On September 12, Dries Depoorter, a self-proclaimed “surveillance artist” based in Ghent, Belgium, launched his controversial project The follower on his Twitter account. Comprised of side-by-side comparisons of seemingly ‘perfect’ Instagram posts and webcam footage showing users taking grid-worthy photos, the project exposed the fabricated reality of social media – but some critics say the artist s engages dangerously in the culture of surveillance.
Using EarthCam, a live webcam streaming site, Depoorter recorded four weeks of footage from live feeds of tourist attractions such as Times Square in New York and the Temple Bar Pub in Dublin. Depoorter then developed a bot that scraped all public Instagram photos tagged with the same locations as open cameras and used facial recognition technology to match Instagram photos with real-time images of photographed users.
He created a video compilation juxtaposing the static, professional images of the content creators with the surveillance videos that captured them straightening their hair and clothes, striking different poses, and reviewing the snaps with their photographers before going to rush to their positions to secure the very image that made it to the grid. Even though the artist didn’t mention any usernames in his project, he left all faces unblurred.
Depoorter originally uploaded the video to YouTube, but EarthCam filed a copyright infringement suit. The artist told Hyperallergic that he is trying to resolve the claim and re-upload the video to YouTube. For now, viewers can access the video on the artist’s TikTok or through some GIFs on his website. (EarthCam has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
The follower has received mixed reactions from Twitter so far. Some users praised the project for highlighting the current state of surveillance. Others said it was unethical and could inspire bad actors such as stalkers, begging the artist to keep the software out of the public eye. As viewers discussed the intent of the project, Depoorter argued that the artwork lacked a message. “I think the work says enough,” the artist told Hyperallergic. When asked if the work should be considered a disclaimer, Depoorter simply answered “no”, but he mentioned that he would not release the software to the public. “I’m just one person. I have limited access to data, cameras…Governments can take this to another level,” he added.
Depoorter also wanted to clarify that the software doesn’t just grab images from influencers either. An Instagram user with less than 3,000 followers discovered that Depoorter’s project was featuring his image with a location tag at the Temple Bar Pub. Thinking that Depoorter went to her page specifically to repost the image alongside the saved footage, she was more upset that the image was used without consent rather than how Depoorter was able to find it.
“The problem is not the camera, the camera is on 24/7 and there is nothing to do,” the user, who preferred not to be named, told Hyperallergic via DM. “What he can’t do is go to my Instagram to grab the photo I took and post my photo I posted on his page.” She also said she messaged Depoorter on Instagram, saying it was a crime to use her image without permission and asking that it be taken down immediately. Depoorter hasn’t responded to him yet, but told Hyperallergic that he’s received so many messages that it will take him a while to respond to them all.
Stine Sønstebø, trademark and design attorney at European intellectual property consultancy Plougmann Vingtoft, described The follower as “creepy”, indicating that Depoorter may have violated both privacy ethics and copyright law.
This isn’t the first time an artist has faced backlash for using surveillance strategies to bolster their art practice. Arne Svenson, a New York-based photographer, ended up in court thanks to his series of photographs Neighbors, which some considered voyeuristic. The artist captured the daily activities of several New York residents through a telephoto lens aimed at their apartment windows. Svenson noted that his subjects were unaware they were being photographed, but took strict precautions to avoid disclosing their identities. When a group of Tribeca parents discovered that Svenson’s photos of them and their children were in an exhibit, they sued. The Appeals Division dismissed the case, citing that the First Amendment protected Svenson’s series of photographs “in art form.” In the same vein as Depoorter, Svenson insists that Neighbors did not concern anyone in particular. “Subjects should be viewed as representations of humanity, not identifiable as the actual people photographed,” the photographer told PetaPixel in 2015.
Unfazed by criticism so far, Depoorter pointed out that his project is more about the use of technology than just one person. When Input Mag pointed out that using unblurred images helped identify people, Depoorter doubled down. “Yes, but they also posted the photos,” he replied. It’s two to one so far as Depoorter faces EarthCam’s copyright infringement claim and backlash from Instagram users who are less than happy with the way their images look. used and contextualized.