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.