“I am conducting surveillance even as I research it”: Interview with Bryce Newell

by Catherine Whittaker and Alena Zelenskaia

Lecture by Bryce Newell „Radical Visibility. The Information Politics of Police on Camera“ via Zoom at the Collaborative Research Centre 1369 “Cultures of Vigilance”, LMU Munich, 17.06.2020.

In June 2020, the “Cultures of Vigilance”-Team was honored to welcome Dr. Bryce Newell as a guest lecturer at the Collaborative Research Centre 1369. At a time when Black Lives Matter protests were making waves worldwide, his insights on racism, police, surveillance and sousveillance (counter-surveillance from below) could not have been more timely.

Assistant Professor Bryce Newell teaches at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon (USA). Beyond researching issues of privacy and surveillance, technologies, information law, and policy, Newell is also a documentary filmmaker, who successfully exhibited his work at museums and campuses in the United States, Germany and the Netherlands. In his workshop, “Radical Visibility: The information Politics of Police on Camera,” we were happy to see some parts of the feature-length documentary “The Tinaja Trail” and learn about US-Mexican border control techniques, migrant deaths and responses to them. Postdoctoral researcher Catherine Whittaker and PhD Student Alena Zelenskaia, who both study migration and control over it from an anthropological perspective, went deeper into the topic and interviewed Newell on his academic career path and ethnographic field.

Poster of Bryce Newell’s film „The Tinaja Trail“ (2014). A trailer can be found here.

CW/AZ: What motivated you to study police surveillance, privacy and migrant experiences? How did your scientific interest in these and adjacent topics develop?

BN: My motivation to study migrant experiences and border enforcement began in early 2010, when I became aware of how many people were dying along the US-Mexico border while trying to cross clandestinely into the United States. This was a shocking revelation to me. Because of my background in documentary and video production, I wanted to produce something that would have the capacity to inform others. So, I started to produce a film on this topic, travelling to the border multiple times over the next few years. In 2014, as the film was being finished, I decided to continue working along the border with the migrants and migrant-aid communities I had gotten to know – this time by conducting qualitative social research that would help build my research agenda as a budding academic researcher. Those efforts initiated my ongoing collaboration with Ricardo Gomez and others (including Sara Vannini, Veronica Guajardo).

My motivation to study police surveillance and privacy emerged from taking criminal law and criminal procedure classes in law school and being encouraged by a professor to take my first ride-along with a police officer. I think that my background and interest in photography, videography, and cameras also fed directly into my research on police use of camera-based surveillance technologies like body-worn cameras and automated license/number plate readers. It has kept my research linked to other things I enjoy in life.

Surveillance cameras at the US-Mexican Border. Photo by Bryce Newell

CW/AZ: We have noticed that there are a number of social studies topics that tightly intersect in your work: power, context, privacy, control, normality, migration etc. Still, these topics are not common for studies in mass communication and mass media. The methods you used in the study on the US-Mexican border are ethnographic (interviews and observation). Why might these topics as well as research methodology be important for students at the School of Journalism and Communication?

BN: I think that these topics have the ability to intersect with topics in a variety of research areas, even where they haven’t been the focus of much work by researchers in certain disciplines. I also think they help students (and others) think critically about other subjects. On the other hand, I was not trained in mass comm, media studies, or communication. I was trained in law and information science/studies, and bring a different perspective to some of my research because of that background.

I am particularly passionate about the importance of thinking broadly about topics and methods to use in research, and not artificially limiting our research because of disciplinary traditions that may not make much sense anymore. I appreciate ethnographic and qualitative research because it lends itself to asking “how” and “why” questions. Qualitative insights explains much of what we can find through quantitative measurement. In this sense, I think multi-method, interdisciplinary research is vitally important.

CW/AZ: What are the major ethical issues in conducting research on the borders and with a focus on surveillance?

BN: Probably the biggest ethical issues I’ve confronted are

  1. I’m doing research with very marginalized and vulnerable populations (who in some cases may be talking about breaking the law), and I need to ensure that I tell their stories faithfully while also protecting their privacy and limiting any harm that could possibly come from their participation in my research
  1. remembering that I am conducting surveillance even as I research it in these contexts, and that this matters to my interpretation of my findings.

Social research impacts other people’s lives, especially when it involves allowing someone into your life, to observe your life or work or by responding to probing interview questions about yourself. We shouldn’t forget that fact, and we should respect those who give us their time as we conduct our own work.

Bryce Newell at the US-Mexican border. Photo by Bryce Newell

CW/AZ: As a researcher studying surveillance and its perceptions you might have become yourself a subject and object of surveillance. Does it change anything for your field work?

BN: I am certainly aware that I am watched (as subject) during my research, both with police agencies and in migrant shelters, etc. Often, it is only after I’ve been watched for some time that the participants really begin to open up and reveal more meaningful information about themselves, their work, or their life experiences. Additionally, participant observation is an important research method, but as a participant, I need to remember that I am altering the course of events I am observing. Often, to counter this, I also try to talk with participants about past experience or their observations of others, while interpreting that in the context of what I have observed myself.

I think many people reveal insights about their own behavior and feelings when asked to project their views outward onto others, or by explaining others’ behaviors, but again we must remember to be upfront about our methods and interpretation of findings in our research. The reader should be able to understand where the author stands and what they have done, so that the reader is able to judge the veracity of the research for themselves.

Border Patrol at the US-Mexican Border. Photo by Bryce Newell

CW/AZ: How do you avoid developing a pro-police bias while working so closely with officers? Did your own attitude towards policing change over the course of your research? How do you separate explaining officers’ work from apologizing for it?

BN: This is a difficult thing to do (separating explanation of police work from apologizing for it) after spending lots of time with officers. I have found that my attitudes toward the police have become more nuanced the more I work with them. I find certain aspects of their work – and certain officers – to be particularly positive and reassuring, while I also find plenty of reason to criticize others. I have a hard time siding completely with ideas either fully pro- or anti-police, although I do recognize that policing writ large has a long history of racist and discriminatory practices, are too prone to violence, and have too many obligations placed upon them.

So, while I think that while my views, in some ways, have softened toward the police over the past few years (particularly in that I see many good officers doing good work), I also am much more aware of and concerned about certain aspects of policing and how they demand change (especially structural problems of racism, funding, tasks allotted to the police versus other social services, etc.). I think we (US society in particular) ought to provide more funding and support for alternative approaches to combating mental health, drugs problems, etc. and not just use the police (and enforcement) for all of these things. (Alex Vitale’s „The End of Policing“ is a great book in this respect – I’d recommend it.)

CW/AZ: In what ways does surveillance shape perceptions of reality and identities? For example, if Latinx communities near the US-Mexican border are surveilled closely by police, CBP and ICE, how does the feeling of being watched, harassed and threatened come to define their way of acting and thinking? 

BN: Interestingly, I think we change our behavior more noticeably when we realize we are being watched and, if we are watched for some time, we internalize those changed behaviors and they become less noticeable to us or others. However, for those I’ve interviewed who live along the border and are aware of the monitoring, they may continue to focus on how surveillance is impacting their behavior – that is, they choose to stay more conscious of the ways in which they behave due to being watched.

I have found it interesting to hear people reflect on how surveillance changes their behavior. While many will say it doesn’t really impact them, and they act the same way they would have anyway even while being observed, often reiterating tired arguments about having nothing to hide or that they are simply helpless to resist (which, to me, signifies that they have internalized and ignored the impact of surveillance on their lives), others will tell very interesting stories as they reflect on their experiences and how they view surveillance.

CW/AZ: More broadly, could you comment on the ways in which racism on the individual, institutional and state level (legacy of slavery, 13th amendment, mass incarceration, anti-immigrant policies…) influences the ways in which surveillance technologies are deployed?

BN: Surveillance is conducted to acquire power over others. Sometimes this is necessary to some extent, sometimes it is not – or is even completely inappropriate. However, who is in power, or seeking to acquire power, or resisting the acquisition of power by others is important. American (US) society has a long history of racism, as do many other countries around the world. This has meant that those in power, usually white men, have often used their power to conduct surveillance of others, to acquire information and enforce standards, laws, or norms that have often been racist in themselves (having been crafted in the same context, by those in power), in an effort to keep or expand their own power and dominance over others.

Liberty (freedom) in my view is the absence of being dominated by others in the sense that they have the capacity to arbitrarily act in ways that would limit your available life choices. Structural racism in society has meant that many have suffered or have been dominated by those in power. Sometimes this has been individual-level, overt racism; sometimes overtly coordinated racism by groups or organizations; sometimes affected by implicit bias.

In any event, these conditions have meant that surveillance technologies (both high- and low-tech) have long been used to further these racist policies and practices. This is something we need to continually uncover in surveillance research, so that we can identify how it is occurring and find ways to make positive change.

CW/AZ: What is the role of sousveillance in today’s Black Lives Matter protests? Can forms of inverting the gaze of the oppressor – through bystander video, and vigilant citizens monitoring police conduct – live up to their empowering potential? Where do you see opportunities and limits of sousveillance in this movement?

BN: Surveillance by protestors that is aimed at documenting the actions of the state (e.g., police officers) is one form of what has frequently been called “sousveillance.” (I would recommend a recent Dialogue section of Surveillance & Society, which I edited, as it contains some great commentary on this subject). Sousveillance has been an important part of the Black Lives Matter protests – but I don’t think we can call all of the citizen-initiated recording during these protests as sousveillance, either.

I am also concerned that video and images that show protestors could be used by the states’ police powers to identify and target individuals for enforcement for engaging in protected forms of protest and expression. (I think back to the use of social media and bystander video in identifying and prosecuting rioters after the Stanley Cup Riots in Vancouver, Canada, in 2011, and wonder what this might look like in the years after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.)

Bystander recordings of police violence during these protests, in particular, and of other events that have become so important in numerous cases in past years, have really motivated and generated support and participation in these protests. Real change has happened as a result, and I hope more substantive change happens in the future, but I feel that structural resistance to change has also softened the positive impact of these practices and protests to date. I believe the real power in sousveillance has been in raising awareness and energy, and that this energy has persisted over time. It has also led to some accountability, but not enough.

Literature often talks highly of the empowering potential of sousveillance (my own writing included), but I am becoming less and less convinced that sousveillance on its own will have the power to impact real, lasting change with broad societal ramifications. We have much work to do in dismantling existing racist structures, changing individual views on race, kindness, and equality, and moving our societies forward in more positive directions. Sousveillance is an important part of that process, but it is only a part.


Cite this article as: Catherine Whittaker/Alena Zelenskaia, „I am conducting surveillance even as I research it”: Interview with Bryce Newell, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 16/09/2020, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/535.


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