a documentary project by josh robinson studio


Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program proved wholesale cooperation between technology giants and government intelligence agencies on a scale previously unknown.  Police body-worn cameras and video devices in local businesses record millions of hours of citizen activity each week, while ride-sharing services and other mobile apps surveil our physical position in space.  The rise of the “Internet of Things” — connected (and hence hackable) devices like home assistants, smart TVs, virtual reality headsets, and consumer-grade security cameras — create unprecedented opportunities for pervasive surveillance. And now many of the powerful tools created by government agencies like the NSA to surveil citizens have been leaked into the open, putting everyone’s privacy and security at risk. Concerns that once occupied the tinfoil-hatted fringe have moved to the center of the national discourse in the U.S.


The surveillance apparatuses shown here share something in common: they’re part of my daily life. Some of them are the security camera at the places I frequent: my dry cleaner’s. The grocery store down the block . A local bar. But blended in are other surveillers: security cameras at the complexes of Google, Facebook, Uber, Lyft, and other technology giants, as well as government facilities like the FBI headquarters in DC, acting as physical stand-ins for the unseen surveillance that goes on behind the scenes.


I created these images with Fuji Instax film, a contemporary instant film similar to the once-pervasive Polaroid format.  Polaroid marketing materials highlighted the format's intimacy; while instant films had their uses in serious professional photography, the vast majority of instant film was meant for pictures of family and friends. Due to the fixed focal length of its lens, most images on consumer Polaroid cameras were taken between two and four feet from the subject, after which both subject and photographer would sit side by side and watch the image develop. And yet the images here feel somehow distant, alien, and fantastical, belonging to another world, to a space the viewer cannot occupy.  Except the handful of images that have human forms, most of these images could be rotated in any direction and still somehow “work,” at least until the mind could pick up the context cues to the correct orientation (if there is one).


The visible, time-bound arrival of instant film supports a popular belief that these pictures somehow yield more truth or believability.  Even for photographers, Polaroids have been images of special trust, intimately involved in the work process: large-format photographers rely on Polaroids to verify the accuracy of an exposure or composition. 

Polaroid images have served as tools of state surveillance and population registration and control.  In apartheid South Africa, Polaroids were integral to the physical passbooks that nonwhite citizens were required to carry — documents that controlled which physical spaces the pictured person could or could not occupy.   Polaroids were commonly used by police, insurance agents, and others for their perceived trustworthiness and seeming immunity to manipulation. Before digital surveillance was possible, these images fit and encouraged the modern state’s ceaseless desire to track, count, and document its citizens. Here, instead, I ceaselessly track, count, and document the surveillers. Like flipping through a logbook of passport photos, or repeating the same word again and again, the repetitious images risk numbing the viewer and losing all meaning.


I exploit failures in the instant medium: solarized “hot spots” where extreme exposures turn the image black, areas of pure white, blurred or fuzzy backgrounds, and faint auras and blue ghosting spots, to further accentuate the viewer’s sense of disjoint and displacement.  The images are largely monochromatic, reflecting the reality of a dystopian present.


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