To See or Not To See; Which is More Effective?

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.

Grusin, Richard. “Premediation” and “The Anticipation of Security.” Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11. London, UK: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2010. 38-63 and 122-142. 


Unwanted activity could really be anything. Illegal actions of course are any forms of crime (stealing, breaking, killing, etc.) but other possible unwanted activity could include people driving in certain ways that disrupt traffic, people walking off the designated pathways, I once got in trouble for sitting somewhere on the statehouse grounds... Unwanted activity could cover just about anything that disrupts the idea of "normal" or accepted public behavior, whether it's illegal or not. 

Breaking the reasoning behind cameras into: premedial and analytical was interesting. In which places would you say that there were more cameras for analytical purposes vs premedial? Would you say places such as the lottery building and banks had cameras for premedial purposes, while hotels and restaurants had them for analytical? 

 In which places would you say that there were more cameras for analytical purposes vs premedial? Would you say places such as the lottery building and banks had cameras for premedial purposes, while hotels and restaurants had them for analytical? 

I would probably say the opposite actually. I think common street cameras that look like they are just there (the ones that we couldn't figure out what they were "protecting") are the ones that are there for analytical purposes while cameras placed inside of buildings or on entrances serve a more premedial function of trying to deter crime from happening. The lottery building camera, to me, still served a premedial function because even though we had to look for it, once we got under the awning we couldn't miss it. I think hiding it just makes sure it has a specific focus (instead of getting all the background noise of Main street). 


You make a very intriguing claim as to the reasons in which security cameras are put into place.  When you state that "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... 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," I couldn't help but consider the TV show "What Would You Do?" The description of the show on the website is as follows. "When you think no one is watching… what would you do? Using hidden cameras, What Would You Do? establishes everyday scenarios and then captures people's reactions. Whether people are compelled to act or mind their own business, John Quiñones reports on their split-second and often surprising decision-making process."

I agree with you in that in one perspective, cameras are all about premediation. I too used this in my argument in explaining the purpose of surveillance cameras. In the case that a criminal observes a camera, I think that there is no doubt that they would re-consider committing a crime because of the existence of a camera.

I have watched several episodes of "What Would You Do?" and it still surprises me that many times, people are only concerned with themselves. Although there are clear situations in which a person is being abused, robbed, etc, they say and do nothing, and act like they are oblivious to the situation.

Hello Holly, 

I like your point about cameras mainly being placed at entrances and exits. You describe how this is helpful in solving crimes, but do you think this is also connected to premeditation? I feel that cameras placed near entrances would definitely help to deter crime. 

I also really like how you point out that in addition to recording and premediating crime, cameras can also be used to simply study society. This is a point that wasn't often brought up in our class discussions. I think that using cameras to study people acting naturally would be useful for improving the efficiency and usability of certain areas. For example, if a business notices customers usually take a certain path through a building, the business could work to improve traffic flow along that path. 

I like the suggestions that “premediation” and “analysis” functions might assume different degrees of awareness of camera placement—the former suggesting an awareness that surveillance is omnipresent and ready for anything that might happen and the later encouraging the fiction that our behavior is more authentic when we think we’re not being observed. (The reverse is true, of course, we are most ourselves when acting according to long-schooled habit.)   I’m struck by your acceptance of the idea that ubiquitous cameras and “easy flow” serve “the greater good.” The Physiocrats, shop owners, and police would certainly agree. Is it possible even to imagine other concepts of the “the greater good”? What might that look like? 

Thank you for taking the time to read my post! 

Serving the greater good could come in multiple different forms as in (like I mentioned in the post) helping solve crimes- by helping prove innocence or guiltiness, by seeing more at one time than a person could see- say someone comes back to their shop in the morning and wants to know what happened while they were gone, or by silently enforcing certain activities. What I mean by enforcing activity is that  that we've been trained to act certain ways in public and whether or not we notice it, the idea of being watched enforces those behaviors. How many times to people break traffic laws when they think that authorities can't see them? By making people at least think that they are going to be seen, it forces them to act certain ways which provide order and therefore serve the greater good. 

I was actually surprised at the lack of exterior cameras on buildings. As you know, we didn't really go into many buildings so I'm assuming that whatever cameras were absent from the main strip were present on the inside. With that said, I think there should be more cameras on Main street but I'm assuming there is some logic to their placement that I just don't understand at this point. 

Your article is very interesting. It reminds me of "The Eye of Power" reading by Foucault. Even though there isn't security officers to enforce action, the cameras act as an eye for those who aren't available to see what is happening. However there is a difference between the use of cameras and the use of security officers. With security officers at work they are able to enfore the action right then and there, on the other hand security cameras are only there to catch what has happened although they can be used to playback things that happened during the time they were operational. 

Whenever we were walking down Main Street, we were able to see more than 40 cameras throughout the area. Some being on streets and others being inside the banks that you mentioned in your article. When we were walking past a few banks though I see to recall there being a security guard in one of them. Now a statement you made as well is that the reason for security guards, could be because the place where there is surveillance could have been robbed or broken into. This would give the company every reason to "upgrade" on higher measures of security.

Overall your article peaked my interest I feel the use of security officers in certain sites of which are valuable are important. Even though security cameras are helpful by recalling the previous event that happened, the use of security officers can stop and enforce the law against those who tend to break them.  

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.