Fillip 15 — Fall 2011

Exhaustive Images
: Surveillance, Sovereignty, and
 Subjectivity in Google Maps Street View
Gabrielle Moser

Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.1 —Giorgio Agamben

For a technology that is purportedly meant to aid in the description and representation of geographic space, the Google Maps Street View program manages to capture a remarkable number of human subjects. Employing an automated, nine-lensed camera, mounted on vehicles ranging from a large utility van to, more recently, a modified tricycle, Street View creates a 360° horizontal panorama of public streets, paths, and hiking trails in more than a dozen countries, all accessible through an interactive Web site.2 Buildings, roads, and major landmarks are among the utilitarian, even banal, fixtures in Street View’s roster of subjects, but it is the regular appearance of human figures that continuously draws my attention away from the urban landscape: people walking, talking, working, fighting, leaning, gesticulating, reclining, and, above all, looking, at one another, at the camera, at us. In Street View, subjects caught unawares, continuing their everyday tasks, subjects encountering unexpected calamities and conflicts, and subjects acknowledging and even responding to the Google camera are captured alongside one another. Though he could not have anticipated such a development (or perhaps it was his worst nightmare, given its realization as the ultimate iteration of a virtual panopticon), Street View is a context that pro-
vides compelling insight into Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower, a technology of power centred on the management, distribution, and surveillance of human bodies and the regulation of their basic biological functions.3

Foucault argued that biopolitics heralded a movement away from a society of discipline (where the management of human bodies is maintained through firm rules, standards of normalcy, and institutions such as the prison, school, and the panopticon) and toward a society of control (where control over human behaviour is enacted outside the structured sites of social institutions, through the “flexible and fluctuating networks” of capitalism, democracy, autonomy, and self-regulation).4 In the biopolitical context of a society of control, therefore, the direct surveillance of human behaviour afforded by the panopticon is augmented and replaced by modes of self-regulation and self-surveillance, such as Google Maps Street View, that centre on the management and maintenance of human life. In biopolitics, human subjects cooperate and participate in their own regulation both inside and outside of state-run social institutions through the rhetorics of democracy, the autonomous subject, and physical well-being. But the society of control also differs from the earlier disciplinary society in its insistent and insidious focus on regulating processes of subjectification, as well as the processes of biological life. Expanding on Foucault’s work, Giorgio Agamben argues that modern biopower’s supreme ambition is to produce, in a human body, the absolute separation of the living being (the body’s biological functions) from the speaking being (the ability to speak and relate to others that constitutes subjectivity).5 For Agamben, one of the most terrifying aspects of modern biopower is its ability to force the human body’s biological life to continue, in a state of survival, long after the subject has lost the ability to speak for or represent itself, existing in a position of desubjectification he terms “bare life.”

The modern biopower that Street View exemplifies is also marked by the characteristics of global capitalism.6 As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have asserted in their landmark book Empire (2000), one of the defining features of global capitalism is its ability to harness processes of (de)subjectification for the creation of wealth in the global economy. They write: In the postmodernization of the global economy, the creation of wealth tends ever more toward what we will call biopolitical production, the production of social life itself, in which the economic, the political and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another.7 For Hardt and Negri, as well as for other Marxist scholars, global capitalism functions by separating human bodies into those who can actively, consciously, and relationally participate in the global production of capital as legitimate subjects, and those (usually living in the global South) whose biological functions are harnessed to create capital (sometimes literally, in the case of reproductive labour and transnational adoption) but who will never benefit from economic globalization because of their non-subject status. Forced to survive in a state of subsistence, or “bare life,” those who global capitalism positions as non-subjects do not need to be recognized or protected by the global economy. Bare life and desubjectification are therefore revealed to be more than the byproducts of a globalized economy: they are necessary, constitutive features of everyday life in the age of biopolitics. 

Keeping in mind these distinctions between the disciplinary, panoptic society and the society of control that is accelerating within the current, globalized conditions of biopolitics, it becomes clear that Street View functions as a photographic version of Agamben’s notion of the apparatus: a tool for capturing, orienting, determining, intercepting, controlling, and securing the everyday gestures, behaviours, and maintenance of human subjects. Because of the enormity of visual information about human bodies that Street View provides to viewers, analyzing its photographs is an overwhelming project. Compiling tens of millions of images, each checked by computer software for human faces or license plates, which are usually blurred to prevent identification (although the software sometimes “misfires,” accidentally revealing a face), Street View exemplifies one of the key contradictions about photographic images: that they simultaneously reveal more and less than we, as both producers and viewers, expect from them. As photography theorist Ariella Azoulay aptly puts it: The photographed image produced out of an encounter invariably contains both more and less than that which someone wished to inscribe in it.... The photograph is always in excess of, and always bears a lack in relation to, each of its protagonists.8 It is this tension between excess and lack, the control of the apparatus and the unpredictability of the everyday, in Street View images that I want to focus on here in order to examine how Google’s program reveals the way that photography participates in the quotidian processes of subjectification and desubjectification that mark biopolitics. While much recent writing about photography has focused on the medium’s role in limiting and policing particular subject positions and on the ethical implications of this process for photographers, subjects, and spectators, the focus of these studies tends to be moments of crisis and trauma. In particular, the work of Judith Butler on photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib9 and Azoulay’s book-length study of images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), concentrate on extraordinary moments of abjection and catastrophe. 

While Butler interrogates the photographs of tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib through terms of subjectification and desubjectification, Azoulay uses the lens of citizenship to analyze photographs from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although issues of literal citizenship, such as who can carry a passport or rightly live on one side of a border or another, are obviously at stake in the disastrous conditions of the Middle East, Azoulay is interested in how the notion of citizenship might be more broadly defined and linked to issues of subjectification. For Azoulay, citizen status has less to do with national or political allegiances and more to do with how human bodies are separated into those subjects who belong to a distinct collective that is protected through state governance (citizens) and those non-subjects who do not belong to the collective, are perceived as a threat to the collective, and are therefore left vulnerable through state governance (non-citizens or “the stateless”).10 The position of non-citizens is particularly volatile because they continue to be invisibly governed by the same state that governs citizens but do not receive the same protections of and rights to viable subject positions. The state that simultaneously defines, protects, and neglects citizens and non-citizens can operate at the level of the city or the nation, or even globally, through governing bodies such as the United Nations or the World Bank. But beyond this binary distinction between citizens and non-citizens, Azoulay also distinguishes those who experience forms of weak or impaired citizenship: subjects such as minorities, people with disabilities, and women who, under everyday circumstances, are supposedly protected through state governance but who are quickly made vulnerable once disaster strikes.11 The Civil Contract of Photography uses photographs of disaster to show how moments of crisis make apparent the simultaneous but unequal governance of the citizen, the weak citizen, and the non-citizen when this inequality might otherwise go unmarked and unrepresented. Disaster, torture, and atrocity, when depicted photographically, reveal the always already tenuous citizen status of photographers, subjects, and viewers. Azoulay’s book engages in the debate about photography, torture, and subjectivity that Butler also addresses in her work, but, by analyzing it through the lens of citizenship, Azoulay avoids the potentially patronizing tone of human rights discourse and instead underscores the relational way that citizens, non-citizens, and weak citizens are governed (a point I will expand on shortly). 

Although Butler and Azoulay’s studies have made important contributions to understanding how photographs of crises reveal conditions of weak or non-citizenship, I am interested in how these authors’ ideas might be applied to more banal, everyday arenas. As Agamben has convincingly argued, in the society of control that characterizes global capitalism, where processes of subjectification are no longer enforced by external institutions but are interiorized and policed within subjects themselves, it is important that we analyze not only those apparatuses whose investment in power is more or less obvious (such as schools, prisons, asylums, and factories), but also, as he lists, “the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and—why not—language itself.”12 Given the ubiquity of digital and online photographic technologies, which allow us to surveil others and encourage extended forms of self-regulation and self-surveillance, and considering photography’s unique ability to powerfully “capture...the gestures, behaviours, opinions, or discourses of living beings,” its role as an apparatus of biopolitics is an important, yet under-theorized, aspect of critical photography studies.13

Departing from Azoulay’s concept of photography as a “civil contract” among citizens—those depicted in the photograph, those taking the photograph, and those looking at the photograph—that demands we recognize one another’s status as (non-)citizens, I want to ask how these theories of photography, ethics, and subjectivity might be applied to the everyday through the lens of biopolitics. How well do the theories put forth by Foucault, Agamben, Butler, and Azoulay travel when they are moved away from a focus on subjectivity in “states of exception” and toward the everyday status of the citizen-subject in global capitalism? How might a reading of Google Maps Street View that attends to the civil contract of photography and to photography as an apparatus of biopolitics reveal new patterns of relations and ethical obligations among photographers, subjects, and viewers? 

Digital Citizens

In The Civil Contract of Photography, Azoulay outlines a model for photographic spectatorship that treats images as relational, as objects that “bear the traces of the meeting between photographed persons and the photographer” and that continue to speak to that set of relations long after the moment of photographic production.14 Examining images of violence in the Middle East, Azoulay suggests that, as viewers, we need to stop “looking” at photographs and begin to “watch” them instead, with attention to the civil status of the photographed subject before, during, and after the moment in which the image was made. Her concern is with the way that photographed moments of catastrophe reveal the contingencies of citizenship, moments of crisis that allow the state to move subjects from the status of citizen to weak or non-citizen through the way they are made vulnerable or neglected in the aftermath of disaster. But, importantly for Azoulay, photographs of disaster also offer weak or non-citizens the possibility to negotiate and make claims for their rights to citizenship to the viewer: to use their mistreatment or neglect to try to change the conditions that divide citizens from non-citizens, the protected from the vulnerable. By emphasizing the role of time and duration in watching photographs, Azoulay hopes to establish a “civil spectator” whose duty is to encounter photographs and recognize the injuries of the citizens that they depict and to use the images “to negotiate the manner in which she [the spectator] and the photographer are ruled.”15

The implications for the viewer/watcher of photographs here are important. For Azoulay, it is the viewer’s ethical obligation to recognize photographs of disaster as a civil contract among subject, photographer, and viewer. As she notes, the role of recognizing the civil contract of photography is to not only take account of the subject’s pre-photographic status of impaired, weak, or non-citizenship but to also recognize that, as viewers, we too might suffer from an impaired civic status because of the way we are similarly governed. Unlike Susan Sontag’s strident insistence in her writing (in 1975’s On Photography in particular) that to photograph a subject is to automatically do damage to his or her rights, Azoulay does not see photography as inherently damaging to civic status, but as a radical tool for political and social action. By insisting that viewers acknowledge the ways we are implicated in and affected by the state’s processes of subjectification and desubjectification, Azoulay’s civil contract makes citizens responsible to themselves as well as to one another; it charges photographers, subjects, and viewers with changing the conditions that make the division of citizens from non-citizens possible.16 For Azoulay, this challenge that photography levels at viewers to change the current conditions of governance and subjectification is directed not at an existing community divided into citizens and non-citizens by the state, but at a virtual or presupposed one. Photographs speak to a yet-to-be-formed coalition of subjects that should emerge when we recognize the civil contract of photography. Unlike existing citizenship boundaries, which are often drawn along the borders of the nation-state, this photographic community will be deterritorialized: a collective of citizens and non-citizens, across the borders of nation-states, that could work together through the civil contract of photography. Such a community would be defined by photographic space rather than the space of the nation-state.17

The proliferation of digital and online photographic technologies ostensibly promises to make watching images of citizen-subjects in this photographic space easier, moving Azoulay’s civil contract into the arena of the everyday. In the case of Google Maps Street View, users can follow human subjects over several frames, as they move through the landscape or are passed by the roving camera. But the dispersed, deterritorialized nature of online viewing spaces can also lead to a sense of distance and disconnection between the subject and the viewer, who may be governed by equally dispersed, unidentifiable networks of power. Although digital and online technologies seem to offer democratic access to information through their flexibility as networks, as Hardt and Negri have asserted, elastic, democratic, and autonomous networks are also the hallmark of a new stage of global capitalism and a contemporary society of control.18 “When power becomes entirely biopolitical,” they warn, “the whole social body is comprised by power’s machine and developed in its virtuality. This relationship is open, qualitative, and affective.”19 Digital photographs, especially of everyday events and interactions, therefore trouble any simplistic, cause-and-effect relationship between viewership and sovereignty. They also raise questions about how viewers can work to change their conditions of rule and subjectification when communities are increasingly deterritorialized and geographically unmoored.

The photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated by American troops at Abu Ghraib, which circulated as digital files over cell phones and the Internet before being made public in newspapers and television broadcasts in 2004, seem to exemplify the fraught conditions of recognizing citizenship and subjectivity through photography in an age of biopolitics. While online and communications networks allowed these photographs, and the desubjectification they bore witness to, to come to light, these same networks also implicated viewers in a way that made it difficult to effect any kind of rapid, tangible change to the rules that divide subjects from non-subjects, citizens from non-citizens, those that are protected by and made vulnerable by state and international rule. Although the depiction of the torture of prisoners was alarming in and of itself, critiques of the Abu Ghraib images also increasingly drew attention to the ways that American troops, as photographers, subjects, and viewers, were represented and implicated in the photographs. In many of the images that circulated, American troops posed for the camera, smiling, giving thumbs-up gestures, and smoking cigarettes. The discrepancy between this goofy hamming for the camera and the abjection that it framed was disturbing, but even more telling was the implication that, at Abu Ghraib, torture had become so commonplace that it could acceptably be photographed alongside candid snapshots and group portraiture. In an unedited version of one of the most iconic photographs to circulate in the outrage that followed, depicting a hooded prisoner balancing atop a box with wires attached to his outstretched arms, a male officer can be seen to the right of the frame, calmly looking down at the display screen of his own digital camera. This deferral of viewing by the pictured officer, who chooses to distance himself from the represented, tortured subject by looking at a photographic representation of, rather than directly at, the torture that is happening in front of him, led Susan Sontag, in her New York Times Magazine editorial “Regarding the Torture of Others” (2004), to write that “the [Abu Ghraib] photographs are us.”20 Although Sontag was lambasted for her comment in several letters to the editor that followed, Judith Butler, writing a year later, cogently rearticulated Sontag’s argument along lines that follow Azoulay’s call for a model of civil spectatorship that implicates as well as empathizes. Butler writes, “Perhaps she [Sontag] means that in seeing the photos, we see ourselves seeing, that we are the photographers to the extent that we live within the visual norms in which the prisoners are rendered destitute and abject....”21 Azoulay’s insistence on citizenship as a model of photographic analysis is particularly apt in the case of the Iraq war, an invasion that began under the pretenses of delivering democracy and global citizenship to Iraqi subjects but that instead, as the Abu Ghraib images reveal, created states of abjection, desubjectification, and a new category of radically stateless non-citizens who were vulnerable to torture.

By connecting the conditions that allow Iraqi prisoners to be desubjectified with the same norms that permit viewers and photographers to maintain their rights to subjectivity, Butler recasts the debate about the Abu Ghraib photographs as a discussion about the ways that conditions of bare life coexist alongside everyday life and the way these conditions are regulated and maintained through visual representations. Bare life, as defined by Agamben, is the result of biopower’s separation of the living being (the interior, biological processes that sustain and continue life) from the speaking being (the exterior, social processes that define subjectivity) in a human body.22 But while images of torture, crisis, and catastrophe make obvious this distinction between those surviving a bare life and those continuing a human, speaking life, in images of the everyday, as exemplified through Google Maps Street View, such distinctions are not always clear. 

Nine Eyes Are Better than Two

Rather than capturing temporally delimited events of war, brutality, and torture, Google Maps Street View reveals the conditions of sovereignty and subjectivity under biopolitics over the long 
durée of everyday life. In this way, Street View is less concerned with depicting events than it is with representing environments. Literature and queer studies scholar Lauren Berlant distinguishes between a “discrete time-framed” event, such as war, trauma, and disaster, and an environment, which is made via spatial practices and can absorb how time ordinarily passes, how forgettable most events are, and, overall, how people’s ordinary perseverations fluctuate in patterns of undramatic attachment and identification. In an ordinary environment, most of what we call events are not of the scale of memorable impact but rather are episodes—that is, occasions that make experiences while not changing much of anything.23

For Berlant, while the environment seems unremarkable, it provides a rich ground for critical analysis. The everyday environment for Berlant disrupts the logic of “the moral science of biopolitics, which links the political administration of life to a melodrama of the care of the monadic self” and considers sovereignty and subjectivity “an activity exercised within spaces of ordinariness.”24 The environment, in many ways, encompasses the set of unmarked conditions that separate subjects from non-subjects, citizens from non-citizens, that Azoulay says become starker in moments of disaster. Google Maps Street View, with its automated camera, emphasizes the unorganized time of the environment and the spaces of ordinariness to which Berlant draws our attention. 

Google Maps Street View’s capacity to delimit and regulate particular subject and citizen positions through everyday life is evident in Montreal-based artist Jon Rafman’s project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008–).25 Presented through a Tumblr Web site as well as through gallery installations and artist’s books, Nine Eyes appropriates and recontextualizes hundreds of stills from the Street View program, many of which centre on representations of human figures and their interactions with their environments and with one another. Although the series is undoubtedly influenced by the strategies of appropriation and critique that informed artists such as Sherri Levine and Richard Prince, who are associated with the Pictures Generation of photographers,26 Rafman is more concerned with analyzing the type of viewing experience that Google Maps Street View constructs. By selecting and archiving stills from Street View according to a set of criteria far removed from the application’s intended use as an instrument for online and real-life navigation, the Nine Eyes project illustrates some of the strange paradoxes that inform our experience as contemporary subjects. As Rafman explains, although Street View images of human subjects draw us in with a promise of immediacy and neutrality that only a photographer-less form of mechanical photography can offer, Google’s images “nonetheless remain cultural texts demanding interpretation.”27 “We are bombarded by fragmentary impressions and overwhelmed with data,” Rafman writes, “but we often see too much and register nothing.”28 By isolating particular images and placing them alongside one another, Nine Eyes works to give a temporary narrative to the wealth of visual information about the everyday that Street View provides, drawing viewers’ attention to how we understand and relate to photographs of other subjects and citizens.

In the Nine Eyes archive, for instance, images of people waiting at bus stops, walking down the shore of a beach, or inspecting a manhole bump up against images of the strange, awkward, and unfamiliar. A lone baby crawling along the tiled floor outside a seemingly fake Gucci outlet, a middle-aged man reaching into his breast pocket with one hand while the other supports an automatic rifle, or a panicked family running from (or to?) a house fire, when seen alongside these more everyday occurrences, begin to resemble the staged photographic tableaux of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson or the early street photography of Weegee, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank. Much like the fine art photographs these images bring to mind, the viewing experience that Nine Eyes offers is one that vacillates between aesthetic pleasure and psychic discomfort. There is a sense of visual satisfaction derived from the act of obsessively scrolling through the Nine Eyes archive (much like the satisfaction that accompanies a virtual tour through the space of Street View) and discovering the accidental compositional masterpieces the cameras have captured: a lone figure walking through a desert landscape, a seagull caught in mid-flight over a beach, or a fire hydrant haphazardly spraying into the camera’s lens. 

But it is Rafman’s combination of images of the unusual and surreal alongside depictions of quotidian activities of self-maintenance in Nine Eyes that holds my attention because of the ways it demonstrates the tenuous connection between sovereignty and survival that Berlant analyzes in the everyday space of the environment. In her study of the global obesity “problem,” she considers the ways that the biopolitical regulation of “healthy bodies” through maintenance activities eventually exhausts particular subject and citizen groups, who turn to eating as a form of distraction, temporary pleasure, and relief. By analyzing this policing of the ostensibly problematic obese body, whose agency is deemed destructive, Berlant tries to trouble the presumed cause-and-effect relationship between sovereignty and physical well-being under biopolitics. She writes: This is the material context for so many. Working life exhausts practical sovereignty, the exercise of the will as one faces the scene of the contingencies of survival. At the same time that one builds a life the pressures of its reproduction can be exhausting. Eating is a form of ballast against wearing out.29 Berlant wants to question our assumptions about the global obesity “problem” as a problem of agency. Rather than believing that obesity is the result of individual subjects using their agency to make wrong or uninformed choices about how to treat their bodies, she uses Agamben’s writing about biopolitics and bare life to speculate on overeating and other forms of “self-medication” as strategies of lateral agency: methods of achieving a kind of “zoning out” or “self-suspension” that relieves the exhaustion that accompanies the reproduction and maintenance of life under biopolitics.30

In the Nine Eyes project’s bringing together of representations of everyday activities alongside images of bodily calamity, the biopolitical logic that links agency to physical well-being is further troubled. While Rafman has sometimes chosen particular images because of the way they lend themselves to readings that connect them to the history of photography, the number of remarkable, arresting photographs that the nine-eyed Google camera has accidentally captured also speaks to the anxiety, strain, and exhaustion that accompany the maintenance of everyday life in an era of biopolitics. In fact, among the images that Nine Eyes brings together, a surprising number of them depict human subjects in the midst of activities that recall Berlant’s strategies of self-suspension. In one, a man lies in the back of a Dodge pickup truck, drinking a beer, in a gesture that points toward the physical and metaphorical precarities of leisure time in North America. In another, a man in a black T-shirt and jeans, his face completely blurred, is in the midst of vomiting on the sidewalk in front of him. Depictions of people on bicycles, Segways, and rollerblades, activities usually associated with physical exercise but that, as the Nine Eyes series demonstrates, often result in injury, appear throughout the series. While images of similar moments were common in earlier forms of street and fine art photography (one thinks of the fraught social relations captured by Robert Frank or, later, restaged by Jeff Wall), the purpose of these representations was to depict a cause-and-effect relationship between social context and the experience of individual subjects. In these photographs, moments of alienation, self-destruction and physical harm were framed as outbursts by agentic subjects that responded to modernity’s effects on human experience, or as the individual’s willful breaking away from a destructive society. But, in the all-encompassing view of human activity provided by Google Maps Street View, which indiscriminately combines depictions of “normal life” alongside images of bare life, these moments of self-suspension are seen to be continuous with, rather than radically separate from, everyday life under biopolitics. Agency is difficult to assign in the Nine Eyes images, and a new mode of human existence–neither thriving nor surviving but an ambiguous middle category that Berlant describes as “getting by”31—comes to the fore. 

Read through Berlant, the images of covert drinking, public vomiting, and perilous exercising that Rafman includes in the Nine Eyes project become moments when the symptoms of biopolitical exhaustion leak out in representations of lateral agency and self-continuity. As Berlant shows, there is a difference between self-extension and self-continuity: self-extension encompasses practices that are consciously made to extend our biological and social life, such as exercise, eating-with-purpose, and other forms of careful self-fashioning, whereas self-continuity includes practices meant to sustain and continue biological life without extending it, such as overeating or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. While self-extension assumes that subjects can enact a willful and conscious form of agency, self-continuity brings to light the ways that agency is limited for those subjects whose sovereignty (due to class, race, or gender categories, for example) is exhausted, limiting them to only those choices that reproduce and maintain life.32 Nine Eyes reveals the places where self-extension and self-continuation brush up against one another in the everyday, providing views of the ways that “long-term problems of embodiment within capitalism, in the zoning of the everyday and the work of getting through it, are less successfully addressed in the temporalities of crisis and require other frames for understanding the contexts of doing, being, and thriving.”33 The Google Maps Street View camera, with its focus on duration and watching human subjects, helps us to untangle some of these long-term effects—such as exhaustion, obesity, and substance abuse—that accompany the problems of embodiment in an age of biopolitics. 

Surveilling Slow Death

Street View’s roving nine eyes and its ability to “accidentally” capture moments of interrupted or suspended sovereignty also have implications for issues of surveillance and our relational responsibilities to one another as subjects, photographers, and viewers. To return to Azoulay’s notion of the civil contract of photography as it might be applied to Google Maps Street View: What does it mean for viewers to surveil others whose subject status is in peril or to watch those whose status as weak citizens makes them vulnerable to forms of everyday trauma and bare life? 

Debates about privacy and surveillance have accompanied the Street View program from its inception in 2007. Although Google claims that the application “contains imagery that is no different from what you might see driving or walking down the street,” Rafman’s Nine Eyes series proves that something different occurs when these events are captured and represented photographically.34 Despite the company’s privacy measures, such as blurring the identities of cars and people, the software often fails, revealing a face or license plate. As a result of increased pressure from privacy protection advocates in countries where Street View has only recently been launched, such as Germany, Google now also offers users the ability to request that entire figures, cars, and houses be blurred on the maps through their “Report a Concern” button, which appears at the bottom of every screen of Street View (sometimes as “Report a Problem”). As of late 2010, more than 244,000 German households had requested the service.35

But for every blurred-out house or person who covers his or her face through more improvisational gestures—such as looking away or covering it with a baseball cap—there are, equally, subjects who appear to willingly accept their exposure to this surveillance. As Rafman writes in a photo essay version of his project commissioned by the art critic Paddy Johnson for her Web site Art Fag City: For the most part, those captured in Street View not only tolerate photographic monitoring, but even desire it. Rather than a distrusted invasion of privacy, online surveillance in general has gradually been made “friendly” and transformed into an accepted spectacle.36 This spectacular, friendly approach to the Street View camera is evident in the photographs Rafman often selects for the Nine Eyes series. Signs of benign recognition and cooperation by figures, such as the image of army troops waving to the camera or a group of schoolchildren chasing after the Google vehicle, appear frequently, but more common are the slightly aggressive gestures of flipping the bird or, sometimes, mooning the camera. The frequency with which these gestures appear in Nine Eyes makes it difficult to read them as radical or resistant, indicating instead that these seemingly antagonistic behaviours might represent another way that subjects are willingly interpellated by Street View’s photographic surveillance. Thinking of the unmoored spaces that Google Maps Street View depicts as social spaces defined by the interrelationships between subjects rather than by concrete geographical locations underscores the relational way that subjects understand and respond to the nine-eyed camera. As theorist Henri Lefebvre writes, actions and gestures are key to defining and producing social space: “Itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others.”37 Thinking of the space of Street View in this way helps explain why, despite Google’s apparently conscious efforts to make the application one that is oriented to the description and mapping of physical space, social interactions continuously seep into the photographic representations. The social space of Google Maps Street View also helps to emphasize the everyday environment as the site where agency and sovereignty are constantly delimited, negotiated, and tested, as Berlant suggests.

For all this willful recognition of being surveilled by the Street View camera’s lenses, there are also images of subjects whose weak citizen status and limited sovereignty change their relationship to the photographer and the viewer. As Rafman reflects, “In theory, we are all equally subject to being photographed, but the Street View collections often reveal it is the poor and the marginalized who fall within the purview of the Google camera gaze.”38 Those who are homeless and who work in the sex trade, in particular, appear repeatedly throughout the Street View images and in Rafman’s Nine Eyes archive. These figures are part of the population that Berlant sees as marked for exhaustion and wearing out, what she calls a “slow death, or the structurally motivated attrition of persons notably because of their membership in certain populations.”39 Unlike images of war or torture, which imply imminent death, slow death “is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain of revelation where an upsetting scene of living that has been muffled in ordinary consciousness is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life after all.”40 Although we could easily watch these figures who are marked for slow death with our own two eyes, in everyday life, viewers of Rafman’s Nine Eyes find themselves, much like the officer at Abu Ghraib, deferring our viewing experience of desubjectification to the latent, digital image provided by the computer screen. While neither the Google Maps Street View images nor the Abu Ghraib photographs are technically photographer-less (in both cases a human subject has placed a camera in a particular location and released the shutter, either directly or remotely), digital photography’s collapsing of the space of production and the space of publication and circulation means that our relationship to the author of the image has shifted. Rather than knowing who made these images, as we did with earlier social documentary photography projects that documented the poor and marginalized (such as the Farm Security Administration photographs or more recent photojournalism), the Street View and Abu Ghraib images appear to be anonymous, without authors. (Authorship and agency are more complicated in the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, however; while it seems clear that the American troops intended to desubjectify Iraqi prisoners through acts of torture and their photographic documentation, assigning blame for these actions was made difficult by the anonymity provided by digital photography. As both Sontag and Butler point out, it was those who were pictured in the photographs who were blamed and held criminally accountable for acts of torture while those taking the photographs and seemingly directing and assenting to the same acts went unnamed and unpunished.) Our assumption, as viewers, that these images of suffering were caught “by chance,” particularly in the case of Google Maps Street View, has the troubling effect of framing specific moments of desubjectification as random, unintentional, or beyond the scope of human agency (it is telling, for instance, that another photographer working with Street View images of suffering, Michael Wolf, titles his project A Series of Unfortunate Events, 2010). 

Moreover, as Rafman rightly points out, the type of sight provided by the aesthetics of Street View—pixellated, blurred, and digitally textured—is an apt analogy for the ways we increasingly fail to recognize one another’s identities under biopolitics. Our neighbours’ faces seem equally blurred in our memory, and our impulse to click on the “Report a Concern” button at the bottom of every image to express our alarm for subjects suffering under slow death now seems an appropriate response in a dispersed, networked system as unruly as that of global capitalism.41

This is not to say that every viewing experience of Google Maps Street View renders us impotent and incapable of participating in the civil contract of photography that Azoulay advocates. Instead, it is my hope that considering how digital and online photography participates in modes of (de)subjectification might draw our attention to the complexities of understanding how these processes unfold in everyday life. Azoulay’s and Butler’s theories are useful in analyzing how photography operates to reveal compromised citizenship and subjectivity, but they rely on a form of ideology critique that hinges on the assumption that photographs “reveal” something about the relationship between subjects and apparatuses that might be contested or undone. The foundation of much Marxist analysis, ideology critique functions according to the assumption that, by carefully analyzing a cultural text, critics can reveal the ideological assumptions that underpin the social or political context in which that text was produced. Ideology is assumed to obscure or distract from the “real” conditions of production and to go largely unnoticed by viewers and readers. Such an approach implicitly accepts that there are groups of viewers who are capable of properly understanding or unveiling the power relations revealed by the image and others who are incapable of such a reading.42 It also assumes there is an “outside” to the relations that the photograph sets up that might provide a place of resistance or critique. But, like Berlant, I am unsure that there are always such logical or simplistic connections among sovereignty, agency, and the ways we maintain our bodies in everyday life. There is something about the ordinary space and time of our environments, which Google Maps Street View so compellingly captures, that begins to demonstrate some of the complicated, long-term problems of embodiment under capitalism and how we might begin to address them. What Azoulay’s writing about the civil contract of photography, inflected through theories of biopolitics, makes possible is an approach to reading and understanding photographs that does away with the burdens of ideology critique and the division of viewers into the capable and incapable. Instead, the civil contract asks us to recognize how we participate and are complicit in the processes of (de)subjectification that apparatuses enact. It asks us, as viewers, to begin from a stance of mutual self-recognition and to question how we might grapple with our individual and collective states of weak or impaired citizenship and subjectivity.

  1. Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

  2. Although Google reassures users that the Street View program operates only on public roads, several private companies, including Disneyland Paris and LEGOLAND California, have requested to have their properties mapped and made public. The company’s newest project, the Google Art Project, seeks to map artworks and artifacts in museums around the world. See “Cars, Trikes & More,” Google Maps, accessed August 28, 2011, and “Privacy,” Google Maps, accessed August 28, 2011,

  3. In his writing, Foucault separates biopower (the technology of power that sought to manage entire populations through the forced continuation of life and the regulation of “well-being”) from biopolitics (the style of governmentality that regulates populations through biopowers). See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1998).

  4. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s useful summary of Foucault’s position on the disciplinary society and the society of control in Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000) 23.

  5. Giorgio Agamben, “The Archive and Testimony,” Remnants of Auschwitz (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 156.

  6. I use the term “global capitalism” throughout this essay to describe current conditions of economic globalization that have seen Western countries move towards a service-based, exchange economy while the global South has become the centre of manufacturing and resource extraction. Importantly, the term “global capitalism” is used by several Marxist theorists to understand globalization as an accelerated form of late capitalism, or “a new stage in the evolving world capitalist system that came into being some five centuries ago” (see W. I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004], 2).

  7. Hardt and Negri, Empire, xii.

  8. Ariella Azoulay, “What Is a Photograph?” Philosophy of Photography 1, no. 1 (2010), 12.

  9. See Judith Butler, “Photography, War, Outrage,” PMLA 120, no. 3 (May 2005); and Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009).

  10. Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 31–33.

  11. Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, 52–53.

  12. Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” 14.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, 11.

  15. Ibid., 14.

  16. Ibid., 22.

  17. Ibid., 22–24.

  18. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 23.

  19. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 24.

  20. Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004.

  21. Judith Butler, “Photography, War, Outrage,” 826.

  22. Agamben, “The Archive and Testimony,” 156.

  23. Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry 33, no. 4 (Summer 2007), 759.

  24. Ibid., 758.

  25. While Rafman is by no means the only artist working with Google Maps Street View as a medium, his work is one of the only projects to directly engage with the viewing context that Street View provides for its viewers. For example, photographer Michael Wolf was recently awarded an “honourable mention” in the 2011 World Press Photo Contest for his photographs of his computer screen while displaying stills from Google Maps Street View (sometimes the exact stills that appear in Rafman’s project), but his approach removes all contextual information that tells the viewer we are looking through the lens of Street View, presenting the images instead as surrealist street photography. See, accessed August 29, 2011.

  26. Named after the New York gallery in which they exhibited in the 1970s—Metro Pictures—the Pictures Generation is a loose group of postmodern photographers, including Levine, Prince, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, and Dara Birnbaum, among others, who use strategies of appropriation to comment on mass culture. See Douglas Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009).

  27. Jon Rafman, “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View,” 2009 IMG MGMT series, commissioned by Paddy Johnson for Art Fag City, August 12, 2009,

  28. Rafman, “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.”

  29. Berlant, “Slow Death,” 778.

  30. Ibid., 779.

  31. Ibid., 759

  32. Ibid., 758.

  33. Ibid., 764.

  34. “Privacy,” Google Maps.

  35. “Navigating Controversy: Google Launches Street View in Germany,” Spiegel Online, November 18, 2010,,1518,729793,00.html, accessed February 14, 2011.

  36. Rafman, “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.”

  37. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1974/1991), 73.

  38. Rafman, “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.”

  39. Berlant, “Slow Death,” 761.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Rafman, “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.”

  42. For a thorough and convincing analysis of the problems with ideology critique and “political art,” see Jacques Rancière’s “The Misadventures of Critical Thought,” The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2009).

The author would like to thank Caitlin McKinney, Kate Steinmann, and Kristina Lee Podesva for their thoughts, suggestions, and feedback on the ideas that inform this text, and Jon Rafman for his patience and generosity in answering questions about his project.

Image: Jon Rafman, 78 Myrdle St, Poplar, England, UK 2010. From the series The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, 2008–.

About the Author

Gabrielle Moser is a writer and independent curator. She regularly contributes to and her writing has appeared in ARTnews, CanadianArt, n.paradoxa, and Photography and Culture, among others. She has curated exhibitions for Access Gallery, Gallery TPW, and Vtape. She is a PhD candidate in Art History and Visual Culture at York University, where she also teaches.

You Might Also Enjoy
Folio EOut Now