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  Field Notes From
Watching You

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Watching You On AssignmentArrows

View Field Notes
From Photographer

George Steinmetz

Watching You On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Author

David Shenk

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Bob Sacha


Watching You

Field Notes From Photographer
George Steinmetz

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    I got to play with some pretty impressive surveillance toys on this assignment. A couple of helicopter pilots from U.S. Customs and Border Protection took me on a training flight outside Tucson and loaned me their infrared night goggles. We soared a couple hundred feet (100 meters) above the ground, and I couldn't believe how much I could see. Even though it was a moonless night and people had only the dimmest of lights in their homes, I could look right into their windows and see them walking around and watching television. 
    Another time I photographed a man in Oregon who was arrested for growing marijuana when the cops spotted grow lights in his home using thermal imaging technology. I got the dope grower to re-install his grow lights and a manufacturer of a state-of-the-art imaging system to come out to this man's former house. I was then able to photograph the heat pattern that led to his arrest and a Supreme Court case about privacy rights. It was really amazing. I could see paper receipts through my pockets and even nails in the wall that had been painted over and were 50 yards (45 meters) away.

    Just after sunset I went on drug-smuggling patrol with some U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in their Black Hawk helicopter. As we were flying over a part of southern Arizona they called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, we saw a man standing among the cactuses frantically waving his shirt. We landed and found out that he had illegally crossed the border from Mexico with his extended family and a coyote, or guide, when his cousin died from dehydration. It was more than 105F (40C) that day and he was carrying two gallon milk containers filled with his group's urine as an emergency drinking supply. He got into our helicopter and led us to the place where Alma, his cousin,  had expired only an hour earlier.
    I learned that she'd left her two-year-old son behind in Mexico because she wanted to find work and a better way of life. Seeing that on a personal level was quite wrenching. As the U.S. government puts more agents on the southern border and uses more high-tech surveillance gear, undocumented immigrants are taking greater risks by trying to cross increasingly remote areas of the desert. These people want to have a part of the American dream and they're dying because of it. [See Steinmetz's image of this tragedy in Zoom-In.)


    While I was taking pictures outside the entrance of the U.S. National Security Agency's complex in Menwith Hill, England, some of the American personnel driving in through the entry gate got upset. Even though we were on a public road, they worried I was capturing their license plates in my photographs. I was first questioned by a British security officer, but as soon as I expressed an interest in taking photos behind the gate made out of double metal fences topped with razor wire, I got a call on my mobile phone from a man with an American accent. He would only identify himself as Bill and he began asking me an intensive battery of personal questions about my passport number, my mother's maiden name, date of birth, etc. 
    I had nothing to hide about what I was doing, but I can't say the same for what may be the largest surveillance station in the world. It was really interesting to see how the people doing all the watching didn't like it when the tables got turned on them. My whole experience at Menwith Hill reminded me of dealing with street cops with mirrored glasses. They want to peer into you, but they don't want you to see their own eyes.

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