Surveillance at Home: My Favorite Picture on Google Maps Street View

Surveillance at Home: My Favorite Picture on Google Maps Street View
Google Street View Car

Idling away some random minutes recently, I searched for my house on Google Maps Street View, and I came upon this lovely: my house almost completely obscured by the tree out front. Instantly, this became my favorite picture of my house on Street View. Maybe just flat out my favorite picture of my house, and definitely my favorite picture on Street View.

Google street view house obscured by tree on a sunny day.

Google street view house obscured by tree on a sunny day.

You know, because why not? Here is a mechanism explicitly designed to provide information, explicitly obscuring it instead. Not every day you run into that kind of oppositional entertainment. It’s as though the Google Street View photographer went rogue for a minute, or was asleep at the switch or something. It’s been known to happen before

And now, I’ve shared this image with you – but why? Why does a picture of the tree in front of my house on Google Maps matter? At least why would I think it would matter to anyone but me?

Well, I’m not sure, but it points to one of those things that intrigues, you might even say preoccupies, me; the various ways photographs provide information, and also obscure it.

In her groundbreaking “On Photography”, Susan Sontag wrote about the ‘truth value’ of the photograph. Interestingly, she also seems to predict the Google Street car; the indiscriminate taker of photographs:

“Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.”

Curious, that word: ‘aggression.’

Once, the Google Street View car passed me on the street, and immediately I visioned my destiny as a blurred figure in the urban jungle; haplessly providing Street View searchers everywhere a human scale in an otherwise gritty scene. At the time it felt like a rare moment, being grabbed by Google View, and apparently there are enough people so intrigued by the process that you can now track the Google cars, maybe even – if you are inclined toward that kind of thing – plan a rendezvous with your own Google Maps destiny. Of course this might actually be a ploy by Google to garner more ‘epic prankster’ pictures like the fake murder plot in Scotland, or those groups of people in odd costumes posed on roads and alleyways.

The fun puts a human face on things. But to talk about Street View, is to talk about surveillance and invaded privacy. Google has been taken to task for disclosing personal information indiscriminately, and their privacy statement promises to protect your personal information even as it puts it out there. Independent sites offer instructions on how to protect yourself from Street View’s probing eye, and the Street View page itself includes a link at the bottom where you can report images that you feel are problematic.

But where does that bring us?

In 2013, The Wall Street Journal published an article about “Surveillance Art” an overview of work by photographers (asking that question) disturbed by the ubiquity of these cameras documenting our days, and by the share-abilty of photographs online. As Chicago’s own Catherine Edelman said, “It’s a huge issue. The Internet has completely changed what we consider to be the rules within the photography world.”

Photographers Jens Sundheim and Doug Rickard are re-writing those rules. Their work was included in “From Here On” a major exhibition in 2011, at the ‘Les Rencontres de la Photographie’, Photography Festival, held in Arles in southern France every year.

In his “Traveler” series, Sundheim poses in front of surveillance cameras in various locations. HIs posture is that of a tourist stopping for a picture at some noteworthy site. He stands, facing the camera, calling it out. His act strips away, at least for that moment, the ubiquitous invisibility upon which the surveillance camera depends.

Similarly, Doug Rickard’s “New American Picture” subverts Google’s pervasive eye. Culling through Street View, Rickard selects scenes that seem as though they could have been intentionally created as landscapes or documentary. He freezes the view on his computer screen so he can photograph it, plucking it out of the Street View stream, then prints and frames it for exhibition and publication.

“There is aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” Sontag wrote, and an “ever increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs.” … “From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects.” Both these bodies of work hinge on the aggressiveness of the camera. Rickard’s images are doubly aggressive; acquisitioned once by Google, and then again for the “New American Picture.”

Google "Trekker"

Google “Trekker”

Sontag seemed to have seen that we would arrive here. The chirpy tone on Google’s Street View site (“See the world from every angle …”) masks surveillance as adventure. Even more so in their ‘Trekker’, a wearable backpack designed to get “places no car, trike, trolley or snowmobile can access …” and “… gather images while maneuvering through tight, narrow spaces, or locations only accessible by foot.” Google even invites you to sign up for a “Trekker”, and become a partner in their quest to photograph everyplace.

This bothers me. I’m a photographer, and I take pictures all the time. But I don’t actually want every corner of the globe to be pictured – online or anywhere. I believe we need wild, uncharted places. And we’d be better off to resist this pioneer urge to get everywhere and capture it all.

So, even though I had conniptions wrestling with Sontag’s ideas when I first read “On Photography”, I guess this means she was right. “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Even the tree in front of my house by a driver asleep at the switch.

Note: No Google blue in China.

Note: No Google blue in China.

— A side note: if you have any interest in photography at all, add the Arles Festival to your bucket list. It is huge and international and diverse. And I promise you it will both reward and challenge your expectations about the possibilities of the medium. It opens every year at the start of July with exhibits and lectures and portfolio reviews and parties — and it’s all …. ‘en Provence!’.


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