April 23, 2014

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Photo censorship vs. digital photography

On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events (protests? uprising? insurrection? massacre?), the New York Times’ Lens Blog put up a great piece about the four different photographers who photographed the iconic “Tank Man”. Inevitably, half of the story concerns the technical details of being in the right place and having the right equipment configuration to capture the image (no small thing in the middle of a civil insurrection). The other half of the story, though, is about how the film got out of the camera and out to us. The story of Tank Man (NYT article, PBS Frontline piece) is quite amazing, by itself, but I want to focus on the photographers.

Tank Man, photo by Jeff Widener / AP

The most widely seen photo, by Jeff Widener, and all the other good coverage of Tank Man was all taken from one particular hotel, and the government security services were well aware of it. Our photographers had to get their images out. But how? Widener had a “long-haired college kid” assistant who smuggled several rolls of film in his underwear. Another photographer, Charlie Cole, wrote this:

After taking the picture of the showdown, I became concerned about the PSB’s surveillance of our activities on the balcony. I was down to three rolls of film, with two cameras. One roll held the tank encounter, while the other had other good pictures of crowd and PLA confrontations and of wounded civilians at a hospital.

I replaced the final unexposed roll into the one of the cameras, replacing the tank roll, and reluctantly left the other roll of the wounded in the other camera. I felt that if the PSB searched the room or caught me, they would look even harder if there was no film in the cameras.

I then placed the tank roll in a plastic film can and wrapped it in a plastic bag and attached it to the flush chain in the tank of the toilet. I hid my cameras as best I could in the room. Within an hour, the PSB forced their way in and started searching the room. After about five minutes, they discovered the cameras and ripped the film out of each, seemingly satisfied that they had neutralized the coverage. They then forced me to sign a confession that I had been photographing during martial law and confiscated my passport.

In both of these cases, the film was ultimately smuggled to the local bureau of the Associated Press who then processed, scanned, and transmitted the images. This leads me to wonder how this sort of thing would play out today, when photographers have digital cameras, where the bits are much easier to copy and transmit.

First, a few numbers. A “raw” image file from a modern Nikon D700 takes about 13MB and that already includes the (lossless) compression. Back in the film days, the biggest 35mm rolls could hold 36 images (maybe 38 if you were willing to push it on the edges), which tended to keep photographers’ desire to press the button in check. Today, when giant memory cards cost virtually nothing, it’s trivial for a photojournalist to generate tens of gigabytes of raw data in a day of work. So… how long does it take to transmit that much data? Let’s say a hotel’s Internet connection gives you a snappy 1.5 megabits of upstream bandwidth. That means it takes about 70 seconds to transmit one raw image.

If you fear the police will knock down your door at any moment, you don’t have time to send everything. That means that you, the photographer, have got to crunch your pictures through your laptop in a big hurry. If you’ve got the fastest cards and card reader, you’ll be able to copy the data to your hard drive at maybe three pictures per second. Got a thousand pictures on that memory card and you’re waiting a nerve-wracking six minutes to complete the copy.

At the point where you’re worried about somebody busting down the door, you’re not in the frame of mind to tweak with your exposure, color balance, and so forth. Pretty much all you’re thinking is “which one is the winner”, so you’re blasting through trying to select your favorites and then try to upload them.

Meanwhile, we need to consider the capabilities of the adversary. The PRC could well have prevented us from seeing Widener and Cole’s photos, simply by locking down the AP’s offices. (Two other photographers smuggled their raw film out of the country for external processing.) In the modern era, in a country like the PRC, they could just as well cut off the Internet altogether. (We already know that the PRC is cranking up the filtering of the Great Firewall to block Flickr, Twitter, and other services around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events, so it’s easy to imagine far more draconian policies.) This places our hypothetical digital photographer in much the same problematic space as the film photographers of twenty years ago. Now we need to smuggle the bits out by hand.

Traveling with film is a huge pain. Higher-speed film, and particularly black & white film, is annoyingly sensitive to airport x-ray scanners. It’s similarly sensitive to humidity and temperature. And, most important, you can’t see it or copy it until you process it, which isn’t really an option in a war zone. Instead, you’ve got the one roll with the one photo that you really want to get out. Alfred Hitchcock would call the film a MacGuffin and would spin a glorious tale around it.

Digital changes all that. Now, even if the Internet is down, the ability to copy bits is incredibly helpful to our photographer. An iPod, iPhone, or other such device will commonly have gigabytes of solid state storage within. That’s not enough room for everything, but it’s certainly enough room for the photographer to make copies of all the good stuff. Similarly, with memory cards getting so remarkably small (e.g., a Micro-SD card is 15mm x 11mm x 1mm), it’s easy to imagine smuggling them in a variety of places. Advantage to the photographer? Certainly so, but also very dependent on how much time and preparation was available before the police busted down the door. The CompactFlash cards used by most D-SLRs (43mm x 36mm x 3.3mm) are much harder to hide (e.g., you can’t just shove one into a crack in the floor).

There probably isn’t much point in trying to encrypt or hide the data. If the police are busting down your door, they’ll just take everything they can find and wipe everything before they give it back to you.