In a world where surveillance is becoming ubiquitous, and cameras are weaponised in the war on the poor (aka crime prevention), Theo Anthony’s contribution to the debate is a particularly eccentric one.
In All Light, Everywhere, Anthony weaves the history of photography (and the very earliest forms of motion picture) into a web that takes in Gatling guns, camera-mounted pigeons (pre–World War One avian drones) and the US corporation that makes both Tasers and police body cameras, although its key profit centre is data collection.
Developed with the help of a Sundance Institute grant (and winning a special jury prize for non-fiction experimentation at the eponymous festival earlier this year), All Light, Everywhere begins with a bold analogy between the human eye, its optic nerve blind spot, and surveillance cameras.
«The optic nerve is a blind spot. It receives no visual information. At this point we are blind to the world,» the film’s narrator tells us.
«The brain invents a world to fill the hole at the centre of the eye.»
«Every image has a frame that extends to a world beyond its edges, and yet when we understand something, we still say ‘I see’.»
The blind spot
It is this blind spot that is at the centre of All Light, Everywhere, informing the film from its starting point at Axon International’s space-age HQ and manufacturing complex in the arid outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona – where Tasers and police body cameras are made – to digressions back to early photography and scientific efforts to invent faultlessly reliable ways to record the transit of Venus across the sun in 1874.
Anthony’s point – that there is always a blind spot – reminds one of other attempts to make sense of the fallible human eye in a world of visual splendour, such as John Berger’s 1972 TV series (and later best-selling book) Ways of Seeing, or Susan Sontag’s «narrow selective transparency» in her radical essays On Photography.
Selectivity is built-in to surveillance – from the simplest notion of where you point your camera, to what pre-conceived idea you have of what it is you are seeking to see.
All Light, Everywhere begins with a bold analogy between the human eye, its optic nerve blind spot, and surveillance cameras.
Axon International’s breezily confidence PR man, Steve Tuttle, may insist that his company’s mantra is «transparency and candour» but this conveniently sidesteps key issues such as when a police officer chooses to fully activate his camera (there is a 30 second constant film and wipe feature built in that only saves the last 30 seconds when the full picture and sound facility is activated), and that – subject to agreements that most police departments make – all the data of the camera is uploaded to Axon’s database when the camera is docked for charging after use.
It also fails to address that most police departments in the US allow officers to review bodycam footage following any incidents of lethal force (giving them a chance to align their «memory» of the incident with what the camera recorded) and that the way the cameras are mounted do not precisely mimic what the human eye sees – for example, the wide angled lens pulls in a much wider visual field than the human eye can perceive.
An intimate relationship
It is when Anthony delves back into history in what initially appears a bizarre digression but is a thoroughly researched line (and fully documented in the film’s lengthy end credits) connecting the degree to which photography, motion picture cameras, and military technology have an intimate relationship stretching back 150 years, that the inevitability of the sinister aspects of surveillance come fully into focus.
Anthony dives into the way in which French astronomer Pierre Janssen adapted the mechanics of the Gatling gun (an early machine gun that its inventor thought would save lives by using machinery on the battlefield, only to witness the wholesale slaughter of thousands of young men on both sides during the American Civil War as a result of its use) to a camera he used to capture the transit of Venus, and the way the calculations (designed to gauge the distance between the Sun and Earth) were then swiftly adopted by the military for greater precision in shelling enemy targets.
And he digresses into early police photography and attempts to determine criminality from composing composite shots of known criminals – as if there was a certain «look» to any habitual criminal. This effort soon emerged as the pseudo-science of eugenics, helping inform the Nazi mindset in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise.
there is always a blind spot
Anthony is at pains to include shots of his camera crew and himself directing in the film – intent on exposing the fiction that any film, documentary or feature, really is.
Where the film – which comes in at a hefty 109 minutes – is weakest is Anthony’s insistence on using footage from a project involving students at a Baltimore school film course, originally intended to be fully part of the film but, he admits, largely lost in the final edit.
The film would have been better without any of the school footage, which tends to distract from the key message that tells of the sinister world of surveillance so many of us now live in.