Living in a city demands constant visual negotiations. From the countless decisions we make, often unwittingly, about how to allocate our attention when so much is clamoring for it, we also operate according to instinct, superstition, sometimes fear. Personally, I deliberate about whether or not to make eye contact with the boy who wants to squeegee my car windows when I’m stuck at an intersection, if it’s better to scowl at or studiously ignore the men who ask why a pretty girl like me isn’t smiling when I’m out for a run, and about the safest place to direct my gaze when I’m walking alone at night.
I navigate these visual encounters through the screen of vulnerability that comes with being female in public. But as a white woman who owns a home in one of the safest neighborhoods in Baltimore, my visual experience of the city is shaped by racial and class privilege. I don’t have to worry much about whether or not to make eye contact with police officers. The city has not installed “security” cameras – these flashing blue lights have essentially become a telegraphed message for a ‘bad’ neighborhood – on my block. Consequently, I would wager that although we both live in the same city, probably no more than a few miles apart, I inhabit a very different visual landscape than the woman in this white pickup truck.
In this photograph taken by Peter van Agtmael, one of a handful that illustrated the recent ProPublica / New York Times story entitled “The Tragedy of Baltimore,” she is easy to overlook. She, like everyone but the police sergeant, goes unmentioned in the caption, which reads, “A Baltimore Police Department sergeant on patrol in West Baltimore. The department’s federal ‘‘consent decree’’ regulates how officers can interact with the public.” The story itself makes no reference to the photograph. Nevertheless, I want to focus on her with her because she is, relative to the other people in the image, so hard to read. The sergeant is looking at the truck. The driver is looking back at the sergeant. A third man, barely visible (is he in the truck or on the sidewalk?), seems to be watching what is happening. But she appears entirely disconnected from the scene. Her posture is rigid and her eyes are fixed forward. We cannot know if she has deliberately excluded herself from this exchange of looks, and if she did make that visual choice, we cannot know why. Studied nonchalance? Disinterest? Has she been conditioned to avoid looking at the police? Is this the sort of thing that happens so regularly to the men around her that it doesn’t even catch, or seem to merit her attention?
She might not jump out as the focal point of the image, but she is an enigmatic figure that points us directly to what surveillance cannot reveal. Beliefs about the power of surveillance are central to the visuality of virtually every major city, particularly those, like Baltimore, with high crime rates. The guiding assumption is that more surveillance will always yield more useable information. But even though this photograph records an instance of state surveillance ensnaring its subjects on the move, she is the figure that best demonstrates the limits of what can be known through what can be seen.
The scene is washed in red and blue light, and because the the photo is shot from the perspective of the officer, the image is doubly saturated by police power. As spectators we are positioned by the photograph on the safe side of that activity. We look at these three people from the same vantage as the officer, and are essentially shielded by his body. If we cannot quite figure out what’s happening in the truck, we might lean in to get a closer look, mimicking the sergeant’s assumption that heightened scrutiny is going to yield more information. The composition of the image locates us, as spectators, within the police car, with the officer between us and whatever lurks outside. For privileged city-dwellers, police typically represent protection from dangerous others; however, as the article notes, for people who are poor or of color, police presence signals repression or violence or worse. The photograph gives us no indication of what, if anything, the man driving the truck has done to invite the sergeant’s suspicion. Could it have been that the white work truck, with its tool boxes and ladder racks and scratches, signaled a certain, and suspicious, class status? (Read another way, this truck also implies that he is doing something constructive, in some way helping to rebuild a city that the story portrays as already having fallen apart.) The photo invites us to speculate, too, about what might have inspired the officer to stop and stare, thus aligning us yet again with his inquisitive look.
In the late nineteenth century, reform-minded documentarians sought to record the gritty truths of city life in tenements and factories. As they improved their craft, the mastery of flash photography further enabled them to illuminate dark urban spaces, like crowded apartments and narrow alleyways, making them visible and safely accessible to privileged spectators, who were meant to be both moved and disgusted by ‘how the other half lived.’ Here, the red and blue lights of the police cruiser are similarly invasive, but instead of revealing information about the people in the image, they instead tell as story about the visual networks exchanges initiated by state surveillance. Indeed, the mere happenstance of being caught in a surveillant exchange imparts the impression of criminality. There is “nothing to see here,” though being fixed by the gaze of the police officer and camera still turns her and her companions into objects of suspicion whether or not they had been doing anything wrong.
The woman in the truck refuses the gaze of the police officer, the photographer, and us as spectators, and the camera, too, can only see as far as the officer. The caption, with its seemingly non sequitur reference to the “consent decree,” intimates that police power in Baltimore is checked or restrained, leaving the police present but helpless or apathetic. Aligned with the view from the patrol car, the camera here is present but not especially effective. The device functioned as intended—it captured a scene—but the resulting image does not tell us much. As Baltimore continues to invest in surveillance technologies while conditions in the city deteriorate, this elliptical image serves as a reminder of both the intrusiveness of the state gaze and the limits of what it can accomplish.