This is a longer version of a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service.
The other day my wife lost her phone out shopping. We narrowed it down to either the supermarket or the taxi. So we took her shopping receipt to the supermarket and asked to see their CCTV to confirm she still had the phone when she left.
To my surprise they admitted us into their control room. Banks of monitors covering nooks, crannies, whole floors, each checkout line. There they let us scroll through the security video—I kind of took over, because the guy didn’t seem to know how to use it—and we quickly found my wife, emptying her trolley at checkout line 17. Behind her was our daughter in her stroller, not being overly patient. It took us an hour but in the end we established what look liked a pretty clear chain of events. She had the bag containing the phone, which she gave to our daughter to distract her at the checkout. One frame shows the bag falling from her hands onto the floor, unnoticed by my wife.
Then, a few seconds later, the bag is mysteriously whisked off the floor by another shopper. I couldn’t believe someone would so quickly swoop. The CCTV records only a frame a second, so it took us some time to narrow it down to a woman wearing black leggings, a white top and a black belt. Another half hour of checks and we got her face as she bought her groceries at another till. No sign of the phone bag by this time, but I was pretty sure we had our man. Well, woman.
Except I’m not sure we did. What I learned in that control room is that video offers a promise of surveillance that doesn’t lie. It seems to tell us a story, to establish a clear chain of events. But the first thing I noticed was when I walked back out into the supermarket, was that how little of the floor it covered, and how narrow each camera’s perspective was.
For the most part we’ve learned that photos don’t always tell the truth. They can be manipulated; they offer only a snapshot, without context. But what about videos? We now expect to see cameraphone footage in our news bulletins, jerky, grainy recordings taken by unseen hands, raw and often without context.
This is not to say videos are not powerful truth tellers. But we tend to see what we want to see. When a policeman pepper sprays protests at the University of California there is outrage, and it does indeed appear to be unwarranted. But when four of the videos are synchronized together a more complex picture emerges. Not only can one see the incident within context, but also one gets a glimpse of a prior exchange, as the officer explains what he is about to do to one protester, who replies, almost eagerly: “You’re shooting us specifically? No that’s fine, that’s fine.”
This is not to condone what happens next, but this exchange is missing from most of the videos. The two videos that contain the full prelude are, of course, longer, and have been watched much fewer times: 12,658 (15 minutes) and 245,226 times (8 minutes) versus 1,346,781 times (1 minute) for the one that does not (the other video has since been taken down).
I’m not suggesting that the more popular video has been deliberately edited to convey a different impression, but it’s clearly the version of events that most are going to remember.
We tend to believe video more than photos. They seem harder to doctor, harder to hoodwink us, harder to take out of context. But should we?
It’s true that videos are harder to fake. For now. But even unfaked videos might seem to offer a version of the facts that isn’t the whole story. Allegations that former IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have been framed during a sexual encounter at a New York Hotel, for example, have recently been buttressed by an extensive investigation published recently in the New York Review of Books. There’s plenty of questions raised by the article, which assembles cellphone records, door key records, as well as hotel CCTV footage.
The last seems particularly damning. A senior member of the hotel staff is seen high-fiving an unidentified man and then performing what seems to be an extensive dance of celebration shortly after the event. This may well be the case, but I’d caution against relying on the CCTV footage. For one thing, if this person was in any way involved, would they not be smart enough to confine their emotions until they’re out of sight of the cameras they may well have installed themselves?
Back to my case: Later that night we got a call that our phone had been recovered. The police, to whom I had handed over all my CCTV evidence, said I was lucky. A woman had handed it in to the mall’s security people. I sent her a text message to thank her. I didn’t have the heart to ask her whether she had been wearing black trousers and white top.
But I did realise that the narrative I’d constructed and persuaded myself was the right one was just that: a story I’d chosen to see.