The militarization of the camera was automatic. It happened as soon as the camera did. The usefulness and development of the camera has always mirrored militarized movements. They were initially gun-shaped and utilized to progress weaponry in the field. That the police now utilize the camera, as a means of creating their own narratives, when they must defend their actions, is only a natural extension of an object’s history of use cases. As the camera becomes a pinpoint in the progress of surveillance technologies, the reliability of what we see is vitally worthy of study.
Thus enters Theo Anthony, a well-regarded documentarian for his work on 2016’s Rat Film, a persuasive essay film about the history of Baltimore, and how it’s always people, not rats, who have infested a place. Bringing that same brand of clever intuitive to police cameras, Anthony gets to work on one of the most important subjects of the moment. First, to understand why what we see through cameras is not objective reality, we have to understand why what we see is not objective reality.
The way the human eye works is that it refracts light through a series of systems, turns them upside down, and then reorients them within the tissue of our retina. The outer parts of our eye — the cornea, the lens, and the iris — are not even what produces the final image that we see. What we see, then, is only one perception of how light has been refracted back to the eye. It’s a sort of unreality, or a reality manufactured only by our own perception. Needless to say, it’s hard to trust even our own vision, as perfect evidence, especially when something as valuable as a human life is the subject of our testimony.
It’s even harder, then, to accept the testimony of a camera, which may act as an analog for the eye. Exactly how we perceive that information is going to be skewed both by our own vision and then by the design of the camera. Anthony spends the bulk of his documentary investigating this phenomenon and how the surveillance camera is shaping the future of criminal justice systems. Anthony divides his attention across several facets. The two most crucial are his factory tour of Axon Enterprise, a manufacturer of non-lethal weapons (i.e. tasers), but also a prominent creator of police cameras, and his other subject is the police who use them and the city council response to those measures.
It plays as dystopian non-fiction, as we tour the Axon Enterprise headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. We follow Steve Tuttle, owner of the operation, as he gleefully guides us through the fortress’ highly advanced Conducted Energy Weapon development. It’s both shocking and gut-wrenching. The people who make the weapons for police also have a near monopoly on making their cameras. Their competition has tried to make more advanced cameras, ones that can see better than the human eye, but another systemic problem emerges: the imaging doesn’t hold up in court. Only these cameras with the same limitations as the human eye do. What follows is a probing examination of how the poor integrity of police body cameras has manifested itself and created a solution favorable just to cops. What we need to understand is that when a social structure with deep systemic issues and underlying racist agendas has weaponized the camera systems, they will only display results that adhere to these same overarching structures. It’s hard to sit with the documentary and consider these perspectives productive or ultimately worth listening to, but then, they shed such a damning light on the system in place, and if we can understand the system, we can begin to understand how to deconstruct it. There are meaningful moments of empathy afforded to Black police officers being trained on how to use the cameras and to the people advocating against their use in city hall, having realized surveillance is largely a construct only intended for use in lower-income areas.
Anthony’s documentary spells this all out plainly. It’s all material worth considering and is an interesting look at the actual subjectivity of what we see and how we experience it. The way I experienced the documentary, of course, does not produce any objective truth, either. My initial reaction was disdain, a sliver of regret for spending so long with these discomforting individuals and listening to their snake oil pitches against basic human rights. It’s a lot to get through. Upon reflection and further understanding, there is also a hell of a lot of value in receiving all this information. There’s value in internalizing a new relationship with cameras and what we see, how what we are shown is always meant to shape our perception, in the author’s direction. It’s not pleasant or clean, but like Anthony’s film about Rats, he’s able to extract a larger scale story about our relationship to human development, and Baltimore’s overarching issues with human rights.