— Surveillance / Harun Farocki


On a personal note: my French grandfather, Charles Tricon was held by the Gestapo in 1942 during the German occupation of Greece. They tortured him to get him to reveal the whereabouts of my Uncle Arthur who went missing aged 16, assisting the British navy. My grandfather was blinded by the Nazis in these torture sessions. I remember him fondly as a child, sitting next to the radio in his canvas chair, unable to see.

It was suggested that I watch Harun Farocki’s film, Images of the World and the Inscription of War as it would be important to follow up on, for I am researching into the theme of surveillance with greater scrutiny, my object, to prepare this as a topic for a forthcoming essay.

Farocki created over ninety films in his life, ending unexpectedly at age 70, just 5 years ago.

To describe Farocki as a filmmaker is inadequate; for he was also known as political activist, performance artist and above all, media theorist.

His prolific output is a challenge for a quick summary in this posting. Two of his films that stood out as most relevant to surveillance:

1. Images of the World and the Inscription of War


2. Gefängnisbilder (2000) – Prison Images are the two that I selected.

Gefängnisbilder features footage both fictional film footage and of surveillance cameras. The documentary film material features not only prisons but also asylum, Egyptian drug addicts, a German prison in Brandenburg during 1942, a GDR prison in 1952 and a maximum-security prison in the US. Farocki also included film clips by Robert Bresson and Jean Genet. The footage shows ‘normal activities’ and deviant behaviour e.g. Genet’s “Un chant d’amour” (1950) shows the prison guard compulsively watching the inmates masturbating through a spy hole. Robert Bresson’s experience as a WWII POW inspired “Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé” (1956), where the inmate transforms common prison supplies into a means of escape. The film opens with a clip from “Off the beaten track” (1929) – prison warders watch inmates as they walk round the compound to differentiate the compliant from the non-compliant.

“We were looking for footage from security cameras installed in penitentiaries, instruction material for prison officers, documentaries, and feature films, which included depictions of prisons. We got to know a private investigator who, as a civil rights activist, campaigns for the families of prisoners killed in Californian prisons: a private detective who reads Hans Blumenberg when he has time to kill.” (Farocki)[1]

Farocki’s concern with the institution; factory, military shopping centre, revealing to us how we are controlled and manipulated, either as the subject or the object in his perceptive assembly of imagery. He shows us how work in prisons is valued highly, to ‘repay’ a debt to ‘society’.

The cold uncaring eye of the CCTV camera replaces the idea of a central tower as conceived by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

Farocki would see the panopticon more in lines of Foucault who interpreted Bentham’s concept aiming at a society of discipline, or Deleuze who saw it as society as control. Burroughs names this ongoing tendency for imposed discipline as ‘Control’. “Is Control controlled by its need to control? Answer: yes.” [2]

The supermarket camera, originally to reduce shoplifting, latterly used to monitor shoppers’ buying patterns. Farocki shows us the uses of technology in the prison as well as in the shopping centre. The contrasting use of ankle bracelets on prisoners vs CCTV tracking of customers in conjunction with computing comprises a similar use of technology to watch over its subjects from afar. The factory setting as well, workers are monitored. My own research using Insecam.org to compile CCTV footage for my exhibit at the December popup (previous blog entry), often monitoring restaurant kitchens and factories. This is a concern with workers at Amazon for example where they are watched for maximum productivity; “…a wristband patented by the company (but which is not yet in use) can direct the movement of workers’ hands using “haptic feedback”. Stock pickers in Amazon warehouses are watched by cameras, and workers have reportedly been reduced to urinating in bottles in order to hit their targets”[2]

“In the present judicial crisis in the US – despite falling crime rates, the number of prisoners has quadrupled over the past twenty years – many new prisons are being built, including some by private operators. New technologies are being developed and implemented in order to reduce costs. Guards are meant to have as little direct contact with the prisoners as possible, and just as hu- mans in the production sector have turned over war production to machines, prisoners should also be isolated from any direct human contact.”[3]

 The controlling gaze of the guard remains. The panoptic principal, with the guard as a representative of the people, remains in modern US prisons. The prisoners, unable to tell if the guard is watching them, but remain aware that they are being observed. The cells the inmates have – with bars, not doors. Prisoners no longer have direct visual contact with their visitors, being only able to communicate via videophone.

Images, Technology, Surveillance, War, he includes as themes in Images of the World and the Inscription of War

I had some difficulty in using the copies of the film from the University library for neither of the available DVDs would play more than 11 of the total 73 minutes of the film. I am a member of a private web site dedicated to film and obtained a copy, however it had a German soundtrack and unfortunately I could not follow the narrative. Eventually, via obfuscation and chicanery I managed to find a Russian website which had the audio track in English, French and German, with subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Zulu.

An interview found on YouTube (for there is much on this site on the filmmaker), Farocki states in so many words on his film:

“…I used very few elements in this film, to be combined differently, so that it had both complexity and minimalism at the same time, combining different montage elements in different ways. A with C, B with D, D with A and so on…”

The overall concerns, found footage, stills, ‘second hand’ elements (Farocki) being images, watching at a distance, measuring and calculating, being seen – all combined meticulously to perhaps create a ‘third’ reaction; the impersonal and inevitable thrust of research into undesirable activities such as warfare as one example. Farocki takes us into an area of film that overlaps philosophy with art and reveals truths that are already visible in plain sight, but we may have ignored or forgotten them. Only with his acute powers of observation into detail, as any talented photographer or artist, he montages the film into something provocative and unique.

One particularly compelling section of Images of the World:

“Enlightenment translation: Aufklärung, in German this also means reconnaissance (as a military term)” ….

We are shown how the US air force, while bombing the SS Industries I. G. Farben synthetic rubber plant, took aerial photographs. Nearby, the Auschwitz concentration camp is also photographed but ignored until two CIA workers (in their own spare time) in 1977 analysed photos of the camp, identifying the gas chambers. A personal observation of mine; I find it courageous how Farocki is open and honest, not shying away from the horrors carried out by the people of his country in the year of his birth. Evidently, allied forces did not pay sufficient attention to the other ‘activities’ during the war. Monotone narration of anodyne peacetime aerial photos combines with wartime photos, Farocki prods us out of our slumber. Thus, overcoming our indifference due to the relentless exposure to atrocities each night, we watch the news. In Farocki’s earlier film, Inextinguishable fire (Nicht Löschbares Fuer):

“How can we show you napalm in action? And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First, you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then, you’ll close your eyes to the facts. We will hurt your feelings as if we’d tried napalm on you, at your expense.” (a young Farocki takes a lit cigarette and stubs it out on his forearm) … “A cigarette burns at 400 degrees C. Napalm burns at 3000 degrees C”

Many other themes interplay throughout the film; the advance in technology, impersonal and amoral (witness this also in the Gefängnisbilder film as well).

I made this little short film in 2014, the year of the Olympics when they came to London. I filmed it in Islington, Hamburg and Canvey Island. It is called Canvey. I do not profess to have the talents of Farocki however, there seem to be some threads of similarity in my short film, perhaps you might be able to see this. The film was made well before I had seen any of Farocki’s work. I did not use found footage I used my iPhone instead. Not a ground-breaking advance in ideas, but a useful montage. I hope it reveals some details that may have slipped through our attention. Today, with Instagram and the almost no-cost advent of recording still and moving images, we create our own montages. A commonplace part of our lives now.

[1] Harun Farocki Working on the sight lines, A collection of texts on and by Farocki edited by Thomas Elsaesser.

[2] W.S. Burroughs Ah Pook is Here and other texts

[3] Guardian Friday 14th Sep 2018 “Amazon’s ‘worker cage’ has been dropped, but its staff are not free André Spicer”[

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