Captivity: Nonhumans Under Surveillance
“I am not a Thing” is a visual elaboration of the series “Captivity: Nonhumans Under Surveillance.”
Nonhuman Animals Under Surveillance (2020-2021)
The images in this series are Photographic Stills of Live Streaming Webcams from North American Zoos (2020-2021).
Captivity – Nonhuman Animals Under Surveillance is the latest monographic chapter of Mass Surveillance (2011- 2022), a perpetually curated series of photos and videos created from thousands of security cameras and webcams accessible via the Internet. It questions the intricate connections between privacy rights and surveillance needs in the post-9/11 world. This investigative documentary series comprises footage from over 50 countries and is dedicated to all the unaware victims of abusive surveillance.
From March 2020 to September 2021, as the world teetered on the edge of disaster, engulfed and submerged in a pandemic of epic proportions, my research brought to light a significant increase in live streams via webcams broadcast from zoos around the world. The abrupt cessation of visitors to zoological facilities had prompted a new level of gratuitous voyeurism and emotional blackmail, i.e., surveillance services for the sake of marketing and promotion.
I spent long months closely observing, researching and photographing the different ways both humans and nonhumans were dealing with captivity – including observation of my own moods and thoughts. Perhaps the research might even be said to be pandemic-induced oversensitivity to isolation. Yet such situations often serve as a wake-up call for human subjects. The ethical dimension is notably expanded for most who might endure privation toward such self-knowledge. For captive nonhumans, however, nothing much ever changes. Their freedom is subject to our freedom to lock them up and exploit them. The subsequent pandemic-induced glamourized online presence is, therefore, doubly appalling.
Thousands of animal cams, streaming from all corners of the digitized world, can be freely accessed at any given time. They are uncritically considered entertainment, i.e., opportunities to learn more about wildlife and climate change and to lift the “spirits” of captive humans during lockdown. These photogenic, artificial habitats, which a superficial eye might perceive as aesthetically uplifting, but which are often places of semi-squalor, portray nonhuman subjects as stars in a perpetual reality show revolving around daily routines (too often performed displaying a full range of stereotypic behavior that maybe only ethologists and other experts can see in their entire abnormality) and never-ending naps.
The overwhelming evidence of nonhuman subjective vulnerability to surveillance is obvious to any human subject who has ever been perceived or treated as an object. Ethics is a two-way street. The current conversion of zoos to 24/7 reality show for bored humans is a patent invasion of the privacy of these nonhuman subjects, subjects still considered “things” by most legal standards, even as places such as New Zealand grant legal personhood to rivers, parks, and mountains (no doubt influenced by Maori rites). In the US, corporations are legal persons. Around the world, ships, religious idols, and holy books have been recognized as legal persons.
Inspired by the efforts of organizations such as The Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP*), the Captivity series aims to challenge an archaic, anthropocentric, and unjust status quo that views and treats all nonhuman subjects as things with no rights.
This series aims to suggest a corrective on an ethical level – a collective reflection on the opportunity to use the experience built at this trying time in history to improve and expand our cultural boundaries in new directions that could not only progress to advance philosophical debates – embracing new legal categories and philosophical values – but more importantly to better our consideration and understanding of the subjective states of other species. It aims to provoke reflection and represents an invitation to rigorously question and subsequently improve our capacity to embrace higher standards of democratic inclusion, overcoming prejudices, and permitting actual progress for civilization and humanity through these challenging but potentially revolutionary times.
*The Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP) is the only civil rights organization in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals. www.nonhumanrights.org
© Gaia Light 2022