Bend It Like Bentham: Jeffrey Slonim on Surveillance

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In his Panopticon writings from 1787, philosopher Jeremy Bentham described a prison with a column serving as an all-seeing eye at its center. Inmates lived in constant fear, aware of the possibility that they were being watched at all times—that, as George Orwell wrote of Big Brother in his prescient 1984, “Every sound… was overheard and except in darkness, every moment scrutinized.”

In the era of iPhones, digital cameras, Twitter and security devices with face-recognition capabilities, the threat of constant surveillance from a single set of eyes seems almost quaint. There are 30 million security cameras currently operating in the United States. The average American is recorded by them more than 200 times a day. In response to decades of IRA attacks and the 7/7 terrorist bombings, the United Kingdom installed more than four million CCTV cameras, with the artificial intelligence to follow “panic running,” in cities throughout the country.

Big Brother has his eyes on all of us these days—no one more so than celebrities, who have to contend both with the now pervasive privacy violations and the insatiable paparazzi. “We had some freak in our backyard taking pictures of the house,” mentions a rightfully paranoid Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. “I saw a car in the driveway. The tinted window was down a little and I thought, What the fuck! The guy could have blown my head off. I didn’t know what was going on, and then I realized it was a camera. And then he said, ‘Do you mind if I get some better shots of you?’”

“In Malibu, they fly over our house in a helicopter. And if we’re outside, they circle,” says Mira Sorvino, speaking of the unstoppable lensmen. “I was with my grandmother after she had a pacemaker put in, driving back from Cedars Sinai, and this photographer started following us in the car and taking pictures as I was driving,” recalls a horrified Milla Jovovich. Alan Cumming was once confronted by a fan with a phone cam in a loo. “I had my pants up,” he says. “But it wasn’t nice.” Director John Waters agrees, noting dolefully, “Aren’t cell phones the bane of everyone’s existence?”

Christoph Waltz, the Austrian actor whose riveting, charismatic performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds has serious Oscar buzz, describes himself as a “great supporter of privacy.” He points out that during WWII, “It was all manpower, with individuals watching over other individuals. But with the technical development over the past 50 or 60 years, it’s machines watching over individuals.”

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Those machines are more powerful than ever. Mike Heller, a lawyer and founder of Talent Resources, a company that negotiates celebrity appearances and endorsements (and a near-constant companion of Lindsay Lohan when she appears in public), says that celebrities “never know when someone is watching. Someone can take a picture and it can appear on the Internet, traveling the globe in less than two seconds.”

Even the faltering economy hasn’t slowed the stalkerazzi, who have developed the look of hungry hunters. “I was just followed through the West Village,” says actress Jennifer Esposito. “It’s really weird… I mean, it’s me. You’re not making any money from these pictures. Why would you do this?”

In 1984—the year, not the Orwell novel—German director Michael Klier created Der Riese, or The Giant, a feature film created entirely from actual security footage. In the haunting opening scene, set to a classical score, darting images of a plane landing become as mysterious and misty-transcendent as a Turner canvas. The overwhelming viewpoint of Der Riese is the untouchable height of the cameras, a nod to the title. They are a giant peering down, belittling our very existence.

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And yet, some of us favor this type of scrutiny—at least some of the time. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of increased security cameras. “As much as people say, ‘I don’t want surveillance,’” says Dan Abrams, chief legal analyst for NBC and founder of Mediaite.com, “the minute any crime occurs, people say, ‘Where are the surveillance cameras?’ Even though people want to believe that they don’t want surveillance cameras, in reality, most of the time they do.” In fact, Noah Tepperberg, owner of New York nightclubs Avenue and Marquee and Tao in Las Vegas, adds, “Especially in nightclubs and restaurants, where people are drinking, having the ability to go to the videotapes can be helpful.”

Though not necessarily for security reasons. In London, there is one camera for every 14 people, but, on average, 1,000 cameras catch just one crime. “All the surveillance cameras never helped me recover a thing,” sniffs designer Zac Posen. And one of the benefits of cameras that allows Tepperberg to “see every inch of the venue, including the entrance doors, exit doors, liquor rooms,” is unexpected. “One gossip column called to check if a certain celebrity was cheating on his girlfriend, as a witness had indicated,” he says. “We went to the tapes to set the record straight.”

And that’s the perceived appeal of the camera—it doesn’t lie (allegedly, anyway). It’s also what motivates art photographer Yasmine Chatila’s work: shots taken through apartment windows with the identities of the occupants and window exteriors altered to prevent legal action. “I think the best way to truly see human nature is when it is not self-conscious,” she mentioned in a recent interview. “Even a reality show cannot capture it, since people on the show inevitably are aware of the camera.”

Theoretically, besides providing prurient enjoyment for voyeurs, security cameras can’t harm you—if you’re not doing anything wrong. “I’m not doing any shady shit, so I don’t have nothing to worry about,” says DJ Cassidy.

“People should become their own watcher,” says music mogul Russell Simmons, who takes a Zen approach to the dilemma. “It’s a simple spiritual idea. Don’t do things you wouldn’t want everyone to see. In the end, the most damaging thing is when you catch yourself.”

[Photos by Yasmine Chatila: The Bachelor, Wall Street, Friday 11:34PM, The Bathroom Girl, City Hall, Wednesday 5:36PM and The Smoking Guy, Hell’s Kitchen, Monday 8:49PM]