There may not be a reflective cue in every photograph, but some photos make up for that by reminding the spectator of how vision can be mechanized.
This photo goes in two directions at once, for the striking effect is created by combining modern technology (complete with plastics and calibration) and the colonial visual convention of the dark-hued peasant. The man can be seen as “native” and “primitive,” which makes the goggle-eyed apparatus seem even stranger than it might otherwise. The caption tells us that he is having his vision tested at an eyecare clinic in Mumbai, and so the narrative of modernization can draw down the initial shock of seeing a cyborg staring back at the camera. He isn’t seeing through us; no, he is being lifted up out of darkness.
And it that makes you feel better, you might want to take a look at this:
You are looking at another cyborg, one who is part of a system of surveillance that is projected back across his face. The half mask looks like something out of Star Wars. The military bearing makes him seem ready to be used without hesitation by the System that is mapping and monitoring the nation state. He looks proud of his role–and ready to launch the death ray on command. Some viewers might see this guy as One of Us, but few would want to be so intimately defined by technology.
In fact, this photograph of Captain Bob Edwards on duty at the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado was taken after a US Airways jet landed in the Hudson River on Jan. 15. Amazingly, a 911 call in Queens could be linked to the Center, which probably provided help during the rescue. As with the first photo, the sinister aura that would be picked up by some viewers depends on the mind of the believer. Though likely to be relatively conservative in the first case and liberal in the second, the anxious viewer would be mistaken with each image.
Once that initial reaction is set aside, the opportunity arises to think about how we see mechanically. Sight in the first case, surveillance in the second: both are essential for collective life. (Yes, surveillance is a social good: read Jane Jacobs on urban design.) Modern engineering has provided immensely valuable technologies for improving both sight and surveillance. Both can be used abusively–from prying into private life to creating panopticonic work places–but they remain pervasive features of modern life that we usually take for granted. The question arises, what would we see if we looked at our cyborg selves without fear of what we might find?
Photographs by Arko Datta/Reuters and Kevin Moloney/The New York Times.