Imagine yourself out in public. You could be alone or with your family. It could be noon or three in the morning. A man approaches you holding a camera. He is a complete stranger, and you can think of no reason as to why he would be filming you, so you ask him what he’s doing. You may do so out of genuine curiosity or with visible discontent. Either way his response is the same, “I’m just taking a video.” He continues filming. You then ask, or command him, to stop. He persists. His robotic demeanor is unfaltering, he is determined to capture something about you, and he will do so whether you permit it or not. If you ignore him, if you scream at him or even if you try to assault him, he will persist.
I can say this confidently and without exaggeration: “Surveillance Camera Man” is the singular greatest piece of film posted on Youtube to date. Sitting at less than half a million views, this accidental masterpiece’s influence has far outpaced its popularity. Providence’s NBC 10 and Vox’s The Verge have both published pieces on the video, the first investigating the legality and the second analyzing the validity of the creator’s intentions.
The concept is simple: A man films random people in Seattle without their permission. He claims that his filming of strangers is no different than that of an unmanned security camera in a grocery store, but his goals are not what I find fascinating. “Surveillance Camera Man” offers a thrilling exposé on modern expectations of privacy, with seemingly unintentional additional insights into mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness within the United States.
“Surveillance Camera Man” captures an incredibly broad range of human experiences, showing more in a 50-minute film than many may experience in a decade. His subjects include: bewildered college students, mormon missionaries and scientology advocates, as well as many individuals suffering from visible mental illness and drug addiction. The creator’s attempt at a poignant message about surveillance technology feels vapid in comparison to the blunt reality of the situations we are shown. While a majority of the subjects are angered by the cameraman’s presence, others appear to see the camera as an opportunity to send a message or tell their story.
One of the last scenes in the video features a man who laments over his lot in life. “I’m a homeless American, would you not believe that? I can do no better, I’ve tried,” the man says in the video. His words convey more pain than can be shown through the traditional documentary medium.
Another of the most tragic scenes in the film stars a young woman who at first appears to be a naturally friendly person that wants to be on film, but after a few minutes attempts to prostitute herself to the cameraman. It is the scenes with people like these, those who are the most forthcoming and who have the least to hide, that seem to bear the most darkness in their lives. The people who reacted the most adversely tended to be those in the most mundane situations: eating lunch in a restaurant or walking through the airport with their family.
Among the most interesting aspects of the video is the cameraman himself. We, as the viewers, know so little about him. The only clues about him that we acquire are superficial: He is an American male, likely in his late twenties or early thirties judging by his voice. The other thing we can infer about him is that he is irrationally fearless and immune to feeling awkward. At one point, he films a man who appears to be inspecting a home’s locks presumably to rob it later. The man tells the cameraman to delete the footage, but the cameraman, of course, persists. The robber gives chase, and the cameraman escapes only after hiding behind a vehicle. This scene was not unique.
Throughout the video, a number of the cameraman’s subjects attempt to physically assault or at least threaten him, but he always narrowly escapes. While many have tried, nobody has ever successfully identified the man behind the camera. That makes the film all the more fascinating—that he felt comfortable and even righteous putting a stranger’s life on display but refusing to even show his own face.
It is clear that the cameraman’s desire was to be a moralistic protagonist. To make people feel how he thinks they should feel all the time in a surveillant society, in a state of constant paranoia and unease. However, he certainly fails in this regard, as most of the people who see this video categorize him as a creep and an unethical voyeur of others’ personal lives. I agree with this sentiment for the most part, but the video holds incredible value to me nonetheless. I think “Surveillance Camera Man” ultimately taps into a deep seeded desire to see what is not supposed to be seen. To peek into the world’s of those whose activities may seem so foreign to us but are nothing more than mundane to them.