Fascinating new book of secret police surveillance photos reveals chilling Big Brother control methods
Chilling surveillance photos taken by Poland’s Communist-era secret police have become the subject of a new artistic photography book.
Titled ‘How to Look Natural in Photos’, the collection was brought together by curator Beata Bartecka and photographer Lukasz Rusznica, who discovered the photos in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance.
Compiled as a warning about today’s internet surveillance, the 150 never-before-seen photos cover a wide range of secret police activities between 1944 and 1989 and reveal the sometimes drastic extent authorities went to in keeping ‘enemies of the state’ under ‘control’.
In one, agents spying on American military attaches from the US Embassy in Warsaw snap the officials in a car that has stopped in a forest.
Dated 6 April, 1966, the photo is described as being taken during an ‘intelligence reconnaissance’ operation.
Another, taken covertly from a hidden camera, shows a couple described as ‘people of interest’ entering a building.
Yet others show mugshots and corpses, including one of a body lying on the ground with hands and feet tied together.
Rusznica told the Calvert Journal that the book is “about power that watches and controls us, about the violence and the politics that programme reality.”
The book’s publisher, the Creative Arts Centre in Wrocław, wrote that this violence “begins in the nervous system - with the impulse that passes through the body and makes someone release the shutter - and ends in the archive as a place of interpretation of information and images.”
An essay titled “Pictures on Duty: Photographs from the Archives of the Polish Secret Police, 1944-1989” by historian and archivist Tomasz Stempowski complements the photographs.
The artsy design and high-quality materials suggests that the target audience are art lovers rather than history buffs.
According to the authors, the name How to Look Natural in Photos comes from advice given to security officers that told them to take photos of persons of interest quickly and without warning so that “the subject’s face still retains its natural look”.
Bartecka and Rusznica had worked with the IPN photographic archive in 2014 on another exhibition. In 2019, they had the idea to make a book from the images.
They sifted through thousands and put aside the ones they liked and ended up with around 150.
The arrangement of the photos seems random, with no obvious chronology or theme.
Beata Bartecka said in the Calvert Journal: “We put the photos together based on how they talk to each other as images […] Not as stories and facts.”
Readers wondering how to make sense of the book are offered the following advice by co-author Łukasz Rusznica, who told the Calvert Journal: “The book is a kind of trap. The photographs are viewed without context of who took them and why, they function only as images.
“Only with time, if they ever get to the end of the book, can the viewer read what they are looking at, and what these photos are. This ethical doubt is an essential element of the book.”
The essay by historian Tomasz Stempowski provides the reader with more context.
In it, he describes how the Communist regime tried to maintain its power by spying, tracking, cataloguing, and intimidating. Mugshots were used both to intimidate persons of interest and to identify them later.
He says that sometimes operatives would even pretend to take photos without film just to bully targets.
Operatives would also dress as protestors and take photos at demonstrations.
They would also take polaroid photos of apartments they were clandestinely searching so that they could put things back the way they found them in order not to raise the suspicion of the target.
While the photographers themselves remain anonymous, Bartecka says: “The agents and officers were also themselves a tool, guided by the entire system and apparatus of power. The author of all these photographs is the authority, the power, the system.”
Rusznica said that the danger from surveillance is still present though it has a different source.
She said: “It would be quite naive to identify the authorities only with national governments.”
“The Polish secret police’s interest in family photos and holiday snaps suggests the algorithms tracking our images on social media, for example; the constant state of surveillance is little different to a landscape dotted with CCTV cameras.”