The act of observation obscures the observation.
The concept at the back of Theo Anthony‘s documentary All Light, Everywhere shouldn’t be lost on anyone who understands the concept of art itself and the notion that its impact on the viewer is inherently subjective regardless of the artist’s intent. It harkens back to the old joke social studies teachers in middle school use about history being “his story” with historical truth formed by the victors’ eyes. That Anthony draws the through-line straight through our own ability to see as a mechanical operation of our biology is quite inspired, though—our optic nerve creating a blind spot for which our brains must filter out to experience that which we call reality. If seeing itself is therefore a fictional construct, how can objectivity exist at all?
Anthony’s point, however, is less that objectivity can’t exist than a desire to remind us of our essential need to question what is being sold to us as objectivity. He does it by exposing the very real parallels between cameras and weapons—or, one could say, the blurred line we naively imagine separates the two. Because not only have their shared histories bled into one another whether it be the use of cylinders to capture images like a rifle cycles through bullets or pigeons as German surveillance drones during World War I, but cameras themselves have always been weapons since their invention. Whether civilians using phones to film in the street or a police officer wearing a bodycam, these devices are weaponized to protect the user.
Why? Because of that blind spot. Just like our brains erase the optic nerve on one end of the line and our noses on the other, a camera erases its operator from the scene. While those like the Axon spokesperson Anthony follows to drive home the film’s thesis believe this is a benefit (“we are seeing what the operator sees and thus are able to approximate pure fact”), the truth reveals the opposite thanks to the operator’s ability to implicitly and explicitly obscure those facts. They control what is captured. They control what’s edited out. And they control the narrative filling in the blanks of what’s missing. Go even further beyond the operator and you discover someone else pulling strings behind them: those “altruistic” corporations monetizing the data.
With a well-researched and composed propulsion, Anthony connects the capitalistic gains of Axon serving as a private resource willing to sell your information back to you for a price to the origins of Eugenics and how men have continuously wielded their prejudices as a way to replace the reality that exists with the reality they crave. Simple questions blow the whole thing wide open by forcing us look behind the scenes of what we’re told is real. Maybe it’s the Axon executive spinning his company’s tasers and bodycams as deterrents rather than instigators or maybe it’s remembering that raw data is always packaged to tell whatever story the packager wants to tell. Everything created as a means to help the disenfranchised will inevitably be used to disenfranchise them.
I found myself laughing more than once as this fact was brought to the forefront again and again. It starts with hearing how Richard Jordan Gatling believed his Gatling gun would save lives because its machinery would decrease the number of soldiers with guns necessary for a battle. While that does make sense in a half-truth sort of way, it hinges on the false premise that the army using it is all that matters. Because while you will be using less soldiers, you will be killing a lot more. And the second your enemies get their hands on the technology is the second a lot more of you will be killed too. Advantages become disadvantages almost overnight when the system always puts those in power above those without.
Hubris becomes the real evil here because it refuses to let us take a step back and recognize future impact. Unless we see the opposite side (in wars with foreign nations or domestically in our city streets) as humans, we will keep fueling a circle of mutually assured destruction. But that too is a false premise since those looking down the barrel can’t blindly afford to see their assailants as humans in hopes of meeting each other halfway. No, they must acknowledge their monstrousness because they have the power to use it for self-preservation. When police say bodycams are for the good of the community, we know they’re probably better for them thanks to protocols allowing them the room to capitalize on their increased number of blind spots.
Are there any easy answers as to how we traverse these blurred lines that are seemingly transparent to everything but the truth? No. We can only be vigilant with hindsight in order to fully understand how present-day motives always include a catch. We must prepare ourselves for the other shoe to drop because capitalism guarantees that what’s good for the civilian will be exploited for the authoritarian’s good too. Why make half the profit when you can sell to both sides? Why ensure your product is only used for good when you can pretend that so-called “good” can help “all” sides? Surveillance and guns are only as good as those with their fingers on the buttons and triggers respectively. But whose fingers are pressing on theirs?
Anthony requests our vigilance by questioning his interviewees’ motivations and by looking behind the curtains of what he’s presenting too. There’s a lot of “movie magic” occurring to ensure we both get his point and recognize its presence. He calls attention to those manipulations by keeping in moments that most documentaries would edit out: like telling a subject how he wants them to walk through a scene to catch the right light and assist the camera’s movement. He’s weaponizing his own film in this regard by using his camera crew as a means of capturing a false sense of reality that can only be captured when a subject knows he/she is being recorded. What do they talk about as a result? What do they omit? Pay close attention.
Courtesy of Super LTD