Smile, You're on Camera!

How the people of Columbia react to being filmed

Contributed by Amy Eschenfelder University of South Carolina
December 05, 2014
Eschenfa's picture
When I first started this class, one of the topics I was most interested in was how people's behaviors change in the presence of security cameras. I believed it would be productive to study people's reactions to a particular camera during my Mass Observation experiment. This experiment proved to be less of a success than I had planned, as the passersby I observed overwhelmingly ignored the camera.
 
The trouble with security cameras is this: people simply do not pay attention to them. While there are countless cameras in every building and on every city block—some plainly visible, others less so—individuals simply pass by them, unaware that every step they take is being recorded. The question I began to ask myself was, are people truly unaware of security cameras, or do they just choose to accept them as a natural part of life? To answer this question, I needed a way to see how people react to clearly visible cameras. One of my classmates provided and answer to this question: strap a camera to his chest, walk around downtown Columbia, and see what happens.
 
I should first point out that this is not a flawless way to gather data. For part of our journey, we we walking with the rest of the class. Being in a large group such as this might have affected how people reacted to us. However, I believe our walk down Main Street still provided some valuable information.
 
I first became interested in the different ways people react to different forms of surveillance during my mass observation experiment. During my experiment I noticed that no one reacted to the security camera, but they did react to a police officer who was standing nearby. Most pedestrians hurried by him, sneaking glances to see what he was doing. The police officer was not there to watch the area, but people reacted as if they were being watched. This suggested to me that people are more uncomfortable when they perceive that they are being watched by a real person rather than just a camera. This is why I believed a camera attached to a live human being would yield interesting results.
 
We received many interesting reactions on our walk down Main Street. Some people still seemed to go about business as usual, but a much greater percentage reacted in some way to us than did to my previously observed security camera. The most common reaction was to sneak a glance at us while passing by.  Most people tried to be very sneaky about this, quickly glancing at us and then looking the other way. However, none were curious enough to ask us what we were doing. I believe that the fear of commiting a social faux pas overcame their natural curiosity. They simply trusted that we were not doing anything unsavory with our camera.
 
Another very common reaction was to look resolutely straight ahead and ignore us completely. Many took this approach, again not wanting to look at us and appear too nosy. One man who looked a student practically speedwalked by us in order to enter the Hub. Another woman gave us a very wide berth and avoided looking at us as she passed us on our way back the the state house. I believe that these two common reactions—ignoring us and pretending to ignore us—are due to the deep-rooted human belief of "if I can't see you, you can't see me." I believe that people avoided paying attention to us in an attempt to not draw attention to themselves. However, our camera could not be fooled by their attempts and recorded them the same as everyone else. 
 
Others made more logical attempts to not be observed. One young woman, walking with two men, covered her face as she walked past us. However, our camera saw her before she was us and the camera clearly recorded her face. She was not quick enough to fool the camera. Moreover, she passed many others cameras on the street while making no attempt to hide her face. Was she unaware that she was on camera the entire time she was outside that afternoon? How would she behave differently if she knew? 
 
By far the most unique person we encountered on our walk was the one person who asked what we were doing. She asked us if we were looking for historic buildings, or artwork to take pictures of. When she saw our camera, she assumed we were tourists, despite our Gamecock attire. I think that the fact the one person who questioned us thought we were tourists is very interesting. She obviously did not see us as a "threat" to her privacy, and didn't even consider that we might be filming people, not buildings. Because she did not feel as if we were invading her privacy with the camera, she had the courage to speak to us, unlike everyone else we saw on our walk. 
 
A few other people reacted to us differently. There was one girl who pointed us out to her friend, and a few people openly stared at us. One valet in particular was especially curious about what we we doing, but he didn't say anything to us. The only person who questioned us was the "historical buildings" woman. From this experience, I can draw a few conclusion. One is, people appear generally trust cameras. Even if they don't want to be on camera, such as the woman who covered her face, people will trust that a person with a camera is not doing anything bad. This is evidenced by the fact that no one questioned us and let us carry on with whatever we were doing. Secondly, people will attempt to avoid cameras which they know about, such as in the car of the girl who covered her face and the countless people who hurried by without looking at us. This second point is the one I find more interesting. What would these camera-shy people do if they knew how much they are being filmed every day? Would they cover their faces every time they passed a camera? Or would they continue to accept it as they do now? 
 
If I have learned anything from this class, it is that I am being watched much more than I ever thought possible. I am seeing cameras in places where I never noticed them. My call to action for this article, therefore, is thus: I believe people should make themselves more aware of how they are being watched and make their own decisions about how to react. Some people will think that cameras are a necessary means of ensuring security, while others will think that the amount of cameras in public spaces is an invasion of privacy. However, they cannot make this decision if they do not have knowledge of the situation which they are in. 

Comments

Response from
Grace Miyaji

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

Why do you think we have grown so accusomted to cameras being a part of our daily life, yet continue to act differently in areas of high surveillance such as the State House? Or act slightly different when we are being watched by a particular person in general? 

Response from
Grace Miyaji

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

Do you think that some people went about their business while noticing being observed by our group because they assumed we were students doing something related to school?

DarrylUSC 2015's picture
Response from
Darryl Burkett

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

Why did people react differently being watched on camera than the police officer on the corner? Would you have reacted the same way? Why?

alexa.garfinkle's picture
Response from
Alexa Garfinkle

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

Amy, 

You bring up a familiar point that I too observed while doing my Mass Observation Project. While sitting at The Gourmet Shop and surrounded by more than eight cameras, there was not once a time that a person brought up the presence of cameras. I find it very interesting that people are constantly criticizing the government for watching us, yet realistically, people are pretty oblivious to these cameras.  However, as soon as people are confronted with physical surveillance such as police officers, they are very likely to react and change their behavior. I am guilty of this as well. If there is a police officer driving next to me, I am sure to go the speed limit.

Eschenfa's picture
Response from
Amy Eschenfelder

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

Hi Alexa, 

Thanks for your reply! I like your point about people's ignorance and hypocrisy toward surveillance. It reminds me of people who complain on social media about the government and Google tracking their online activity, while at the same time sharing every aspect of their lives on Facebook and Twitter. I think if people were more informed about both online and physical surveillance, everyone would be much better off. 

With regards to your comments on ophysical surveillance and the example of the police officer, I think that ties in with Ryan's thoughts below (above?) on consequences. The police officer reminds you of the consequences of speeding, and is able to enforce the law in a way cameras can't. 

Ryan Brower's picture
Response from
Ryan Brower

December 07, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

You talk briefly about how people reacted to the police officer, and I think you could've expanded on this more. Perhaps the reason that people don't show a noticable reaction to security cameras is because there are no viable consequences that come from them; if you jaywalk in front of a camera, nothing will happen to you, but if you jaywalk in front of police officer you could get in trouble. Another thing to think about would be that people understand a security camera's purpose but didn't know why you were filming them, thus prompting their skeptical reactions. Could it be that had you told some people what you were doing they would have reacted differently?

Eschenfa's picture
Response from
Amy Eschenfelder

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

You make two excellent points! 

Firstly, I think you're onto something with your ideas about direct consequence. However, I do see a slight problem. Just because there is no threat of immediate consequences, doesn't meant the possibility of consequences doesn't exist. Admittedly, one is unlikely to get in trouble for jaywalking, even if caught on camera. However, what about running a red light? You would probably be less likely to run a red light if there was a cop nearby, even if you know you're just as likely to get a ticket from a traffic camera. In this way, I think people aren't very logical about perceived surveillance. 

You also make a good point about how people react to an unknown and suspicious camera. However, I think there would be some problems inherent with telling people what the camera was being used for. If you tell them that the camera is being used to record changes in their behavior, they will obviously change their behavior accordingly. Nonetheless, I think your point is worth keeping in mind when considering the results of the experiment. 

Ryan Brower's picture
Response from
Ryan Brower

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

I agree with you that my argument is flawed, and there isn't really a feasible way to explain to everyone why you're recording them and expect them to carry on accordingly, I was just trying to say that security cameras have become the norm, people have come to accept them, they have become a faceless staple of society, and that's much less intimidating than a stranger walking down the street with a camera, filming other strangers with an unknown intent. Really, the only way to capture pure reactions during a walk downtown would be if one had a hidden camera on them. 

cooleyh's picture
Response from
Heidi Rae Cooley

December 07, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

To be honest, I don't recall you being with us on our traversal of Main Street. In this regard, I would ask why this might or might not matter?

Eschenfa's picture
Response from
Amy Eschenfelder

December 08, 2014

Re: Smile, You're on Camera!

Well remembered, professor! No, I was regrettably not in attendance for the class' traversal of Main Street — at least, not in the traditional sense. One of the many wonderful things about cameras is the way in which they enable one to view events after they occur. By watching Austin's footage, I was able to put myself directly in the position of the camera during its journey down Main Street. Perhaps this way of viewing events is similar to Omar's remote visit to our classroom — just as he participated in the class from a remote location, my participation in the walk was both spacially and temporally remote.

I agree that it is interesting to consider whether my physical absence may have had an effect on my analysis. While discussing the walk with my group members, one of them mentioned they hadn't noticed many of the strange looks the group had received until they viewed the footage later. Possibly if I had watched the footage with the idea no one had paid attention to the camera in mind, I might have interpreted the footage differently. Or maybe you are suggesting my presence might have had an effect on the people we observed? Perhaps one more person in the group might have made people more or less suspicious of the camera, or something about my appearance might have influenced their reactions. These are all valuable questions to consider.