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Tech by VICE

This Camera Won't Let You Take Tourist Photos

If too many photos have been taken in an area, this camera won't let you take another.

by Adam Owen
Sep 10 2015, 7:45pm
Imagine you're standing at a large monument or a sculpture of some sort in a new city, surrounded by tourists like yourself. Despite the thousands of entirely identical photos being taken around you, you feel the need to capture it for yourself, so you open your camera and add to the mass of geotagged photos documenting the same view.

With his new prototype camera, German designer Philipp Schmitt wants to limit your ability to scratch that shutterbug itch.

The Camera Restricta is a work of speculative design that uses a smartphone encased in a 3D printed body to stop users from taking photos at locations that have already been photographed by others above a predefined limit.

The phone runs an application of Schmitt's design that checks Flickr and Panoramio for the number of photos possessing a geotag within roughly 35x35 meters of the user. If the app sees that too many photos have been taken in the area, a plastic shutter covers the phone's camera and the shutter button retracts, prohibiting photography.

What's the point of such an arbitrary, designed limitation? Schmitt wanted to force users to question their perceptions of uniqueness in a world overflowing with data. In a short film created to demonstrate the camera's functionality, a photographer challenges herself to find locations that haven't been photographed, allowing scarcity to set the value of the imagery she's shooting. Sometimes the camera alerts her that only one more photo can be taken in the location before the shutter retracts permanently on that spot, adding weight to her compositional choice. Other times, she's delighted to find areas that have never been photographed before. She knows that any photo taken will be totally unique.

Of course, the location of a photo only accounts for a small fraction of its content. There might be thousands of photos of that sculpture, but only one with you standing in the frame. It also ignores the possibility of compositional innovation. If all cameras worked like this, we never would have developed the trope of pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Most glaringly, the technology ignores transient events like concerts, parades and fairs. Just because a photo was taken near the Eiffel Tower doesn't mean it's of the Eiffel Tower, and what if you had the misfortune of living next to a tourist attraction? As if never being able to get a table at a local restaurant wasn't enough, now you can't even take a photo of your takeout pizza.

Schmitt also presents the Camera Restricta as a potential tool of governments and corporations to preemptively sensor subversive photos before, rather than after, a photo has been taken, in the same way that consumer scanners are equipped with software that prevents the scanning of banknotes.

In the video, the woman is prevented from taking photos in a specific location—a logical precaution governments would take if given the means this technology theorizes. Photography of sensitive locations like military bases, infrastructure or other potential targets would definitely be prohibited, as would private spaces that invite controversy like slaughterhouses and electronics manufacturing plants. One could also see this tactic being levelled temporarily on public spaces during times of unrest, helping governments control the flow of information coming out of war zones, resettlements and protests.

Billed as a "disobedient tool," the Camera Restricta uses data to limit data, asking us to slow down and focus on creating our own unique moments. While it could be criticized as arbitrarily enforcing a pre-digital nostalgia in its explicit limitations, it presents a near future where our devices modify our behaviour to satisfy predefined goals. The question is, as it's always been, who decides what those goals are?