Dries Depoorter developed a bot that scraped public Instagram photos tagged with the same locations as open cameras. (edit Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic based on photo by Samson Katt via Pexels)

On September 12, Dries Depoorter, a self-styled “surveillance artist” based in Ghent, Belgium, debuted his controversial project The Follower on his Twitter account. Consisting of side-by-side comparisons of seemingly “perfect” Instagram posts and webcam footage showing users taking the grid-worthy photos, the project exposed the fabricated reality of social media — but some critics say the artist is engaging dangerously with surveillance culture.

Using EarthCam, a live webcam streaming site, Depoorter recorded four weeks’ worth of footage from live streams of tourist attractions such as Times Square in New York City and the Temple Bar Pub in Dublin. Depoorter then developed a bot that scraped all public Instagram photos tagged with the same locations of the open cameras and used facial recognition technology to match up the Instagram photos with the real-time footage of the users being photographed.

He created a video compilation juxtaposing the static, professional images of content creators with the surveillance videos that captured them smoothing their hair and clothing, striking different poses, and reviewing the shots with their photographers before scurrying back to their positions to secure the very picture that made it to the grid. Even though the artist didn’t mention any usernames in his project, he left every face unblurred.

Depoorter initially uploaded the video to YouTube, but EarthCam filed a copyright violation claim. The artist told Hyperallergic that he is trying to resolve the claim and reupload the video to YouTube. For now, viewers can access the video on the artist’s TikTok or through select GIFs from his website. (EarthCam has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)

@thedriesdepoorter

I make art with technology. www.driesdepoorter.be

♬ Watch Dogs Theme – Hudson Mohawke

The Follower has garnered mixed reactions from Twitter so far. Some users have lauded the project for highlighting the current surveillance state. Others said it was unethical and could inspire bad actors such as stalkers, pleading with the artist to keep the software from the public. While viewers were discussing the intent of the project, Depoorter maintained that the work doesn’t have a message. “I think the work tells enough,” the artist told Hyperallergic. When asked whether the work should be taken as a warning, Depoorter simply replied “no,” but he did mention that he won’t be releasing the software to the public. “I’m only one person. I have limited access to data, cameras … Governments can take this to another level,” he added.

Depoorter also wanted to clarify that the software isn’t just scraping images from influencers, either. One Instagram user with under 3,000 followers discovered that Depoorter’s project featured her image with a location tag at the Temple Bar Pub. Thinking that Depoorter went to her page specifically to repost the image alongside the recorded footage, she was more upset that the image was used without consent rather than with how Depoorter was able to find her. 

“The problem is not the camera, the camera is on 24hrs and there’s nothing to do,” the user, who preferred not to provide her name, told Hyperallergic over DM. “What he can’t do is go to my Instagram to get the photo I took and post my photo that I posted on his page.” She also said she messaged Depoorter on Instagram, saying it was a crime to use her image without permission and asking for it to be removed immediately. Depoorter hasn’t answered her yet, but told Hyperallergic that he has gotten so many messages that it’ll take some time to respond to them all. 

Stine Sønstebø, a trademark and design attorney at the European IP consulting firm Plougmann Vingtoft, described The Follower as “scary,” indicating that Depoorter may have violated both privacy ethics and copyright law. 

“Photos uploaded to Instagram are not in the public domain (copyright wise), but are still owned by the photographer and consent is required for any commercial use by others (except for Instagram, which has certain use rights through their Terms of use),” Sønstebø said in an email to Hyperallergic. “In that regard, the Instagram user has actual rights over the way her image is reposted, even if her account is public.” Dr. Jason Hong, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, corroborated Sønstebø’s point but stated that Depoorter may also have a possible case for fair use if he was using the copyrighted material for criticism, scholarship, or research. 

It’s not the first time an artist has faced backlash for utilizing surveillance strategies to bolster their art practice. Arne Svenson, a New York-based photographer, ended up in court thanks to his photography series The Neighbors, which some saw as voyeuristic. The artist captured several NYC residents’ day-to-day activities through a telephoto lens aimed at their apartment windows. Svenson noted that his subjects were unaware that they were being photographed, but took strict precautions to avoid releasing their identities. When a set of Tribeca parents found out that Svenson’s photos of them and their children were featured in an exhibition, they filed a lawsuit. The Appellate Division threw the case out, citing that the First Amendment protected Svenson’s photography series “in the form of art.” In the same vein as Depoorter, Svenson insists that The Neighbors wasn’t about any person in particular. “The subjects are to be seen as representations of humankind, non-identifiable as the actual people photographed,” the photographer told PetaPixel in 2015.  

Unfazed by the criticism so far, Depoorter emphasized that his project is more about the use of technology rather than focusing on any one person. When Input Mag pointed out that using unblurred images allowed people to be identified, Depoorter doubled down. “Yes, but they posted the pictures also,” he replied. So far, it’s two against one as Depoorter faces EarthCam’s copyright violation claim and backlash from Instagram users who are less than happy with the way their images are being used and contextualized. 

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