The Archives: Adam Harvey
STEVE MILLER: This issue of Musee is about controversy and you are focusing your artistic efforts on an important global discussion but, before we go there, you started out as a photographer. What led you to first think about photography?
ADAM HARVEY: I was motivated early on to be a photographer by the world I saw through magazine photography in the mid 1990s, like GEAR and National Geographic, but was reluctant to act on it. Things changed in 2001. I saw and was deeply moved by Sebastio Salgado's Migrations exhibition at ICP, I obtained a part-time position as a photojournalist at my school's newspaper which eventually led me to change my major, and then 9/11 happened. From that year on I've been closely following photography and its changing role in a landscape of mass surveillance.
SM: One of the biggest controversies of our era was highlighted by the work of Edward Snowden revealing the massive extent of the data collected by our government. As a photography magazine, Musee is primarily about photographers recording the world through a lens and getting those images out into the world. Traditional photography is an act of seeing, and the way we look. Surveillance is about being seen to record our look.
It strikes me that your enterprise as an artist is to do the complete opposite, to avoid being seen. Would you like to comment on that?
AH: Although my work takes an antagonistic approach to surveillance it's really about creating new ways of appearing. I consider how both people and machines see and explore how the former can control visibility in both perceptual states. For example, my project CV Dazzle is about existing in a recognizable state to people, but in an imperceptible state to machines. The idea is that human-scale observation is tolerable, but automated mass surveillance is not. The project's designs exploit a vulnerability in some face detection systems that relies on symmetry and the visibility of the nose bridge area to locate a face. By altering the contrast and gradients of these key facial features, a computer no longer sees a face. Yet in human-perception the person is still identifiable.
I take a similar approach with Stealth Wear, using metal-plated fabrics to cloak the wearer's thermal signature. The garments look normal in the visible light spectrum, but in the thermal spectrum the metal-plated fabric hides the wearer's radiated thermal energy. In both cases, the user appears more visible in one spectrum and less visible in the other. Appearance is relative to the spectrum being observed.
SM: How did you develop your point of view?
AH: A lot of my opinions formed while working as an event and party photographer during my first few years in New York City. In the beginning, around 2004-05, everyone seemed to love being photographed and having their photo posted online. But within the next two years, more people had cameras and people become their own photographer, in control of their own image. I felt like I was doing some people a disservice by taking their photograph, especially if I posted it online. So I began looking for other ways to creatively engage with photography, by subverting it. The response to this approach was overwhelmingly positive. For all the technological development that has advanced the art of photography, very little has been done to advance our ability to hide or control visibility. The result is that we are more exposed than ever. We have powerful, cheap and ubiquitous tools to see over great distances, in low light, in multiple spectrums, and with tiny or even hidden devices. For all these advancements in augmented seeing, we seem to forgotten about the art of not being seen, of controlling visibility. This creates a power asymmetry between the photographer and the subject. The projects I'm working are about restoring a balance by empowering the subject.
SM: When I heard you speak at NEW INC on ways to avoid a digital footprint, it struck me about how much work it takes to avoid detection. Would you talk a little about the techniques you use. For example, Tor.
AH: In the past year, I've quit most Google services and stopped using Facebook. I've upgraded my browser with extensions like Disconnect, Privacy Badger and Ghostery. Whenever possible I use iMessages or Signal to communicate with friends instead of email. I always use a VPN to hide my Internet traffic and IP address. I use Tor occasionally, when more security is needed. I also try to pay in cash whenever possible to avoid credit card companies form selling my purchase data. Depending on who you work for, these tactics are considered either suspect or savvy. I would not recommend this digital detox approach to everyone. It's expensive and time consuming, but also very educational. To share some of what I've learned and help others improve their privacy, I run a bi-monthly event in NYC called Privacy Happy Hour, which is a hands-on approach to learning, installing, and celebrating privacy enhancing technology.
To read the full interview click here