Project-Looking, observation or surveillance BLOG questions….

Foucault makes us ask of an image – particularly a naturalistic one and even more particularly in any of the modern media, photography, video etc: Is this the result of looking, observing or surveillance? Are we looking at, observing or subjecting the image and/or its subject to surveillance? And does the contemporary desire to be seen (fashion, the desire for instant celebrity and the associated media exposure), or the seemingly opposite, scopophobic, desire for privacy from the camera, have its explanation in Foucault?

  • Many video artists today use themselves as their subject (eg Lindsay Seers). Think about this in relation to panopticism.
  • Find six images in any medium: two that are the result of looking, two of observing and two of surveillance and explain your choices.

Video artists and the Panopticon

  1. Bill Nauman:  Violent Incident (2012)
  2. violent-incident-bruce-nauman-tate-modern-1345511097_b                                                                 Fig. 1  Violent Incident (2012)
  • In this work Nauman used actors to portray a violent incident around a dinner table
  • The series of screens show the different parts of the violent action- it is as if we see the scenes on company surveillance cameras, and we are security guards (the watcher, the enforcer).In t
  • One of the possible uses of the Panopticon is to watch different criminals in their cells. The different screens here represent the different cells in the Panopticon.


2.  Gillian Wearing, 2 into 1, 1997

In this series of videos, the artist explored the effects of  hiding a person’s  identity- and how it allowed them to act.

”Wearing placed an ad in Time Out and invited people to come into a studio, put on a disguise and spill their guiltiest secrets. A 36-year-old virgin tells how watching his sister kiss his brother destroyed his life; a woman describes how she drugged and robbed the man who cheated on her; others in Neil Kinnock or George Bush masks own up to using prostitutes, or ghastly revenge on bosses.”

(The Guardian, 2012)

This work examines a crucial part of surveillance- we need to be identifiable as the culprit in order to be punished. Rid yourself of your identity, and it’s like you are not being watched, and it is easier to commit a crime. The people in Wearing’s videos may or may not have committed ‘real’ crimes. Some admitted to things which were not illegal, but which they were ashamed of (whether they were the perpetrator, or an innocent victim). This shame which they carried was like ‘inner crimes’ – and talking about them was like recommitting or being subjected to the crime again. Wearing the masks helped them to discuss these inner psychological crimes.

Analysis of six images

Before I start I’d like to make a distinction between the process of looking at images as carried out by the maker of the image, and by the viewer of the image (the audience). They are the same images, but may be the result of very different mental processes and ‘looks’. For example- a photographer takes a picture of a naked model for a girlie  magazine (or a ‘boyie’ one). He/she may look at him/her intricately- this is a technical work and needs to accentuate the visual clues of sexual availability which maximise the value of the end-image.  This is likely to be a very different look to the simple scopophilic look that the magazine viewer gives the image, on his or her way to powerful sexual thoughts and feelings. A film director like Hitchcock might piece together intricate visual narratives, and be aware of the different looks he wants the audience to give the film. But his own look may be one of intense scrutiny and workmanship- because he knows the images have to be flawless if he is to succeed as a director and artist. The images that follow have been described in relation to the audience/viewer.

  1. The scopophilic look (sexual gratification/stimulation). kate winslet nude celebrity pussy sex scenes sex tapes                                                                                       Fig. 2 A scene from Jude (1996)

Fig. 3 is a film clip of the actress Kate Winslet, from the film Jude. She plays Jude’s wife and this is a prelude to the first time they have sex. The image represents a scoptophilic look- one of pleasurable looking. The actress is pretty, womanly, and is completely naked- and passive. These are strong cues for the scoptophilic look as part of the sex instinct – one progresses from looking to having sex, the eye being an important part of sexual forepleasure (Fenichel, 1999: p. 329).

2.The scopophilic look- identification with the hero.


Fig. 3  Covershot from the film The Judge (2014)

I have just finished watching this film. It is a good example of a central character who I view as the hero, and who I identify with. The psychological characteristics of this form of looking are discussed clearly by Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Mulvey, 1999).

In this film, the central role is taken by Robert Downey Jr. who plays Hank.  Hank has a few bad points, but they are outweighed by his good ones. We learn that he is a hot shot lawyer, has a big house and car, went to an Ivy league college and came top of his class. He’s also funny, popular with women, and good-looking.  However, he has more sensitive side too, and in the film he defends his dad (a Judge) against a murder charge. During this time the lawyer has to deal with his mum’s sudden  death, his return home to a quiet and dull hometown, sibling jealousy, problems with an ex-lover, and a very complicated relationship with his dad.

His dad is recently retired, and suffering from terminal cancer. Hank has to  come to terms with the illness, his father’s frailty, the realities of vomit and diarrhoea which his dad suffers from because he’s on  chemotherapy. As well as the physical side of things, Hank has never been openly loved and nurtured by his dad- who is very closed up with regards to emotions. This is partly due to the fact that he crashed a car when on drugs, and his brother was injured which ruined a promising baseball career. However, at the denouement of the film, we also realise that the Judge could never love Hank because he reminded him so strongly of a felon who he had given a lenient sentence to – hoping he could be rehabilitated, but who later murdered a young girl.  Hank fails to keep his dad out of prison, but does get him off the murder charge. After 7 months the judge is released and dies soon after whilst out fishing with Hank.

Hank manages to cope with all this and still remain cool, funny and good-looking. Yes this is a dream Holywood film, but I did identify strongly with Hank- he was a good man who returned to his home town to look after his dad. He had to cope with women problems, family problems, and the loss of his parents. Mulvey has it that my identification with this ideal character is built upon a ‘…more complete, more powerful ideal ego’ that is akin to the view of the child’s reflection in the mirror during Lacan’s mirror stage (Mulvey, 1999: p. 385).

3.Surveillance (I)

Police handout image taken from CCTV footage shows London bombing suspects at at Luton train station in central England

Fig. 4 CCTV camera footage (2005)

Fig. 4  shows an image from a surveillance camera, taken of the London ‘7/11’ terrorist bombers in 2005. Surveillance can be defined as ‘the monitoring of the behaviour, activities, or other changing information, usually of people for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing, or protecting them’.  (Wikipaedia, 2017).

Here we can see important information on the screen- exact time and dates, and the camera location. This was taken by a CC-TV camera, and shows that it is situated above the people, and may therefore be unseen in ‘normal’ circumstances. We can also clearly see the faces of two men. This sort of data can be used by the police, the Crown Prosecution service, and the legal system as evidence in prosecution of criminal cases, thereby incarcerating (or some other method of punishment/rehabilitation) criminals and protecting the public in future.

4.Surveillance (II)

Gin Lane 1751 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

Fig. 5 Gin Lane (1751)

This is a print by William Hogarth. The artist used the image as part of a campaign against the uncontrolled production and sale of cheap gin in. The artist has included scenes of violence, child cruelty, drunkenness, civil breakdown and general chaos.  

The artist may have made the etchings from direct sketches of the drunken debauched people, or may have made them up. Whichever was the case, he has produced an image which documents the chaos  in London (he seems to be largely unobserved), and which increased the awareness of society to  a specific social problem. This awareness brought about a reduction in the number of gin shops, and a reduction of the drink-fuelled social problems, through legislation (The Gin Act) by the powerful force of government. In this respect the original image has characteristics of a surveillance.

5. Observation (I)

Amongst the definitions of Observation, we can find

  • The ability to notice things, especially significant details
  •    a statement based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed.

(Oxforddictionaries, 2016)

The first definition seems very like what we expect of an artist- we sometimes define an artist as ‘someone who notices visual details’. The second definition seems to suggest that as well as simply documenting details, one who observes may also state a view on what he has seen. This too is often the case with artists in their work, and some artists have been rather political figures.

5. Observing the significant details

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1602-03 (oil on canvas)

Fig. 6 The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1602-3)

This beautiful image is Caravaggio’s rendering of the biblical story of Doubting Thomas, who only believed that the man before him was Christ when he was able to stick his finger into the wounds of his crucified body. The artist  has beautifully caught the following details…

  •  The look of doubt-surprise  on the face of the old Thomas- the deep wrinkles in the forehead, the slightly doddery look of an old man, the way he seems to look away as if to increase the sensitivity of this power of touch.
  • The gentle softness of Christ’s robe
  • Jesus’s gently guiding hand
  • The strange and incongruous shape and depth of a skin pocket produced by a centurion’s spear.
  • The intense effort of looking and feeling -of all the men-  no other background features are shown- the background is in deep shadow (this is an example of Tenebrism)


Observation which involves a statement

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas)

Fig. 7 Landscape with the fall of Icarus (c. 1555)

Brueghel’s painting is more than just a lovely descriptive image; it tells us a deep truth about tragedy in our human lives;- that we do not always experience tragedy at the same time, and that much of the ‘mechanics’ of the world simply does not recognise the existence of Human tragedy.

Here we see the death of Icarus- he has flown too close to the sun using Wings that his father made for him. What should have been exciting and fun has turned into tragedy- the loss of a son.  We also see a landscape with a farmer ploughing his fields, a shepherd with his sheep, and many ships in the sea- all oblivious of the tragedy, all going about their routine, mundane lives.

W.H Auden wrote a powerful poem on this painting (see below)

Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(Auden, 1940)


Fig. 1  Nauman, W. Violent Incident (2012) at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 2   A scene from Jude (1996) [still from film] available online at %5Baccessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 3  covershot from the film The Judge(2014) [photograph] available online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 4 CCTV camera footage (2005) available online at  [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 5 Hogarth, W. Gin Lane (1751) [Etching and engraving on paper] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 6 |Carravagio, M.  The incredulity of St. Thomas (1602-3) [oil on canvas] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 7 Bruegel, P. Landscape with the fall of Icarus (c. 1555) [oil on canvas] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].



Auden, W.H. (1940) Musee des beaux arts (poem) online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fenichel O. (1999) ‘The scoptophilic instinct and identification’. in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 327-339

Mulvey, L. (1999) ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 381-389

Oxforddictionaries (2016) Surveillance [definition] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

The Guardian (2012) gillian-wearing-whitechapel-gallery-feature [online] at %5Baccessed 24th July 2017].

Wikipaedia (2017) Surveillance (definition) online at [accessed 24th July 2017].











Project: Looking, observation or surveillance?

Text Panopticism by Michel Foucalt


  • Foucault describes the measures taken when plague appeared in town. In essence they included closing (the town), prohibition (to leave), killing (stray animals), division (of town into different areas), surveillance and governance (by town appointed officials). He sums up the system as ‘the registration of the pathological must be constantly centralised’ (Foucault, 1999 p.61).


  • The chaos of the plague is met by a series of ordered responses by those in power, involving divisions of people and places, and a hierarchy.
  • This chaos led to the idea of the ‘festival’ where everyone was free to be themselves. This is contrasted with the plague which is the apotheosis of control and order.
  • The plague is also contrasted with the disease of leprosy and lepers. Whilst lepers are simply separated, marked and ignored, plague victims are controlled segregated, and analysed- it’s more complicated.
  • In a broader political sense leprosy represents ‘ a pure community’ , and control through separation; plague represents discipline and control of  ‘a perfect governed city’ (Foucault, 1999 p.62).


  • These two ideas came together in the 18th C when those simply excluded from society- beggars, the insane, criminals… started to be segmented, organised, analysed (but still separated), whether in schools, prisons, hospitals, or asylums etc.
  • The two basic contrasting modes of power which are illustrated by these examples are
  1. Binary separation and a marking/branding (mad/sane etc……NB Binary oppositions!)
  2. a coercion into different assignments and distributions.
  • These mechanisms and modes can still be seen today- operating on those considered ‘abnormal’.
  • Jeremy Bentham’s Opticon is an idea of a building designed to allow this control. It’s described by Foucalt- and has a central tower, surrounded by an annular ring of buildings and rooms. The windows are designed so that one ‘supervisor’ in the tower can see clearly into each surrounding room, where the occupant’s actions are highlighted by the back light.
  • The rooms can be occupied by any ‘abnormals’ that need surveillance…. prisoners, workers, schoolchildren, the sick ….. (the list is theoretically and politically endless)


  • continuing to describe the characteristics of the architectural opticon, the author states that any prisoner: is seen, but cannot see, cannot communicate with others (as a subject), but is always the object of communication.
  • This arrangement has great benefits in practical terms, for control … think of workers denied unions, disease being isolated from new bodies, prisoners become harmless.
  • The crowd has become separate individuals, they feel more lonely and powerless, but the observer gains in power.
  • ‘Hence the major effect of the opticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that ensures the automatic functioning of power’ (Foucault, 1999 p.65).
  • Fundamental to this control is that the prisoner needs to know he is being watched, whereas it is not necessary to actually watch him (he must never be able to verify (see) that he is being watched…….
  • ‘The panopticon dissociates the see/being seen dyad’ (Foucault, 1999 p.65). (the prisoner is seen but cannot see, the controller sees but cannot be seen)

P 66.

  • The panoptican is a power machine- it automates power. Unlike the old world power of a sovereign king or queen- with its silly visible ceremonies and individualisms, this power can be wielded by anyone, and for any reason… ( curiosity, punishment, research, sadism…….).
  • Bentham was quite surprised at how little mechanical (bars/chains…) or physical power (restraint/etc..) was needed in the buildings designed upon the panopticon .


Surely there must sometimes be displays of physical power/punishment/ to prove that the elements of seeing/being seen and possible punishment are all working and ready to go if needed??  Like a weekly fire alarm test. Otherwise, if seeing or physical reaction were not functioning properly disorder may result?

  •  The panopticon also allows a myriad of things which follow from surveillance…or more specifically Observation – measuring (behaviours such as work, attitudes, aptitude, work rates), distinguishing results ( eg. Laziness v ineptitude)


  • As well as observation, the panopticon allows for the changing of behaviour and experimentation.
  • Eg. Testing different drugs on different patients, different work techniques to see which is most efficacious, different punishments, etc……… It sounds like a good instrument for research – but not ethical research !!!
  • The opticon can allow analysis of its own working systems (like a computer scan ?). At each level in the hierarchy of possible observers, the greater can observe the lesser, whether doctors observed in the rooms treating patients, or whether inspectors drop in unobserved to measure how the warden is managing the unit.
  • The difference between the plague situation and the panopticon ( separated by c. 150 years) is that the first is a response to a one-off , exceptional event, the second is a generalised response enabling control of an ideal society.
  • The panopticon is not an actual building, but is a political /abstract/generalisable representation of power relations
  • Shortly after Bentham, Julius stated that the society of antiquity was one of the spectacle- the many seeing the few, but that modern society was the opposite- based on how the few could observe the many.- the state observing and controlling the society.


  • Julius saw that the panopticon method of Bentham, had actually come to be a historical progression which had affected social structure in society.
  • Napolean is cited as a character who’s strength is due to the fact that he is both sovereign power, but also the head of the newer power – seen as the surveillance/ opticon mediated power of the state ……
  • The image of king’s rule punishing man was decapitation of the felon, which somehow cleansed the crime completely.
  • This has developed along the lines of the modern penal system (through the opticon characteristics)- involving constant surveillance, investigation, experts on labelling/separating – guilty/not guilty, insane/sane, …(the judge/ magistrates)……
  • In today’s prison the opticon principle is seen working everywhere……….and the buildings of prisons look similar to workplaces, schools, hospitals etc ( where the opticon is translated for a different master).


Foucault, M. (1999) ‘Panopticism’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 61-71