Why Are They Scared Of Cameras?

Across the globe, authorities attempt to scupper people’s ability to document. Routinely, we see battles in which the camera shapes the fight.

colin pantall
Jul 4 · 6 min read

There is an idea that photography is not to be trusted. There is a belief that the robust connections between reality and the image have had their day. There is a judgement that those faithful to the power of photography are in some way naive. Photography, so the thinking goes, cannot provide evidence because of theoretical disconnects in the making, dissemination and understanding of the image. Simply put, the camera lies.

It’s a nice idea in theory, and it’s nice to consider in theoretical settings. But I don’t really see that idea working in a practical setting: cameras are still highly controlled and contested. If we’re living in a post-truth world, in which all evidence is unreliable and not to be trusted, why is it that people are still so scared of cameras? Why does the image, and the moving image in particular, have so much power?

In China

Fear of the camera runs through the excellent documentary I Was There: Kate Adie on Tiananmen Square. Adie is the BBC reporter whose team got the footage of the shootings in Tiananmen Square that took place 30 years ago.

People were shot beside Adie. She was grazed by a bullet, fled with the demonstrators, flung herself over her hotel wall, attacked security staff in a mad rage before finally getting the story that really mattered — that of the PLA shooting unarmed demonstrators in their hundreds and thousands — off to be broadcast to the world.

Adie’s team sent out five copies of the footage from the BBC hotel room that doubled as their broadcasting base in Peking. One got out.

“Tell the truth, tell the truth,” is what demonstrators told Adie during the shootings. And that’s what she did.

In the aftermath of Tiananmen, Deng Xiao Ping said “The West will forget.” He didn’t need to say that China will forget, because that was embedded into the system, though things are never quite as they seem on the surface, and so pockets and seeds of remembering are still kept alive. Ready to come to life one day.

In the meantime, Kate Adie is banned from visiting China, a badge of honour for her reporting from June 1989.

In Israel

Israel authorities have a fear of the camera, demonstrated by this report on a bill that will ban photography of army shows:

A bill has been proposed that seeks to prohibit “the photographing and documenting” of IDF troops “with the intention of undermining the spirit” of the army. It recommends a 5-year prison term for offenders and 10-years for those judged to have harmed state security.

According to its proposer, Robert Ilatov, chairman of a minority rightwing group supportive of the ruling Likud party, the “worrying phenomenon” of the monitoring of Israel’s soldiers by pro-Palestinian organisations through video, photographs and audio recordings is a “biased and tendentious” act with “a clear anti-Israeli agenda”.

The impetus for the bill (which ultimately didn’t pass) was the idea that the camera, in its immediacy, doesn’t lie. It is evidence and no amount of photographic criticism comes close to challenging that idea. From the same report:

One trigger for the Ilatov initiative is obvious. In March 2016, a Palestinian attacker who was lying wounded and immobilised on the ground was shot dead at point-blank range by an IDF soldier, Elor Azaria. The shooting was caught on video and posted on social media by the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem. As a result, Azaria was arrested, convicted of manslaughter and served nine months of an 18-month sentence before being released last month.

In Cambodia

A Cambodian Spring, is a brilliant film about land, justice, the law and how religion, family and community are coopted, divided and intimidated by government forces.

I saw this outstanding documentary last year as part of its tour. Director Chris Kelly and the film’s of main protagonist, a Buddhist monk called Luon Sovath, engaged in a Q&A after the screening.

A Cambodian Spring is about how development isn’t development, growth isn’t growth, democracy isn’t democracy, and human rights aren’t human rights. It is a study of double-think and though it’s based in Cambodia, its examples of land grabs, the struggle for land-rights, extrajudicial killings, intimidation, and coopting of religion, nationalism and the rhetoric of development will find almost matching parallels in countries around the world. It’s not just about Cambodia. The same things happen in Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam and many other places one cares to look.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the resemblance between the language/architecture of international law on the one hand, and the language/tools of land-theft and the rhetoric of national identity on the other. The two are intertwined.

Kelly says of Sovath in his introduction:

Sovath became a monk as a child to escape the bloodshed of the civil war that was consuming his family. A few months before his brother and nephew were shot during a violent forced eviction, in which many of his family and community lost their land to a wealthy businessman. When he arrived at the hospital, he started to film, and afterwards he made a short documentary to share with others. This was the turning point that transformed Venerable Luon Sovath from an artist into a filmmaker activist.

Now dubbed the multi-media monk, because of his technical proficiency in filmmaking and editing, and because of his innumerable gadgets, Sovath is trying to combine the teachings of Buddha with his new role as a Human Rights Defender, creating documentaries that highlight human rights abuses across Cambodia. For him, the path to enlightenment and the path of a Human Rights Defender are inexorably linked, yet how successfully he can reconcile these two drives is at the heart of his own personal struggle.

He uses video as a tool for his advocacy, both bearing witness to history and sharing information. He uses social media such as Facebook and his blog to share his videos with an increasingly connected and online Cambodian population.

He is fulfilling the now neglected traditional role of the Buddhist monk in Cambodian society, providing moral and spiritual guidance, and acting as a counterpoint to the power and corruption of an authoritarian government and a corrupt religious Sangha.

The film includes a lot of footage made on Sovath’s pre-smartphone-era phone of demonstrations, protest and appeals to justice being blocked at every stage. Intimidation from all quarters; from the police, by the army… and by the “monk police” from within the community itself. Sovath and Kelly show the pressures that are brought to bear on those who protest against the blatant and always-shocking greed, venality and injustice of it all.

The camera is evidence in A Cambodian Spring. It brings truth to power and it is a device the authorities fear. Cameras are also used by the authorities. In some scenes the multi-functional capabilities of the phone are shown in strict opposition, almost like a duel with protestors using the phone as an evidence-recording tool, while plain clothes police and thugs use it as a tool of threats and intimidation.

It is the positive power of the image that triggers the authorities’ scopophobia, and it’s a real scopophobia where the means of distribution of images are monitored, controlled and restricted. This is pathological scopophobia: they don’t just fear being looked at and examined, they fear others seeing their being looked at and examined. And for good reason, too .The visual examination shows them up for what they are: greedy, shameless and evil. These are bastards who know they are bastards, but don’t want anyone else to see it.

“Why are they scared of cameras?” Sovath asked at the end of the Q and A. It was a rhetorical question. Because it’s the phone, the camera, as a tool of evidence that the authorities are scared of. You shoot somebody, it is photographed, it is evidence. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in Cambodia, China, Israel, Syria, Turkey, the UK, or wherever. The camera, just sometimes, does not lie.


Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

colin pantall

Written by

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and teacher based in Bath, in the UK. His photographic work looks at domesticity, fatherhood and family history.



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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