Life through a Lens: Risk, Surveillance and Subjectivity

  • Australian National University


Drawing on findings from a two-year empirical study examining the culture of closed-circuit television (CCTV) operation in the UK, this paper analyses how CCTV camera operators subjectively experience the visual media that they work to produce. It seeks to excavate some of the social meanings that these vicarious risk flâneurs ascribe to the telemediated events that they indirectly encounter, and how these ‘narratives of the street’ come to inscribe themselves on the subjectivities of the camera operators in a disciplinary manner. In so doing, the paper reveals the work of watching to be an ambiguous social practice, an activity that far exceeds its formal framing as a dispassionate and standardised procedure. As such, I contend that CCTV camera operators engage in two distinct modes of work – ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ – as they watch the screens and codify the spectacles that are mediated through the camera lens. The ‘surface’ work they enact is officially acknowledged and concerns their focusing attention on the screens to identify harmful behaviours, to capture evidence and to share information with other collaborators in the security network. This mode of work is principally performed for professional imperatives and economic returns. In contrast, the ‘deep’ work rituals they execute are informal in scope and therapeutic in purpose. Such individualised practices are an unseen and unrecognised work relation that mitigates the negative effects of CCTV viewing. They are operationalised through diverse behavioural repertoires which function to insulate the self from its exposure to mediated traumas, and from the contradiction of mobilising ‘(in)action at a distance’. Overall, the paper accentuates the messy realities that hinge on the practice of urban surveillance, showing these realities to be meditated by the vagaries of subjective experience and social relations.
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Published: 2016-03-01
Pages:82 to 97
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How to Cite
Smith, G. (2016) “Life through a Lens: Risk, Surveillance and Subjectivity”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 5(1), pp. 82-97. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.v5i1.281.

Author Biography

Australian National University

School of Sociology

Senior Lecturer