Posted by: madeleinerolson | September 26, 2018

On Visual Identification Technology: What Follows the Photograph?

         The advent of photography in the late 1820’s to early 1830’s influenced a lot of experimentation, or “fussing out” as I like to call it, of what the camera could be used for. In class, we discussed how legal systems in the Victorian society became implicated into this curiosity of technology’s potential. After photography had established its “honorific” (Seklua 6) function through photographic portraiture, it also asserted its  “repressive” (6) function for Victorian society in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly by the way photos could be used to discipline individuals.

          The legal institution of the prison began using photography by circulating photographs of its prisoners amongst jails in efforts to gain intelligence about whether that prisoner had been previously convicted. I see this tactic as a strategy of visual associative linking and recognize the state’s urgency to not only supervise individuals, but also its organizational practices of record keeping. The move to visually link a person to their past criminal records (and therefore produce a cumulative record of them) can be seen as an indexical anticipation towards keeping track of criminals. As storing data effectively became a necessity, I recognize the institutional impulse to not only have the power of discipline, but also the power to organize the systems of disciplining.

          In Fenians in the Frame: Photographing Irish Political Prisoners, 1865-1868, Breandán Mac Suibhne and Amy Martin discuss how discipline could further operate photographically. Government officials could check up on a prisoner by confirming they had ended up at x location after their release (Mac Suibhne, Martin 108). In such an instance, photography becomes an instrument of surveillance over individuals. The photograph received the same validity as a legal document, and I would claim the photograph still holds a similar legal credibility today. We own numerous possessions which include photos to confirm and regulate identity (the passport, driver license, student and work IDs, etc.). Of course, because photography is a visual medium requiring interpretation, the possibility for misinterpreting an identity is quite possible. Think of how many under-aged teens today successfully use fake IDs today to curtail supervision and slip past legal codes to gain access to night clubs and bars. 

          I propose we are still in the process of “fussing out” how such interpretation can be valid. We can trace technological inventions throughout history which attempt to accurately interpret individuals through visual means. To name a few today, fingerprint matching, iris scanning, and the recent iPhone face ID passcode unlocking feature are all representations of an increasing desire to technologically identify individuals in a visual way. In the case of facial recognition, the body is mapped by invisible projected dots to capture a person’s facial terrain. Such codification echos the earlier legal anxieties to recognize a body: Corporeal features are codified into discrete terms, sustaining the motive to regulate the body now through describle discrete terms of digitization. Visual identification through technology today penetrates into daily activity and does not need a legal motive. Have you ever had Facebook automatically recognize your friends’ faces to suggest tags in a post? Often we are unaware of how easily photographic identification permeates private spheres because it ingrains itself into commonplace activity we take for granted. 

Early uses of the photograph, as exemplified in the mid-nineteenth century, paved the way for contemporary impulses of identity detection. If police photography was a medium that established a mode of visual identification, biometric technology seems to be a medium used today for working out how visual interpretation gets facilitated.




      We can continue to examine how discipline and accountability are managed through physical technologies, both past and contemporary, in everyday commonplace. I was very intrigued by Suibhne and Martin’s note about “photography’s mobilization within the emerging apparatus of a new and more penetrating form in nineteenth century Britain” (115) because it suggests discipline is disseminated in material ways. Its performance manifests materially through actions, social rituals, institutional and religious dogmas down to media culture. Suibhne and Martin mention the imperial state’s use of the “Fenian Pest”(116) which was a caricature used to demonize the Irish Republican Fenians in Victorian society. In effect it condemned Fenians political activity and cautioned the public from associating with its efforts. We might call this an act of propaganda that carried out the imperial state’s ideology. Such example demonstrates how the state exerts discipline through the material medium of the media, just as the photograph is a material behavior. The use of photography as a repressive tool reveals how easily discipline and ideology creates its public reality through its material existence.

-Madeleine Olson


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”. Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2017.

Mac Suibhne, Breandán, and Amy Martin. “Fenians in the Frame: Photographing Irish Political Prisoners1865-1868.” Field Day Review, 2005.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October, vol. 39, 1986, pp. 3–64. JSTOR, JSTOR,




  1. Really insightful post, your points about discipline in early uses of photography synthesized and expanded upon our course materials particularly well. I’ve also been thinking about modern surveillance in reference to this part of our course, specifically the “Fenians in the Frame” article that you examined.
    Depictions of the Fenian served the function of “enacting a paradoxical gesture of inciting viewers’ fear yet reassuring the public of the state’s efficacy in ‘stamping out’ the threat” (Mac Suibhne and Martin 117). The anxieties around photography and unauthorized or state use do not follow a progressive, linear trajectory, though they may connect to past anxieties. Today, as you allude to, the biggest state power of surveillance now is through connected modes of recognition: one’s digital footprint. Photographs are connected to your name, and then your social media, and potentially your credit card, messaging, location, the metadata collected from companies tracking your browsing activity, and other digital information. Anyone who has seen enough crime television has an idea of how disparate information that otherwise would not be examined can be used if the state so desires. The state’s power to collect and use this information at any time is both visible and invisible; the public is just aware enough to have their fear incited while being assured that collecting such information is necessary to stamp out threats. The ear size and friend associations that may have been recorded along with the photograph in the Victorian period is now at a depth that would have been impossible to imagine at the time.
    In the past, the slippage between uses of photography dealt with questions of “intimacy, romantic attachment, and the public sphere” (Mac Suibhne and Martin 114). While similar in the modern day, the common anxiety today is better characterized as anxiety over the slippage of identities in different media contexts. The surveillance of the state and social forces have developed how we interact with photography in the modern day. Though there are many examples of this, a sociology course I took last year led me to initially think of how photography has been used by individuals and groups to identify people engaging in the public sphere, specifically the recordings of the past year or so that led to the identification of Permit Patty and similar individuals expressing racist behavior and beliefs. Some videos covering these incidents lead to investigation on social media as citizen investigators use pictures pulled from various places on the internet to identify a person and begin a public (or social media) shaming. As around the emergence of photography, the “wider citizenry” is enlisted in the “vigilant work of detection” (Sekula 9). Often it is not the state that enforces consequences but businesses (often those shamed lose their job). In pointing to examples of racism and racial bias in everyday people, photography and film can be a tool used by the people to start a conversation around how racism is perpetuated by white society.
    The element of risk in taking one’s photograph still exists today, though in a different way, and your point about facial recognition is a great jumping-off point, especially as the private sector is pioneering identification technology alongside (and often in collaboration with) the state.

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