In 1996, Roger Ebert wrote an article on the shifting film noir genre and “today’s uneasy feelings.” That was five years before the first cell phone camera, six years before 9/11 and the Patriot Act, 18 years before Edward Snowden, and 20 years before this desk lamp that records your conversations then live-tweets them. With the onslaught of mass surveillance technology in the 21st century, 2015 feels eerily similar to a noir film, with a kind of backseat paranoia that we’re constantly being watched.
“Noir is almost always about paranoia, eavesdropping, being spied on, loners and how do you catch them,” film noir expert, Dr. Foster Hirsch of Brooklyn College, tells The Creators Project. “What changes is, of course, state of the art. Technology is so different now than it was in the immediate post-war period. We’re more sophisticated. And I think what that does is it creates a greater sense of solitude and privacy and that is a breeding ground for pathological noir characters.”
The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the nonchalance of modern day surveillance allow us to live out the narrative that classical noirs of the 40s and 50s foreshadowed. Today we’re living in the most epic of noir films, where modern technologies allow every person to record and be recorded, where surveillance is an afterthought, and no one seems to mind. Classic noirs from the Red Scare illustrate this permeable sense of unease. But now, according to Dr. Hirsch, “Everyone is under surveillance and you don’t suspect the communists as in the past, it can be anyone. [There is] no privacy. People are afraid of identity theft, computers are vulnerable.” Therefore everyone is vulnerable. When Ebert wrote that article 20 years ago, only 9% of Americans used computers daily, today only 15% don’t.
“Technology and noir have a long history together,” Hirsch continues. “Technology changes, but it doesn’t change the narrative patterns of the noir genre.” In fact, it heightens them. We’ve known for years now that technology has the potential to isolate, and that isolation breeds all those nasty inner demons that are generally checked by adequate and healthy socialization in childhood and adolescence. But did we ever consider that we are the personified products of a neo-noir lifestyle? John Donne’s famous poem, "No Man is an Island," now seems eerily prescient and a creed to revisit.
Also prescient and representative of the noir aesthetic playing out in the 21st century is the work of Brazilian photojournalist, Sebastião Salgado. While their subject matter may not convey the paranoia that mass surveillance technology does, Salgado’s black-and-white photographs of our environmentally ravaged world and fast-multiplying migrant crises along with his latest series, Genesis, that shows us the few remaining natural sanctuaries we have left on this planet, are evocative of the classic noir juxtaposition between shadow and light. Stark and monochromatic, his images are visceral in their reminder that we are overlooking a disservice happening in our own backyards. He is the Snowden of the 21st century aesthetic, his images opening our eyes to what exists (or now fails to exist) beyond our simple corner in the world.
According to Ebert, “Noir thrives on pessimism and fear—and on guilt, the feeling that we have ourselves to blame for our troubles.” The 21st century existence is one shaped by Snowden, Salgado, and widespread personal surveillance. One that feels inherently frenetic, highlighted by loss (of nature, privacy) and one that, were Ebert to have reassessed the noir genre before his death in 2013, plays perfectly into his hand.
Click here for more of Sebastião Salgado’s work.