Security cameras have become a normal sight in society, so much so that most people don’t even actively notice them anymore. Still, there are certain places that are assumed to have more security than others, as in banks or government buildings. We expect these places to want to have a higher level of security “just in case” even if we’re not looking for it. There are other places though that have been adding security to their premises for reasons that do not usually come to mind first when we think of big reasons to have cameras. Which is more effective: a camera you expect to see, which changes your behaviors, or a camera you can’t find, so you act more natural?
Main Street, Columbia SC, is an area of high activity including foot and car traffic, banking, residency, dining, and shopping. There are a variety of different types of buildings that have countless numbers of people walking in or by them. There are plenty of places to put security cameras and plenty of buildings that fit the stereotype of needing protection (i.e. banks, restaurants, stores, etc.). Also, it is often assumed that forms of protection or security, as in cameras or guards, are more commonly located near entrances and exits; that way if an incident occurs one could see all of the people who entered or left. This would make the most sense.
The interesting part about this is to see where the cameras are placed. We can assume that the most cameras will be placed in areas that either have a certain history (i.e. past break-ins, muggings, accidents, etc.) that requires extra security or that area anticipates needing extra security in the future (either to be able to help solve the crimes already happening or to prevent them in general). Assuming that the areas with cameras are at higher risk of unwanted activity, illegal or otherwise, one wonders if there is any other logic to the placement of camera systems.
There were at least 46 visible cameras that we passed between where we started at the state house grounds and Hampton Street. Most of them were located on the exterior of buildings but a few were inside lobbies and visible from the street through windows. We saw 3 police cars, all of which were parked on the state house grounds. There were also 3 sightings of people with authority (two parking officials and one security guard). Some questions that came up were why are these cameras placed where they are and what are they intended to see?
We found at least three camera boxes located on corners and intersections of Main Street (after further inspection, two more were found on the top of the Hub building). One street box was on a light pole and almost went unnoticed, as well as the box on the corner of Main and Hampton, box #034. Box #034 was located on the side of the Marriot building and blended in with the color of the building exterior, even though it was at eye level. All of the camera boxes had four cameras attached and at first didn’t look like traditional security cameras. Box #034 was exceptionally hard to notice since it was around the corner on a lesser traveled street.
What kind of planning and logic goes into the placement of cameras? What are the purposes? There’s always the cliché theory of being able to have evidence for the police when they need to catch criminals. But there were some cameras that were placed right next to blind spots that would have needed some security (a glass door at the hub had been shattered but the camera was pointing the opposite way). There must be some science to why cameras are where they are.
One reason for why people use cameras is all about premediation; the cameras are essentially in place to prevent things from happening and always being ready for an “inevitable” something to happen. Grusin says, “Unlike prediction, premediation is not about getting the future right.” (pg 46) What he means by this is that predicting the future is just guessing what is going to happen but not actively doing anything about it while premediation is about trying to deter a problem or situation that you assume will happen before it actually happens. Grusin explains, “Premediation entails the generation of possible future scenarios or possibilities which may come true or which may not, but which work… to guide action in the present.” (pg. 47) By installing cameras in certain places, businesses believe that this will cause an inevitable negative outcome to not happen, thus avoiding a worst-case scenario.
The four exterior cameras on the state house were over main entrances; the rest of the cameras were inside the building. I was surprised at the lack of visible security around the state house and on the grounds at first, but one could argue that the most effective security is what can’t be seen so easily. All of the cameras on the state house grounds were high up (on the rooftops or ceilings) and out of the initial line of sight. They were mostly unnoticed until we started looking for them. Another student even had to point out a couple to me.
The most interesting camera placements that I saw were the ones we almost missed: camera box #034, a camera hidden behind a pillar at a bank, and the one at the Education Lottery building. We walked by the Education Lottery building without seeing any cameras at first. After a second of thought, I checked under the awning and there it was: a security camera over the door. At first, our group didn’t think to look in places that weren’t in our initial line of sight but this made us change our mind. It also made us wonder how many people walk by that camera and not realize it’s there?
If someone is looking for a camera, or expects to see one in a certain area, then one could argue that it is not serving its purpose because people tend to change their behavior when they think they’re being watched. If someone is being watched and doesn’t know it then it could be more beneficial to the “watcher” to catch the person off guard. This is especially important when it comes to the theory of cameras being used to study society.
It is possible that the cameras serve a more analytical purpose by allowing the viewer to study society through them, in a completely natural environment. This would be one explanation as to how the installers know what to expect in certain areas. In 11 January 1978, Foucault says, “…I see [this analysis of mechanisms of power]’s role as that of showing the knowledge effects produced by the struggles, confrontations, and battles that take places within our society…” (pg. 3) Strategically placed security cameras can be used as a means of studying society without them knowing, therefore allowing them to be seen in the most natural of their ways.
There are two main theories as to why security cameras are set in place: premediatal and analytical. The cliché theory is still to catch criminals but both other theories are so much more than that. Premediation is trying to determine which situations can become into ones that attract criminals, and deterring it, while analytically, one can study humans and their possible criminal tendencies and learn how to correct or avoid them. Either way, it can be argued that cameras are, without a doubt, put in place for the protection of the greater good. Cameras are set in place when and where humans can’t be and therefore are pertinent to the easy flow of society.
Foucault, Michel. “Foreward” and “11 January 1978.” Security, Territory, Population. Lecture at the College de France 1977-1978. Ed. Michel Senellart. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Pallgrave, 2007. xiii-xvii and 1-23.