The Banality of Surveillance Photos

Interesting essay on a trove on surveillance photos from Cold War-era Prague.

Cops, even secret cops, are for the most part ordinary people. Working stiffs concerned with holding down jobs and earning a living. Even those who thought it was important to find enemies recognized the absurdity of their task.

I take photos all the time and these empty blurry frames tell me that they were made intentionally. Shot out of boredom, as little acts of defiance, the secret police wandered the streets of Prague for twenty years taking lousy pictures of people from far away because a job is a job.

Occasionally something interesting happened, like spotting a hot stylish, American made Ford Mustang Sally. However, it must have been an awful job, with dull days that turned into months and years, of killing time between lunch and dinner.

Posted on May 24, 2012 at 6:17 AM21 Comments


RobertT May 24, 2012 6:49 AM

I’d like to suggest an alternate reason for the banality of the photos.

Back in the cold war days photographing actually suspicious behavior was probably the most dangerous activity one could possibly undertake, especially if it was in some official capacity. The biggest problem they faced was to avoid photographing a powerful corrupt politically connected person engaged in suspicious activities!

Missing a spy photo, or failing to photograph flagrant spy type activity, well that was also a form of survival trade-craft. Much safer to hand in photos like these and blame a “faulty camera” that takes pictures when you are not ready.

David Halliday May 24, 2012 8:03 AM

My take on the quality of the images:
1: Most (examples shown) look like they are taken from hip height. Probably assuming a casual, subtle posture. Not the posture one would assume for professional photography.
Anyone who has walked round a party trying to get candid photos of people will know the challenge here. Add in trying to make sure that if anyone sees you they don’t see you taking a picture or with a camera…

2: Pictures possibly taken using a camera concealed/disguised in “tobacco pouches, purses, briefcases”… While I’m not a professional photographer or particularly clued up on the history (my photography academia was many years ago) I can’t imagine these as being ideal cameras.

With regard to the content (to my knowledge) we don’t know the aim of each image/set. If the aim was to establish that person X was in Location Y (on date/time) then the image provides this.

TS May 24, 2012 8:28 AM

They were the secret police, not paparazzi. They couldn’t run around with cameras in hand, shoving them into peoples faces. They couldn’t set up a tripod on the sidewalk and ask the subjects to wait.

These were clandestine photos, taken while subjects were unaware, in order to capture them in compromising positions. They had to use hidden cameras. They had to use long zooms. So yes, picture quality isn’t what you’d find from a studio photographer of the time.

We have absolutely no context for the pictures. As David H mentions, they could be providing evidence. The couple walking hand in hand, they may be a boring, normal couple. Or one could be a CIA operative they were tracking.

JoyfulA May 24, 2012 8:49 AM

That second photo is obviously Bob Newhart. What he’s doing in Prague is the question.

Marc Thibault May 24, 2012 9:13 AM

A lot of heat, no light.

Spend a day taking pictures through a pinhole in a briefcase and then talk about artistic quality. Everything said about these pictures can be said of the images from the 10,000 cameras spotted around the City of London.

And for the same reason. The purpose isn’t specific surveillance but general. The purpose is to have a record to go back to. When something happened they could check all the pictures taken near and around the time of the event for relevant content.

Not TS May 24, 2012 9:15 AM


“They were the secret police, not paparazzi. They couldn’t run around with cameras in hand, shoving them into peoples faces. They couldn’t set up a tripod on the sidewalk and ask the subjects to wait. ”

There’s another way: place cameras everywhere, and then people will become so used to them they won’t take notice when pictures of them follow them all day long.

Welcome to the UK!

kingsnake May 24, 2012 10:04 AM

A great photo is not necessarily made by the crispness of the image, or perfect Golden Rule framing, otherwise photos like Capa’s “Moment of Death” would not be considered the classic’s they are.

Dirk Praet May 24, 2012 10:45 AM

A surveillance state is not so much about the quality of the intel gathered, but about installing fear in people that their every move is being watched.

B-Con May 24, 2012 10:56 AM

Bruce, I think one of your classic quotes is appropriate here:

If you hire ammeters to do security, you get ammeter security quality.

(Paraphrased from memory.)

T.J. Altman May 24, 2012 11:02 AM

To a private investigator a lot of these photos look very familiar: the throw-away shot you use to start or end a roll; a photo to test the camera after a drop or jostle; the irrelevant shots you take while pretending to be just another tourist. And yes, shooting from the hip because the subject is facing your way.

kingsnake May 24, 2012 1:21 PM

Good point about the irrelevant shots done while posing as a tourist, especially the ones that “oops” just happen to capture the subject. I did that once monitoring a married woman who was having an affair …

TS May 24, 2012 2:05 PM


I think someone in the secret police, posing as a tourist with a camera would be rather easy to spot; they’re not getting harassed/followed by the secret police.

Burn the artists May 24, 2012 2:44 PM

This article is stupid.

He criticizes the surveillance photographers for not using good cameras. Well yeah, because as the article later states, the cameras were covert.

He criticizes the artist quality of the photographs. Well yeah, the goal isn’t to great an arty-farty hipster photograph. The goal is to simply photograph the subjects, gaining evidence.

At the top of the article, he says the photographs are a failure, then states that an amateur street photographer could do better. He really seems to think that surveillance is about art, not function.

Clive Robinson May 24, 2012 5:57 PM

@ TS,

I think someone in the secret police, posing as a tourist with a camera would be rather easy to spot; they’re not getting harassed/followed by the secret police

It’s even easier than that for those who are not the target of surveillance…

I’ve mentioned this befor on this blog but it never hurts to refresh peoples minds on such things 🙂

A number of years ago I had “occasion” to frequent parts of London near New Scotland Yard, the MI5 and MI6 buildings and a number of the places they had as “innocent businesses” etc.

Some of which were used for training in “field craft” part of which is to follow someone…

Well whilst it is not always easy to spot the “mark” it is usually trivialy easy to spot the person following them as they realy do stand out like the proverbial “fish out of water”.

The reasson is they are concentrating to hard on the “mark” and trying to look inconspicuous to the mark. The result is their body language and behaviour is totaly wrong for being “in the crowd”.

You can find a nice quite cafe and sit with a friend over a lazy tea/coffee or lunch and play “spot the numpty” or as they might prefer “spot the officer in training”.

Once you have spotted them you can usually spot the “mark” who generaly does not stand out as they are “a member of the crowd” and behave like it.

Now for the important bit…

Nearly all people who follow others for a living or importantly for ill intent are no good at it and stand out like the proverbial fish out of water.

Those tasked with protecting Veeps/VIPs who realy know what they are doing have both the close support “bullet catcher” body guards and also those unknown to the VIP (and most of the close support team,) who’s sole job is to watch for who is watching the watchers / bullet catchers. They have liason with the senior body guard or others who’s job is “to run interferance” on those paying to much attention to the close protection team. Including “tagging and bagging” where required.

Being good at surveillance on people is a hard won skill and takes much practice, because whilst it’s hard but by no means impossible to remain unknown to the “mark” remaining unknown to trained observers you cannot easily spot is very very difficult. Thus the often used way is to have a team who “forward follow the mark” and “tail the tail”. They move backwards and forwards of the mark and change between the various positions in fairly short order. The usual running is to get forward followers drop back slowly on the mark to form the tail and then drop back to tailing the tail looking for those who might be watching the tail. They will then move forward of the mark (by car etc) again and drift back down onto them. A well trained team of five or six people can thus follow even a quite wary mark over any reasonable foot journey.

If you want to avoid being followed and know the lye of the land fairly well, being sufficiently fit to get a push bike up to speed in conjested roads and down alleys which come out in places difficult for cars to follow causes significant problems for those following in the past. They either had to use the same transsport that makes them realy stand out, or call in air surveillance such as a helicopter the presence of which wold be fairly easy to detect due to rotor noise.

Sadly the use of light weight surveillance UAV’s which are both small and light and thus quite quiet has made the “marks” job much much tougher.

The solution is to get under cover and use a heat shroud and heat decoy. The shroud comes in a number of forms but basicaly reduces or eliminates the “heat signiture” of the person wearing it and the heat decoy puts out a heat signiture just like a human. Thus if done correctly all the circling UAV sees is the marks initial heat signature fade into the decoy heat signiture and misses the now masked marks heat signiture move away from the decoy.

Importantly remember about the likes of smart phones and other active electronics that can give you away.

Alex W May 25, 2012 1:22 AM

And now they just buy a company for a round billion and millions of users snap blurry surveillance photos voluntarily.

SnallaBolaget May 25, 2012 5:21 AM

@B-Con: An ammeter is a measuring instrument used to measure the electric current in a circuit. Electric currents are measured in amperes (A), hence the name.


kingsnake May 25, 2012 7:23 AM

TS: laugh Good point. Isn’t there a scientific term for seeing the presence of something through its abscence?

rikkimc May 26, 2012 3:28 PM

My favorite: “These photos tell us a lot about the secret police photographers themselves”

So easily translated to today’s surveillance – tells more about dept of homeland security and police than those under surveillance. Fantastic observation.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.