Some remarks on Philip Schmitt’s Camera Restricta
A camera that stops you from taking ‘boring photographs’ is a concept that might, at first glance, seem a natural progression from the many photo-taking modes already built into digital cameras and smartphones. My own Nikon camera, for instance, has a mode that automatically takes several photographs in quick succession and automatically selects the ‘best’ photograph from this selection; hence the marketing promise that I need never miss a shot. Other cameras on the market can automatically detect faces and even blend different photographs together if someone blinks in a group shot. In an age where cameras are becoming increasingly more automated, Kodak’s famous slogan “You push the button, we do the rest”, has perhaps never been so pertinent.
Phillipp Schmitt’s Camera Restricta  is a concept camera that aims to restrict the capture of “generic”, or ‘boring’, photographs by limiting the number of photographs that can be taken at any given site. It does this by using geo-location technology (found in most smartphones and many digital cameras) to determine the photographer’s location and search photo-sharing sites Flickr and Panorimo for photographs taken near to their location: a radius of roughly 35 metres according to Schmitt’s website. If it finds ‘too many’ photographs for that particular location, the camera will ‘shut down’ to prevent any further photographs from being taken.
Camera Restricta was inspired by tourist photography, specifically by tourist photographs that capture the same view over and over again, creating a continuous flow of nearly identical photographs. By way of example, Schmitt has created a video showing a number of examples of geo-tagged photographs of world landmarks that demonstrate the often-astounding similarity between tourist photographs.  One photograph of the Eiffel Tower can look very much like a thousand other photographs of the Eiffel Tower. On the evidence of Schmitt’s video, perhaps there is something in the suggestion that tourists do not tend to seek out original views of a site, but duplicate pre-existing ones such as those seen on postcards.
Schmitt himself admits that the sheer number of photographs taken at any given site is no measure of the “uniqueness” of a photograph,  or even of how alike two photographs are. As it stands, Camera Restricta is just as likely to prevent ‘interesting’ photographs from being taken as it is ‘boring’ ones. Perhaps if the camera were to compare the composition of the photographs rather than sheer numbers it might be a more effective way of preventing ‘boring’ photographs, forcing people to seek out unusual viewpoints, or focus on the overlooked details of a scene.
Looking at Schmitt’s project, I could not help but be reminded of my own work Composed under Electric Stars (2013),  in which I deliberately visited some of the most photographed areas of London but took no photographs that readily betrayed my location. Working in this manner forced me to do exactly what I just described above: seek out unusual viewpoints or focus on overlooked details. I was, in effect, trying not to take any ‘boring’ photographs. Had I been working with Camera Restricta, however it is most unlikely I would have been allowed to take these photographs at all.
While in this instance, I consciously wanted to take ‘interesting’ photographs, I would suggest that ‘boring’ photographs also play an important part in the tourist experience. If we consider that a photograph taken at a tourist site like the Eiffel Tower acts as a form of authentication of the photographer’s presence, then even the most mundane of photographs become meaningful for those that took them, as they act to confirm their presence in a given place and time. Fred Ritchin’s  suggestion that tourists could ‘save time’ on their holidays by pre-ordering a digitally composited photograph of themselves at a given site, largely fails to recognise the significance of the photographs in authenticating their presence at the site in question. One might suggest that in preventing the capture of ‘boring’ photographs, a device like Camera Restricta also prevents the capture of meaningful ones.
The increased automaticity of some digital cameras already limits, to a degree, their creative potential. The same Nikon camera that takes multiple photographs and selects the ‘best’ one, will not take a photograph without a focus point: a feature which has been a personal source of frustration on more than one occasion. The possibilities of a technology like Camera Restricta, however, are not limited to stemming the tide of ‘boring’ photographs, nor even to restricting the potential for creative uses of the camera. More worryingly, Camera Restricta carries with it a suggestion of new forms of censorship: the potential for digital cameras to automatically be disabled at certain locations, or during certain events.
In 2012, it was widely reported Apple had filed a patent that could shut down iPhones or disable certain features depending on the phone’s location or environment,  automatically switching to silent mode inside a theatre for instance. It is not, therefore, entirely inconceivable that some form of technology similar to that underpinning Camera Restricta might one day make it into the operating systems of smartphones or digital cameras. While it may in some cases be desirable for a phone to automatically change settings, it has also been suggested that the technology could be used to prevent, for instance, the documentation of anti-government demonstrations.  While photography cannot always be considered unimpeachable evidence, it cannot be denied that it plays an important role as evidence in contested situations. As such, the idea that that people could find their digital cameras disabled at certain locations, or during certain time periods, is a troubling one.
Camera Restricta imagines a world where we are no longer in command of our tools; where increasing automation is not only there to help us take ‘better’ photographs, but where algorithms actually determine where and when we can take photographs. If such technology were to make it into future cameras, would analogue – or even ‘old-school’ digital – cameras take on a new significance? Much in the way that analogue photographs today are sometimes seen as more ‘honest’ than their digital counterparts, could the analogue photograph of the future also be a declaration of the photographer’s control over their tools and the images they capture?
1. Phillipp Schmitt, “Camera Restrica” [online], 2015, http://philippschmitt.com/projects/camera-restricta (accesssed 12 October 2015).
4. Catherine M. Weir, “Composed under Electric Stars” [online], 2013, http://www.cmweir.com/portfolio/composed-under-electric-stars/ (accessed 13 October 2015).
5. Fred Ritchin, After Photography (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009).
6. Lance Whitney, “Apple patent may foreshadow iPhones that react to location” [online], C|Net, 28 August 2012, http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/apple-patent-may-foreshadow-iphones-that-react-to-location/ (accessed 13 October 2015).
7. Damien Gayle, “Fears for civil liberties as Apple patents technology that could remotely disable protestors’ smartphones” [online], The Daily Mail, 7 November 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2229273/Fears-civil-liberties-Apple-patents-technology-remotely-disable-protesters-smartphones.html (accessed 13 October 2015).