Can You Spot the Suspicious Behavior in These Photos?
Breaking into a run. Standing too long in once place. Repeatedly looking over your shoulder. Everyone does these things from time to time, and they aren’t usually cause for alarm. But in Esther Hovers’ series False Positives, such things are very suspicious indeed, and suggest a heinous crime may soon occur.
Her images emulate the actions so-called smart cameras would deem “deviant behavior.” Connected to highly sophisticated software, these cameras can, among other things, detect abnormal activity like a person leaving a package or backpack on a busy street corner and alert the authorities. This, of course, prompts all kinds of conversations about privacy, security, and control. Hover hopes to contribute to the discussion. “[The project] aims to raise questions about deviant and normal behavior within public space,” Hovers says. “Should intelligent surveillance cameras be the judge of this?”
Intelligent video cameras analyze surveillance video in real time. The image recognition software works through cameras often installed in public places like transit stations and airports, where they “learn” normal activity patterns so they can discern anything out of the ordinary and alert authorities. Although most security cameras lack such capabilities—they passively record everything, or rely upon a human to watch the action on a monitor—their adoption is expanding. They’ve been installed in Boston, Chicago, and Washington D.C., and in Atlanta’s transit system. Authorities also have tested them at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and in cities like Tilburg and Eindhoven.
Video surveillance fascinates Hovers. In January 2015, she interviewed security experts in the Netherlands about smart cameras. They identified eight common behavioral red flags: loitering too long, moving too fast, standing on a corner, looking over your shoulder, going against the flow of foot traffic, abandoning something, clusters of people suddenly breaking apart and synchronized movements between people.
Over the next five months, Hovers photographed pedestrians doing exactly these things in the Brussels business district. She put her Nikon D700 on a tripod overlooking a street and spent a couple hours taking pictures, occasionally asking passersby to act out specific poses—a man in a jogging outfit standing perfectly still at the bottom of a stairwell, another stopping in a zebra crossing to face oncoming traffic. Later, she layered as many as 20 images in Photoshop, condensing what a surveillance camera might capture over several seconds or minutes into a single tableau. “That’s why they [the images] come to look quite staged, in a way, because they’re more than one moment compressed into a photograph,” she says.
Each photo contains at least one example of deviant behavior. But while intelligent surveillance cameras typically frame suspects within a box, Hovers lets hers blend more subtly into the crowd, challenging viewers to figure out what’s sketchy in the frame. In some cases, like the suitcase abandoned on a street corner, it’s easy. But for the most part, it’s pretty hard. That’s the point. “What strikes me is that they [deviant behaviors] are so close to what you would consider to be normal,” Hovers says.
Not all behavior preceding a crime looks particularly suspect, and not all suspect behavior precedes a crime. For many people, it’s unnerving to think they could unknowingly come under scrutiny for going against the grain of acceptable behavior. It’s a fitting irony that, while working on the project, Hovers found herself emulating the very behaviors she was illustrating. Once, after spending a couple hours photographing in front of an building, she was asked to leave. “It’s hard to photograph in these places, because they look at you like, ‘Hmm, you might be a terrorist,’” she says.
Hovers feels conflicted about intelligent cameras and the tradeoff between personal freedom and public security. “I’m skeptical, but I also really understand the need for prevention and security,” she says. “I don’t want to scream too loud that I don’t feel it’s right, because I don’t have a much better solution.”