Watching the Watchers: Joële Walinga’s Self-Portrait

By Emerson Goo

Last year, competitive players of GeoGuessr—a web game that involves guessing random Google Street View locations—went viral thanks to their formidable feats of identification. The best players can quickly guess within miles of the actual location, relying on roadside markers and other pieces of transport infrastructure, as well as topographic and climatic cues. But high-level GeoGuessr is not strictly about geography: it also involves discerning the quality and texture of the image itself, because different regions of the world are noticeably photographed with different cameras. One registers not only the landscape, the road, and the cars, but also the specific colours and gradients in the sky, artifacts in the panorama stitching, specks of dirt on the lens, and even bits of the Street View vehicle that haven’t been erased from the image.

Joële Walinga’s Self-Portrait (2022) doesn’t score you at the end like GeoGuessr does, though it sets up a similar game. Assembling a global trove of footage from unlocked security cameras, it tracks the change of seasons from one winter to the next, leaving us to guess where its clips are taken from, what they might be monitoring, and why. Walinga focuses on the poetry of the landscapes these cameras capture, and unlike other found-surveillance-footage films which unsubtly evince critiques of state coercion—like Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (2017) or Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie (2016)—it anonymizes the human figures it depicts. Faces are never identifiable, adding to the film’s sense of Street View-ness (Google blurs all faces in its own Street View coverage). As Walinga has pointed out, the decision to exclude faces was made for ethical and aesthetic reasons, but also effectively foregrounds that these are passive, infrastructural images that, even when decontextualized and re-appropriated, serve as a demarcation of an imaginary property line.

The camera stakes a claim to ownership, one that is routinely obscured by the weather patterns that pass across its field of view. The atmosphere vandalizes the camera, scattering raindrops on the lens which shred the picture into streaks, blobs, and dashes of light. Dense fog, snow, or hail lowers visibility, turning point-source lights into glowing volumes; wind bangs the cameras against the poles or buildings upon which they are secured. The environment isn’t the only mediating factor. Many of the cameras simply aren’t great: as devices designed to record for long periods of time as economically as possible, they might do so in black and white, at a low frame rate (made even choppier when streamed to an output device), or at a low resolution. Some of the presumably higher-end models pan and zoom, but it is unknown whether their movements are coordinated by Walinga or by someone else. We are made conscious that the camera is an object mounted in space, that it bears traces of exposure and requires maintenance, that its performance represents an investment into a certain level of visibility, and that the fixity or non-fixity it obtains is a result of decisions “directed” by unseen individuals.

By leaving details of authorship unclear, we become watchmen as well, the film inviting our complicity in the surveillance of its spaces. If security camera recordings are only preserved when they are deemed to be “of interest”, whether to investigate a crime, build an archive, or create an art film, then their existence is inevitably bound up with the production of a justifying narrative. What is the narrative that justifies Walinga’s use of this footage? One major form of narration emerges through sound designer Ines Adriana’s soundtrack, which envelops a film that would otherwise be silent. But if the intention of the sound design (which I experienced through descriptive captioning) was to further distance the image from its original, property-protecting constraints, then it did so at the cost of enlisting it into a different kind of capitalist logic. 

By constructing a deliberately picturesque, filmic reality, the film trades in the industrial nature of the surveillance image for an instinctually touristic gaze that offers up the spaces on screen for consumption. Many shots in Self-Portrait showcase bodies of water, relying on their motion to imbue the scene with a scenic or sublime natural presence. I couldn’t help but feel that these images resembled the ones from cameras set up precisely for the purpose of encouraging tourism—one of those 24/7 live feeds that show a place “as it is,” in the hopes that you’ll visit and see it in person. Certain cameras are returned to throughout the film to show the difference in seasons, but why those cameras in particular? What made those locations or vantage points more deserving of being markers of temporal change? Despite its commitment to revealing moments of beauty that often go unnoticed, Self-Portrait does not examine the terms on which it values its own images. I am left wondering what really distinguishes its ostensibly poetic gaze from that of the Street View camera.