The photos look like frames cut from early ‘90s home videos: three young girls playing on a lawn, a toddler wandering down the street, a woman walking the dog. They live in Anywheresville, USA, a green, suburban neighborhood imprinted on a spare tract of land between cornfields. The photos would otherwise seem peaceful, but then you notice the perspective. All the images are taken from above, and no one in them appears to know they’re being photographed.
Six years ago, photographer Andrew Hammerand was clicking around online when he discovered a discussion on networked devices–pieces of technology connected to the Internet that, without password protections, anyone could access. He started Googling certain URLs and found a host of security footage of places like parking lots and malls. And then he discovered something very rare: a video camera attached to a cell phone tower on top of a church that surveilled an entire Midwestern community. He began zooming in for a closer look at the town’s residents.
“When I found this one I knew it was immediately different because you had full control of the camera,” Hammerand says. “This one had a full 360-degree view. You could pan, tilt, and control the exposure, and it was a high enough quality camera where you could zoom in from quite far away.”
Hammerand discovered that the camera had been installed as part of a developer’s plan to attract newcomers to the planned community, a white-picket-fence neighborhood built on a lonely piece of floodplain. Potential buyers could go to the community’s website and click on the live video feed, which would give them a feel of what it might be like to live there.
Hammerand continued to watch the town–which he refuses to name–and began to notice patterns. The guy who worked at the local barbecue shop who always spent his Sundays smoking ribs; the woman who lived close to the camera and always left at a certain hour each morning. Meanwhile, Hammerand began snapping hyper-pixelated, super-saturated stills that captured a palpable unease. One of the girls he shot cartwheeling on the lawn is violently glitched; her torso is separated from her body. For another photo, Hammerand zoomed in to capture a headless man inexplicably carrying a hammer.
The resolution is so grainy that many of his subjects lack faces, but the fuzziness makes it easy to project some kind of fearful, living-inside-a-goldfish-bowl expression onto them. Many of the town’s residents are caught looking over their shoulders or off into the distance, precisely as if a part of them might secretly suspect they’re living a Truman Show kind of unreality.
“I realize these photographs raise questions that are maybe uncomfortable for some people,” Hammerand says. “People throw around the word ‘creepy’ or ‘weird,’ and I think that’s something that needs to be brought up and needs to be addressed.”
After all, Hammerand adds, networked devices are only becoming more popular. Earlier this year, Google bought networked thermostat company Nest for $3.2 billion. Rarely is the “smart home” presented in something other than a rosy, techno-utopian light.
“The New Town” is being displayed at the Open Society Foundations in New York this week. To learn more, click here.