The Disciplinary Power Within Surveillance’s Gaze

What is an image? The word image has many different meanings evolved throughout history. However, I will choose a simple term that describes image. Looking through the Merriam-Webster definitions of image, an image is a visual representation of something: such as a likeness of an object produced on a photographic material. This visual representation of something (i.e., object) can be a physical body, place, or thing. Throughout week 3 and 4, we learned about spectatorship, the panopticism, and the docile bodies, which all these concepts ties together the relation of power within the gaze. The gaze is presented, when shown an image, to allow the viewers to internalize what is being addressed (i.e., how the image invites a certain response from the viewers). We may take an image and develop a response of how the image is portraying the objects by its visual text. Foucault, Gates, Sturken and Cartwright will help emphasize the representation of power relation, referring to the panopticism, surveillance, field of gaze, and interpellation, with Figure 1, shown down below.

On September 8, 2014, in McAllen, Texas, a picture was taken displaying a Honduran boy standing in front of a screen watching a movie in a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol. Within this image, we can see two subjects in the photo, a policeman and the Honduran boy. The policeman is standing at the corner of the cage, while the young, Honduran boy is standing in the middle of the picture watching a cartoon. The main focus of this photograph is the Honduran boy, where attention is mainly focused at the center. The other subject, the policeman, allows the viewer to see more than just the Honduran boy watching a movie. To look further, in order to tell that the setting is based in a detention facility, we can examine the background of the image. In figure 1, we can obviously see wired fences (i.e., cages), a mirror (on the left), and the vast, concrete floor. Knowing these pieces of information of the background, we can tell that the wired cages detain someone, the mirror acts as a reflection of the other part of the space where our naked eyes can’t see, and the vast floor resembles factories/warehouse where lots of things/items can be stored. From looking at this image, we can assume the topic of the image portraying the vast prison surveilling and detaining immigrants. This resembles Foucault’s idea of Panopticism that relates power to the field of gaze within an institution by surveillance.

In Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault describe an English philosopher’s, Jeremy Bentham, idea of the Panopticon, which is a tower that induces visibility of prisoner’s cells ensuring the functioning of power from the state (i.e., government). This institution, a prison, provides the guards power to discipline the prisoners by constantly watching and listening to the prisoner. In the book, Foucault describes the Panopticon to depict a model of discipline as:

enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised.all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism (Foucault, p. 197)

To relate to figure 1, the detention center is like the Panopticon; however, it is structured differently. The power is being held within the facility, the guard (on the left), and the mirror. These aspects of the institution circulate the power of surveillance to discipline the captive (the Honduran boy). Being able to look at both ends of the image, the mirror is an inception of the visual representation of the detention facility at one end, while the camera capturing this image shows the other end. This allows power to facilitate through monitoring the whole facility with the guard managing his workstation. The surveillance of the guard and the holistic view from the mirror circulates the power within the facility to facilitate the detained, in reference to the Honduran boy mesmerizingly watching a movie broadcasted in the detention center. The resemblance of the Panopticon and the detention facility asserts power within the physical body of the policeman and the field of gaze of the facility. However, this power is not limited to just the power of the policeman and the facility, it is retained by the disciplinary gaze of surveillance.

Surveillance is used by the institutions to keep the subjects, being watched and detained, disciplined. This action of surveillance to discipline is seen by the disciplinary gaze as power is revolved within the field, the detention facility. The portrayal of the subject within the image allows the disciplinary gaze to assert power over the main subject of the image. A feeling of presence exerts a type of surveillance of being watched to regulate the detained; thereby, a disciplinary gaze comes about. Surveillance relies on the worker performing as if the disciplinary gaze is always present (Cartwright and Sturken, p. 110) The workers in the image, the police officer and the Honduran boy, are being disciplined by this disciplinary gaze. They are the physical bodies being subjected to the power of surveillance (i.e., the camera). Foucault states, discipline produces subjected and practised bodies.turns it into a relation of strict subjection, the docile bodies disciplined increases force and can be diminished at the same time. (Foucault, p. 138) In figure 1, the disciplinary gaze gives power to the police officer (increases the force), while he uses this power to discipline the immigrant (diminish the force). The disciplinary gaze allows circulation of power among the physical bodies to perform certain roles; therefore, the docile bodies are made from this disciplinary gaze.

The docile body is made by the embodiment of discipline: the disciplinary gaze, body, and presence, to initiate control over one’s physical body to enact docility. Figure 1 depicts two figures within the detention facility. Both of these figures are subjected to become disciplined by the disciplinary gaze of the camera and audience. In the essay, The Cultural Labor of Surveillance: Video Forensics, Computational Objectivity, and the Production of Visual Evidence, discusses the labor force within surveillance allowing specific enactment of the docile police. The author of this essay addressed, Police are often tasked with performing the role of the police in society for the cameras. (Gates, p. 247) This quote addresses police officer enacting a role normative to society’s expectation of their job. Referring to figure 1, the policeman is transformed to become a body holding the state’s power to enforce the law. His presence inserts power to regulate the other body within the image. On the other end, the Honduran boy is another docile body because of the disciplinary power from the police’s presence facilitating his actions. Like the police, the Honduran boy is also being disciplined by the power of surveillance. The disciplinary power of the police limits the boy’s actions and diminish his rights within the facility, this minor is being surveilled. Seeing power is circulated through these docile bodies, we are also the subjects addressed by this image. Power is not only visible within the subjects of the image; however, power can be addressed through the audience’s gaze.

Figure 1 invites us, the audience, to respond to the particular message it is portraying. As we identified many aspects of the image showing a young minority segregated from his family from illegally crossing from Central America to the U.S, the image also invites the audience to respond by looking at what is portrayed. We can recall this process of particular kind of looking as interpellation. Interpellation is a particular gaze, where we recognize ourselves as a member of the image to produce meaning with a response. (Cartwright and Sturken, p. 104) Thus, looking is a power that invites the audiences to relate to the image. The image, itself, is the subject position bringing forth power within the field of gaze, the detention center. It addresses minorities, illegal immigrants that traveled to the U.S, democrats, and family members who believe the wrong-doing of separating their children away from the family. To interpolate this image, as an immigrant myself, I am being addressed to relate to this particular image. The original publisher of this image, John Moore, captioned, The Border Patrol opened the holding center to temporarily house the children.crossed the border illegally into the U.S. to depict the facility in the U.S are housing unaccompanied, illegal minors from their families. (Moore) This image is addressing the emotional impact the audience perceive in the image. Viewing the demoralizing action of detaining minors (i.e., children) from their parents, the publisher invites an emotional calling. Therefore, the power of looking by interpolating with the image is a social and political awakening to demand actions to fix this injustice within the detention center.

The specific power relations I have drawn from the pieces of evidence reveals the policeman and the boy circulating power within their physical bodies. The policeman and the young minor are the representation of the social and political forces where the state’s power is within the police given to regulate the minor in the detention facility through surveillance. Given the subject position of surveillance within figure 1, the audience can emotionally respond to the emotional impact this image is portraying. This would invite a response that invokes and social and political outcry to demand fixation of the injustice the image address. The disciplinary force within the image provides us, the audience, the power of looking within the publisher’s image. Looking at the physical bodies within the field of gaze, the audience could relate to the power of surveillance by examining the image and respond to the social and political factors of its portrayal. All-in-all, power is asserted through our gaze through interpellation by addressing the emotional response of the detained immigrant within the detention facility. Not just by interpellation, but also reading between the lines of the image and physical bodies the image is expressing to the audience.

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The Disciplinary Power Within Surveillance's Gaze. (2020, Mar 06). Retrieved October 24, 2021 , from

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