Watching the Watchers: Eerie, Playful Webcam Portraits by Jens Sundheim

Jens Sundheim and Bernhard Reuss
Jens Sundheim and Bernhard Reuss
Times Square, New York City, 2002

Jens Sundheim is a photographer with a special obsession — an obsession that is more or less related to his profession, but demands more precision and endurance than the average photo shoot.

Jens lives in Dortmund, Germany, and has a long-term fascination with security cameras. He spends hours locating those with public online feeds. But this detective work is just the beginning. Where others might settle for taking a quirky screenshot and calling it art, Jens gets a kick out of going to extreme lengths for his images. For each of the four hundred plus shots in the series, Jens visits the actual places where these cameras may be found. Every holiday and opportunity for travel sees Jens jetting off to visit some far-flung security camera.

While the effort might be immense, the idea behind the series is simple — and all the more beautiful for its simplicity. Jens collects portraits of himself standing in each camera’s field of view. Of course, there’s a challenge here: he can’t make the portrait himself. For this stage, Jens needs a partner-in-crime, someone to actually make the picture while he’s gazing up at some lens from a sidewalk in New York, Berlin, London or elsewhere. As with so many things in life, the solution to this problem is love.

Most often, the actual “photographer” (in the sense of the person technically making the image) is Jens’ girlfriend. She stays home while he travels to the camera’s precise location. When he’s on location, Jens calls her and she’ll take a screenshot. It’s an almost James Bond-like level of coordination: this isn’t an art project — it’s a mission.

Jens Sundheim’s epic security cam-quest began in 2001, and now totals a staggering four hundred and fifty photographs. Apart from the technique, the images have certain similarities in terms of composition. If you look closely, Jens always appears with the same bag strapped across his chest. Sometimes, he’ll be lost in a chaotic crowd scene, and sometimes up close. Over many shots, this series becomes a gritty, urban version of “Where’s Waldo?”

Less glibly, Sundheim’s work naturally leads us to consider our surveillance-obsessed culture. Security camera footage is the go-to symbol for the Orwellian dystopia that massive collective apathy allowed to begin emerging years ago (although these days perhaps our Big Brother symbol is as likely to be Amazon’s deal with the CIA, or the NSA/Google partnership). By turning the security camera’s creepy, grainy feed into a kind of visual joke, Sundheim drains it of some of its power. The cheeky fellow with the camp bag could be interpreted as a “screw you” to those who think we should be monitored for our own protection.

Smart, funny and singular, Sundheim’s series also forms part of a trend.  There are many photographers and artists using the Internet as a source of inspiration, and perhaps it’s worth acknowledging a couple more stand-out contributions. Influential examples of so-called couch photographers include Kurt Caviezel, who uses webcams to capture intimate portraits of webheads, and Corinne Vionnet, who overlays hundreds of search results to create impressionistic pictures of monuments.

The Internet gives photographers a huge reservoir of interesting images to re-use and new technologies with which to adapt them. Sometimes it feels as though every image has already been taken, so why go to the trouble of making a photograph when a close approximation can be found online and modified to meet your idea?

An increasing number of people are, in a sense, becoming editors, too. Because it’s so easy to take hundreds of images, everyone needs to curate them, as well, picking out a narrative from vast cloud drives and hard disks. These behaviors have changed our perception toward photography as a whole. Until recently, this was a mysterious, magical art; now it has become something very ordinary, like opening and closing a door.

That said, Jens Sundheim remains a pioneer and the king of security cam self-portraits. It’s a niche he’s occupied to such an extent that he’s become its poster boy (maybe “screenshot boy” would be more accurate). To me, he’s also representative of where photography’s headed. Images are everywhere; rather than technical brilliance, you need an unusual point-of-view to create something special.

The Traveller‘ will be part of the exhibition Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography (1839-2014) at the New York Public Library scheduled for November 2014.

Jens Sundheim is an artist working principally in photography

Erik Kessels is a Dutch curator and editor. He is a founder of the advertising agency KesselsKramer.

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