The way we move through public space has radically changed in the past decade. Though we may still feel like just another face in the crowd as we charge the streets, getting on with our daily business, our journeys are now tracked, traced, analyzed and logged. Living in the age of surveillance, we are no longer anonymous; we are always identifiable. The rapid rise of the technology that now pervades our daily lives happened quickly and fairly invisibly. What happened during this leap? How does this ‘new normal’ challenge social practices like privacy? How can you visualize the vastly complex structures that shape our behaviour and movement?
Fascinated by the gap between technology and our understanding of it, Esther Hovers’ work finds a way to visually bridge this space, questioning the ways it is changing our society and involving us as viewers in the process. A street photographer of sorts, her projects start from observing public space and the hidden forces that shape how we decide to move through it. In False Positives, she investigates intelligent surveillance technology. Through a process of ‘machine learning’, these systems are fed a multitude of examples so that they can develop a pattern of normal and deviant behaviour. Adopting the disembodied eye of a surveillance camera, Hovers plays on eight ‘anomalies’ of body language and movement that indicate criminal intent. In doing so, she questions what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour and explores our developing relationship to public security. In her work-in-progress, The Traveling Salesman, she takes a mathematical problem as the starting point to make a poetic drift through the streets of New York.
In this interview with LensCulture, Hovers talks about finding ways to visually translate the abstract systems that have seamlessly become part of our daily lives, the importance of research in her process, and redefining the limitations of street photography.
LC: Your approach to the street is quite a conceptual one. Your previous project False Positives looked at intelligent surveillance systems made to detect deviant behaviour in public space and the way it, often invisibly, shapes our behavior. Do you call yourself a street photographer?
EH: In my work, it’s not necessarily about the visible structure of the street, but the invisible power structures in public space. It’s about the question of how architecture somehow determines our movement and is used as an expression of power. The street is so present in this process. It seems weird to go out of my way to not call myself a street photographer. If you want street photography to be something that can be redefined, then why not?
LC: Have you been influenced by the street genre, or any of the greats of street photography in any way?
EH: Not so much. For me, the first person that comes to mind is Paul Graham. A Shimmer of Possibility was like my bible, and he was very much influenced by traditional street photography. The title and the way he finds beauty in these little things, and unpredictability in everyday life, fascinates me. His images are about the idea of street photography and the street itself as something going on around you, and the way that you can play or interact with that is very strong in the work.
LC: What was your first encounter with the street in your work? What drew you there?
EH: A lot of it has to do with the relationship between people, body language and architecture. But in the beginning, I went about photographing it in a strictly documentary and very observational way. At school, I would go out and photograph for my assignments, but moreso with this ‘hunter’ approach, pacing around, trying to find something. I still love to do that, but it’s not so present in my work anymore.
LC: You were working in La Défense, the business district of Paris, when you first had the idea for False Positives. Tell me about how it started. When did you start developing a different, more conceptual approach?
EH: I started to manipulate my images. They would be based on observation, but I began to take things out or put things into the image. I started using a tripod and a fixed frame, and then I just waited for people to pass by and photographed them. Then, I would layer and stack the images into a montage. When I did that in La Défense, it was not necessarily with a conceptual idea behind it, but just to try it out.
LC: Let’s talk a bit about your working process for False Positives. Do you start from observations or ideas? How do they evolve?
EH: I start from observation. It’s hard to pinpoint (for any project) when this translation comes into play, but I think it came through a series of interviews that I did with different people working on intelligent surveillance cameras in Holland. They told me they would search for ‘anomalies’ in human behaviour that could indicate criminal intent by looking at patterns of movement. So I knew that an anomaly is something you can actually visualize—that it is a pattern.
That’s when I started thinking about how to visualize these patterns myself. I came back to this image in La Défense, which was a series of moments put together: a pattern of movement. There are a lot of different levels and heights there, so a lot of my photographs started looking like surveillance images. When I came back to Holland, I read a small article in a newspaper about intelligent surveillance systems being installed in bathrooms, and how an alarm would go off if people stayed in the toilet for too long. It made me think about how these systems work, and I also saw an opportunity to combine looking at both behaviour and movement in architecture and public space.
LC: You also collaborate with a lot of other specialists and thinkers in your work. Can you tell me a bit about how your research on intelligent surveillance technology shaped your approach to shooting?
EH: I’m interested in the idea of not understanding the technology that is so important to us in everyday life. I wanted to try and make it less abstract, and find a more poetic and human way of talking about these technologies. I definitely benefit from looking at different fields and disciplines when visually translating these connections—like the patterns in thinking about algorithms. The art world can be a very closed place. A lot of my references and inspirations definitely come from there, but it’s also a breath of fresh air to open up.
LC: When you’re dealing with the more hidden relations of public space, it’s important—and almost necessary—to lean on other forms of research.
EH: Yes, and we often can’t see how architecture influences us. That seems much less technical, or much less like a power structure, but it still is.
LC: Shot in Brussels, False Positives adopts the vantage point and ‘neutral’ aesthetic of a surveillance camera. It’s often an almost non-human perspective that you are shooting from. How did the aesthetic choices of the project develop?
EH: Well, I would start out by observing, and then I also worked with the interface used in a lot of free intelligence softwares. I’d have all these neon colors as an overlay for my photographs. Then, I started approaching passersby and interacting with them. What I liked about the process is that the individuals were very aware of me photographing them, which was important because I didn’t want to surveil them!
For my current work, I’m in the middle of trying out different approaches, looking into making a storyboard and thinking about how to create narrative through different images, which is something I haven’t really done before. I started walking a lot, and then felt the need to have some sort of protagonist which, in False Positives, were the passersby—but this time I decided to cast someone.
LC: So it begins with observation and then builds into something more staged. How much happens outside and how much happens in the studio?
EH: Before, I was manipulating the images. But now I am definitely staging them. I prepare a lot before shooting, so I’ll go and scout locations and know where I want to photograph. But then, when I start photographing this actor, a lot is done in the moment. The street becomes a stage.
LC: Drawing is also an important part of your practice. Can you tell me a bit about what it adds to your process?
EH: I think it’s another way of getting a better grasp on the abstract part of the technology that I’m looking at. Patterns were such an important part of the intelligent surveillance camera, so drawing these patterns seemed to make a lot of sense. I like the idea of circling around the topic and not necessarily voicing my own opinion about it in the end. It’s more about having different ways of looking at it.
It also has a lot to do with a straightforward visualization of the topic. We talk about artificial intelligence a lot, but the image that comes to mind is usually a blurry CCTV screenshot or something, and it’s hard to think of anything else. In order to question the whole idea of an intelligent surveillance camera, or to think about who makes them or the bias of the system, I think we need to look at it less abstractly and create less distance. There are so few people who actually understand how these systems work.
LC: Tell me a bit about your new work The Traveling Salesman, which was made in New York. Would you say there was anything in False Positives that hinted towards your movement in this kind of way of working, or something that was lacking in the way of working that you wanted to open up to?
EH: The red thread is pretty clear. But while I was photographing False Positives, I would do a lot of location scouting and, as I returned to shoot from these high viewpoints to make a montage with the people in that specific moment, I remember already thinking: “But there’s also their perspective too.” It was a curiosity for finding a way to move around them and the space more. To exhaust the possibility of one moment—or rather fully construct it from using lots of different elements and perspectives of the space. I also wanted to work on a narrative, because before I was looking at typologies a lot.
I started out by walking and photographing, and then trying to create a storyboard out of those walks. Soon I started to feel the need for a protagonist in the storyboard. Then, I came across the idea of the ‘traveling salesman problem,’ which is the name for a mathematical problem. The question it asks is straightforward: if you need to visit a certain amount of places and you want to start and finish in the same place, what is the fastest way to do so? This is something we do every day with Google Maps, but the more places you include, the more complex the problem becomes. It’s notoriously difficult to solve. Coming back to what I said about Paul Graham’s work—this unpredictability in public space—I wanted to juxtapose that with the efficiency and control of the traveling salesman problem.
LC: Though you’re dealing with an idea that speaks a lot about control, there seems to be a more poetic and theatrical element in this work than in your previous project. Can you tell me about your choices and working process?
EH: This is a very small selection and it’s in process, but it has the tone that I want to use, which is a little bit dreamy. I like using black and white processes to make it feel more cinematographic, which is also why I chose to use the 16 x 9 format. I’m interested in keeping a very minimal narrative, where something is hinted at. The important part is to show the map in the different points. You can create pretty interesting movements out of the traveling salesman problem. There is this one structure, but there are infinite possibilities.
I’m very interested in the combination of staging and observing, of control and just letting it be. Now that I’ve done a lot of staging, I’m also ready to step back a little and try to control it a bit less again. That’s why it starts with walking. Now I want to get back to emotions, and this feeling of unpredictability. I want it to be about the city just moving around you, instead of us just following the protagonist. I like the idea of looking at the street as a choreography of itself. It’s like when you say that the city can be a backdrop or a stage—a space for movement which might be directed by the architecture. But we don’t know exactly how it’s directed, or what kind of choreography we are then left with.