Sheri Lynn Behr, herself camera-shy, noticed that whenever she would point her camera at a stranger in New York City’s Chinatown, he or she would usually turn away. Instead, Behr stood behind store windows waiting for people to look at her before snapping a shot of them. Although some continued to turn away from her, others would pose and smile. That work became part of a series, “NoSafeDistance.”
As she continued to work on the project, Behr realized that along with her subjects, she was also the subject of unwanted attention, mainly from surveillance cameras that were pointed at her from seemingly everywhere. She began pointing her camera away from people and instead toward the ubiquitous cameras for work that became the series “NoMatterWhere.”
In the summer of 2012, Behr was watching the show White Collar when she noticed a surveillance camera in a scene that was shot in the Whitney Museum. A couple of weeks earlier, Behr had photographed the same camera in the same location. She decided to document not only the cameras she saw in real life but also those that were seen on television including shows and movies like The Simpsons, The Lego Movie, and 30 Rock; she feels the ways in which the shows cut to the cameras as if they were a character in the show is an attempt to normalize the idea of surveillance. Those images, along with images from her previous two series form a new triptych-based body of work she calls “BeSeeingYou.”
“As triptychs, they tell more of a story of daily surveillance than they would if I kept the parts separate,” she wrote. “Every time I go out, I’m aware of dozens of camera that I pass on the street, in stores, everywhere, even on TV. … If I tried to photograph them all, I’d never get anywhere.”
Although she feels surveillance can be useful in some ways, she is also uncomfortable with the amount of gray area it has created.
“I think we need to be more aware of the scope of surveillance in our daily lives and how it impacts our privacy,” she wrote via email. “I make these photographs to raise questions that come from the claustrophobic sense of being constantly observed, wherever we find ourselves.”
Behr said that during the period she was photographing “NoSafeDistance” there were only a handful of times when people challenged her about taking their photograph. She has since stopped working on that aspect of the project because she felt as if the invasion wasn’t fair to her subjects, although it did raise a new question.
“I’ve heard people complain that they’re more upset having their picture taken by strangers on the street than by surveillance cameras,” she wrote.
“Some people look at my work and say ‘I don’t care about surveillance, I’m not doing anything wrong.’ Who decides that? As our country becomes more divided, shouldn’t you think about who has access to your image and what they might use it for?”