extreme form of the space of the viewer is established, in which the Other is nothing more than an anonymous dot on the screen—an object of knowledge production being denied any voice in the process.

As with intelligent cars and houses, both developers and politicians use the words “smart borders” in describing these systems, Röder states: “Borders are no longer defined by fences but data and information.” This is increasingly as true of the people who approach these borders. Within the politics of Eurosur, these individuals are not viewed as the starting point for possible solutions but the source of a problem. A highly nervous system invents disruptive factors to legitimize its existence. (Ultimately, up until now, locating refugees was not the most pressing problem; still, more shipwrecked people were sighted than saved in the Mediterranean.)vii How do you represent a system in a photograph? In 1931 Bertolt Brecht observed that the photograph of a factory says almost nothing about it. When “actual reality . . . drifts into the functional,” the documentary reaches its limits. Brecht thus suggests that instead of merely depicting reality, one should “construct something, something ‘artificial,’ something’ staged.’”viii

Apart from setting up his camera equipment, Julian Röder does not construct anything; he takes photographs of what he finds. However, he does permit the individuals photographed to consciously choose how they would like to pose for the camera, as with the border guard in Griechisch-Bulgarische Frontexeinheit, Nordgriechenland (Greek-Bulgarian Frontex Unit, Northern Greece, 2012), who opts for a theatrical pointing gesture. In Polnischer Frontexbeamter, Nordgriechenland (Polish Frontex Officer, Northern Greece, 2012) his colleague stands with his legs wide apart, as if posing for an outdoor apparel catalogue. Instead of dramatizing, Röder’s photographs reflect the situation created by the camera. By assuming certain poses, the photographed individuals almost seem to step beside themselves; they “act out” their societal roles. The depicted are not objects of a kind of knowledge that the viewer already assumes to have. Here a Frontex officer is not a Frontex officer but an unknown man in the role of a Frontex officer. The situations that Röder portrays do not seem imperative but created. They present themselves as social constructs and thereby inherently and fundamentally alterable.

Röder transposes these situations into the exhibition space, a space of constant border crossings that are difficult to control: crossings between the image space and the imaginary space. Here, the dispositions of the image, of what it shows, and my own (dispositions) enter a negotiation that is in principle interminable and open to change. This is quite different than the depicted image-generating processes, which aim at increasingly preventing negotiations between viewers (with agency) — and whose application in the Interior will some day only seem a matter of course.

i Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York, 2008), p. 22.

ii Ibid., p. 17.

iii With the term “disposition” I am referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social practice. See Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977).

iv On the term “räumlichen Struktur” (translated here as “spatial structure”), see Martina Löw, Raumsoziologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001), esp. p. 166ff.

v In conjunction with the earth observation program Copernicus, the satellites of ESA, which are officially dedicated to monitoring storms and pollution, are also used by Frontex for border surveillance. For this purpose a technology is used that was formerly only included in spy satellites,such as high-resolution, infrared cameras (see http://www.zeit.de/digital/datenschutz/2013-12/frontex-eurosur-satelliten-fluechtlinge). The borders between military and police applications are thus blurred.

vi When the European Parliament approved the Eurosur (European Border Surveillance System) program on October 10, 2013, which would enable the prompt gathering of information about refugee movements and the exchange of this information among member states, it gave its seal of approval to facts that been accomplished over a period of five years. Earlier the EU Commission had earmarked 1.1 billion euros from the Internal Security for the development of an Entry/Exit System (EES) and a Registered Traveler Program (RTP) based on the US model, which aimed to provide the seamless monitoring of travel movements into and out of the Schengen Area. See the study Borderline: The EU’s New Border Surveillance Initiatives by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (2012), https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/DRV120523BORDERLINE-Border_Surveillance.pdf

vii For a long time illegal immigrants have supported the EU economy as harvesters or domestic workers. Making entry more difficult is effectively a means of negotiating price: the price of an application for asylum, the price of an illegal worker—and thus the value of one group of people compared to another. If one calculates the economic cost to all parties involved, including tax payers and refugees, the losses incurred by Eurosur are higher than the profits. Direct advantages do result for a number of defense and technology companies, which will earn more through the refugee phantasm that all of the world’s human traffickers put together.

viii Bertold Brecht, Werke: Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, ed. Werner Hecht, vol. 21 (Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, 1992), p. 469.

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