It happened by accident – it was never my intention to spend hours in front of the computer, ‘taking’ pictures of places that I’d never visited, of people I’d never met, in different countries and time zones far removed from where I sat watching them. It just happened that way… I was researching a project that I was struggling with and, as a diversion, started doing some advanced Google searching. I’d recently been taught how to access CCTV cameras and webcams using search terms and was having a nose around to see what I could find.
On this particular search I accessed a man’s bedroom and watched as he sat with his girlfriend, reading (and, thankfully, nothing more). Something on his computer must have registered my presence, as after a few seconds he looked over at the computer, got up and, to my alarm, waved at me. I slammed the laptop shut with the strangest mixture of feelings – I’d intruded into a space I shouldn’t have, but I’d been rumbled. By having my presence acknowledged I felt my space had been violated as well.
This unnerved me somewhat, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that through my reaction I’d hit on something. By typing a simple search term I could see through the all-seeing eyes of the CCTV camera places I wouldn’t in the real world have access to – and could do this without even leaving my sofa. It took me a few days before I was brave enough to start searching again. I drew up some rules. If I found anything dodgy, I’d report it immediately. I wouldn’t try and guess any passwords and would only access what was readily available. I also decided to avoid webcams and just access CCTV cameras, as the use of a webcam is a personal choice whereas CCTV cameras are watching all of us, often without our permission or even knowledge.
Now is probably a good time to explain how to do this. I honed my skills on an advanced internet research course run by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, UK, where I work. By using specific search terms it’s possible to narrow searches down to specific types of content, be they spreadsheets, Word documents or CCTV streams. Some of these are meant to be there, while others are there by mistake – generally due to a lack of knowledge of internet security. This is where the CCTV streams can be found. I avoided cameras that were supposed to be open – tourist attractions and traffic cams – and searched for those that where there to monitor… But to monitor what?
I started my search with some trepidation – what if I witnessed a crime, for example? The mugging or murder I could watch but not prevent? I was letting my imagination get carried away! Initially I divided my cameras into categories, but I was struck by how many were in semi-public spaces – libraries, the workplace, universities, churches – while in others there was so little human activity that I had to wonder what they were actually watching. As the project developed, I became much more aware of how many CCTV cameras there actually were on practically every street corner, in cafes, pubs, libraries, and how we simply accepted them as part of the street furniture, without questioning what they were watching or what they were looking for. Yet just fifteen years ago CCTV cameras were hardly even a presence. I was also surprised how quickly I went from being nervous about accessing cameras online to feeling completely blasé and even wanting someone to acknowledge my presence again so I could take a picture. My attitude to accessing the cameras became as relaxed as people have become with regard to such cameras watching us constantly.
I had a selection of favourite cameras that I liked to look in on to see what was happening. For example, I was somewhat concerned for the laundrette, as it seemed to be always empty, and was glad when it had some custom. Then there was the office meeting room that showed signs that people had been there – cups on the table, chairs moved – but I never did see a person.
As I became more confident and more adept, I narrowed my search by country. In the United States I found churches where what should have been private religious acts were in fact open for anyone with a computer to see. Cameras in Scandinavia (of which there was a surprising number) showed bleak landscapes, empty streets and coastal scenes. The States also had a high proportion of CCTV cameras in universities, probably installed as extra security measures after the Columbine massacre. I accessed a camera at Virginia Tech and wondered if it would have prevented or lessened the massacre – or just allowed people to watch it. By coincidence there was a second shooting at Virginia Tech, although on a much smaller scale on 8 December 2011, while I was working on this project.
At this point I also started reflecting more on the nature of photography and on what it means to take a photograph. The majority of the cameras I used I could pan, zoom and focus. Is this any less photography than someone using a fully automatic camera and taking a picture from a designated panorama point at a beauty spot? Does photography demand a presence or are photographs taken using appropriated cameras controlled from another country in another time zone just as valid as ‘created’ images?
I decided to take the project further by taking a selection of cameras, setting them up and ‘taking’ images on the hour over a 24-hour period. On reviewing these images I realised that in the majority the most exciting thing that happened was the change from day to night and vice versa. Where there were people – such as in the launderette, for example – someone doing the most mundane thing such as bringing in their washing suddenly became an event. I’m not sure if it was because so little happened in these places or if it was the voyeuristic element but I realised that something mundane became interesting just because I knew you shouldn’t be watching it, and that the people being watched didn’t know about it.
However, I started to see a certain beauty in the images as they became removed from their original intention of surveillance. Instead, they offered a unique perspective on the ebb and flow of a day, from a vantage point and rigidity that ordinary photography doesn’t offer. I could watch the workers heading from Mexico, across the border, to work in the United States, a trickle in the early hours, reaching a peak in the morning rush and then petering out as the morning wore on. The blocks of flats were the constant as the light and weather changed around them, while the factory continued puffing out smoke as the light faded to dark and back again. And I ‘took’ my photographs, from my day and my time, but looking back to a morning that for me had already passed or to a sun that had not yet set, across the time zones and around the world.
Juliet Ferguson is a London-based photographer with over ten years of experience. She works in film and digital and has had work published in newspapers, books and magazines. As an experienced journalist, she has written and photographed pieces for travel articles and guides but is now focusing on fine art and abstract work, as well as questioning the nature of photography through her project work. She has fine art pictures with Millennium Images Library and sells her travel and social documentary shots through the Alamy Online Image Library.