'Visibility is a trap.’
(Foucault, 1977, p. 200)
In the 21st century, visibility goes beyond the realms of the physical and trap is not exactly a prison cell. David Lyon states that invisible observers track our digital footprints, making it a prison-like society. (Lyon, 1994, p.71). To visually trace the workings of the modern surveillance society; it was thus critical for me to go back to the starting point and Samuel Bentham’s architectural design and his brother Jeremy Bentham’s contextualisation of the Panopticon prison project, (DeLacy, 1994, p.1690), (Dobson & Fisher, 2007) formed a perfect platform. Besides, as a photographer, I faced the problem of capturing an unseen and unverifiable phenomenon (Foucault, 1977, p.201) that conceals itself to perfection, via the means of cutting edge technology.
To photograph, something without any physical aspect (except the hardware) created the biggest obstacle for me to start with, in this project. If it was the technology that created the problem, it was a technology that provided the answer - 3D printing. According to Forbes magazine, the most exciting possibility of this technology is unlimited customisation (Hart, 2012). Photographer Tom Hunter championed this boundless creative potential, through his compelling artwork, ’The Ghetto’, Street. His 3D photographic model of Hackney Street was an inspiration for me. His work saved the street community from developers and Hackney council after a local newspaper article described it as a Ghetto, full of crime and a cancerous blot on the landscape. The artist, through his model, countered this negative and stereotypical view and helped his neighbourhood survive.
While a physical model, helped Tom Hunter merge boundaries of Art and documentary photography, it helped me made the intangible tangible. A 3D model, using Bentham’s architectural plan, literally added a new dimension to this project. The model, hopes, not just to quantify the surveillance theory, but also promote critical thinking about the issue of surveillance by the state. It will explain how simple mechanisms of visibility and invisibility act as tools of control inside the Panopticon, and interpret the power dynamics of surveillance in its actual physical form. The model will also help visualise, ‘the role of fiction’ that deters the prisoners from transgressing. Miran Bozovic describes that fiction is to be staged; omniscience of gaze has to be manufactured inside the Panopticon so that control and order are intact. (Bozovic, 1995, p. 8-11). The surveillance society is the extension of the Panopticon and gathers information by being invisible. Joshua Fairfield in the Yale Law Journal wrote: ‘Virtual worlds currently operate like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison. The Panopticon permitted a single guard in the centre of the prison to monitor all of the prisoners. The same degree of surveillance exists in virtual worlds.’ (Fairfield, 2009)
The first challenge for me was to overcome the inhibitions of venturing into the unknown. As a visual artist, architecture has always enthralled me, especially if it is historical in nature. Still, this time, I had to go beyond just marvelling the magnificence and understand the structural aspects, act and think like an architect. To overcome the issue, I collaborated with a dear friend, Karthik Arunachalam studying Architecture and Urbanism at the Architectural Association School of Architecture and whose help has led to the exact translation of my ideas.
Secondly, keeping the principles of panopticism intact, this replica has been scaled down because of budgetary constraints. While scaling down is not the best option for a grand schematic design like the Panopticon, specific modifications, had to be made to the original sketch to keep the end product simple and easy to the eye. The following changes were made to the actual blueprint:
1. In his third letter from Crecheff in Moscow in 1787, Bentham, writes explicitly about the measurements, for it to be effective. Ther floor plan of 48 cells on every floor was reduced to 23 cells and 24th quarter has been converted into a staircase.
2. Bentham mentions each cell to be 9 feet deep with an extended 4 feet of protracted partitioning, making the precise depth of each cell to be 13 feet. The protracted partitioning, in this case, has been reduced drastically and is just indicative of its role that it prevents interaction between prisoners.
3. The ideal diameter for the annular building is set at 100 feet and the diameter of the inspector’s lodge or tower at 35 and a half, but since our model is just 15 cm wide these scales have been reduced more than proportionately.
4. The windows, of the building and the tower is open and hollow so that the interplay of light can be understood easily as that is the most crucial aspect for a Panopticon to function.
The third challenge for me was to visually interpret the working principles inside the Panopticon. A dossier tackled this issue, which included three aspects of its mode of functioning. The architecture of the Panopticon captured via a 100mm macro lens, silhouette photographs, which interpreted the effect of backlighting that captures the captive shadows of the prisoners. (Foucault, 1977, p.200). And finally, the classification and separation of prisoners by using a Victorian prison record accessed from the National Archives.
While I was able to tackle most of the challenges as mentioned above, one drawback of my project is the failure to make it more contemporary in terms of photographic representation. I travelled to prisons in Leeds and Manchester and various hospitals in London but failed to get the right kind of photographic evidence. I was denied access to the hospitals that I approached and was stopped at the prisons I went to. The photos from these institutions could have made a crucial difference in representing the ‘anatomy of power’ (Foucault, 1977, p.215), which forms an integral part of the theory of panopticism.
Despite that, I stand deeply satisfied having engaged with the subject from an entirely new dimension. Interpreting theory in visual terms has forced me to re-think and re-invent my approach to documentary photography. 3D printing a model introduced me to new technology and provided with a perfect solution to interpret more conceptual ideas into reality.
The entire process also highlighted the fact that contemporary issues need newer ways to illustrate and photojournalism now needs to go beyond the traditional way. The most significant learning for me has been that photojournalism must move ahead, it must adapt and collaborate. While keeping the traditional values intact, it must also find new ways to engage both with the subject and the viewers. To be able to do precisely that has given me the most amount of satisfaction and an inspiration to carry on with a similar approach for my future assignments as well.
My project will assist artists and image-makers to visualise the Panopticon. For those who want to a glimpse of the Panopticon prison, it would be easier to access my model than the handful of architecture available in the world based on Bentham’s plan. It will prove to be the starting point for fellow students and academics for a study of the theory of surveillance. It will also bridge the gap between theory and practice for various people involved and interested in the issue of surveillance. For those who do not have in-depth knowledge, the 3D model will make them more inquisitive about what the Panopticon stands for and the theory of discipline and control behind it. It could also be used by ‘The Surveillance Magazine’ and institutions like Privacy International and Center for Internet and society who are working towards creating more awareness about the issue of surveillance globally.