Camera trapping: such is the intriguing term used to describe the practice of using recording devices to capture subjects with as little interference as possible. One of the first practitioners and advocates of this sport was the photographer and congressman George Shiras III. When Shiras published his photographs in the July 1906 issue of The National Geographic Magazine, he inaugurated the era of wildlife photography as we know it.
“A bird or a mammal, on tugging at a bait, or in travelling on its runway, will, by pulling a wire, take its own photograph, while the owner of the camera may be miles away.” An “electrically wired branch” could be used for “making birds photograph themselves,” explained an enthusiast of the sport in 1926. Since they were first invented in the late nineteenth century, camera traps have been essential for research and conservation efforts.
While wild game started to be seen as capable of photographing itself inadvertently, today’s public surveillance cameras photograph us without us even noticing. Britain alone has approximately one surveillance camera per eleven individuals filming an average person about 70 times per day in 2013.
The supra-political and supra-intellectual draw of these technologies was clear from the time they were first introduced. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first to recognize their power as even stronger than intellectual commentary and even politics. In 1906 after he had “been looking through your photographs in the National Geographic Magazine,” he wrote a letter to Shiras, who had worked as a congressman for Pennsylvania in years prior: “Now, my dear sir, no other work you can do (not even going to Congress; still less, writing articles for pamphlets or magazines utterly evanescent in character) is as important…”
“This was the first wild animal to take its own picture,” wrote Shiras as a caption for an image of a deer first published in 1906 and reproduced in his multivolume Hunting Wild Life With Camera And Flashlight. If taken as true, the monopoly which until then humans had for taking their own picture was gone, and their previously unique ability was now extended to even wild animals. Which innovations would come next? Humans would soon be able to take pictures of themselves without the willful and active need to trigger a shutter, just as the wild game hunted by the photographer.
In April 14, 1996 a 19-year-old girl at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania decided to take the place of an animal in the nature documentary genre common at that time. “I think the thing is you can see wild America and you can see lions and badgers and antelope eating and sleeping and doing what they do but for some reason wanting to see people doing the same thing is sick and perverse,” she told David Letterman during his popular late-night television show. The guest’s name was Jennifer Ringley, now known as the first lifecaster on the internet.
Jenni had bought a webcam, wrote software so that it would upload images continuously to the internet, and turned it on for the next six years of her life. Anyone could peek into her dorm room simply by visiting her site jennicam.org.
For Letterman, the experiment meant nothing short of the end of television. “I’ve heard a lot of stuff about the internet… and I don't care about the internet, but this for me is the perfect idea for the internet,” he stated. “This will replace television, as we know it now. This will replace television because this is really all people want...people are lonely and desperate. They’re lonely, desperate, miserable human beings and they’re reaching out they want to see life somewhere else taking place. It’s comforting, don’t you think?” Jenni agreed: “Before me there was the coffeepot cam, and where I got my idea from: the fishcam,” but fish, she noted, are “interesting for about five minutes.” Then the idea struck: “I thought if a person were to do this that would be more interesting.” The Jennicam was thus born, eventually becoming more well-known than her own creator. (Letterman tellingly introduced her guest as “Jennicam’s own Jenni.”)
“Men world-wide regard Jenni as their virtual girlfriend,” reported The Wall Street Journal in 1998. During those years, some three to four million people watched jennicam.org regularly and approximately seven million logged in during peak interest in her site. When Jenni first turned on her camera, images took fifteen minutes to load, but soon the time dropped to three minutes, and lifecasting became an option for anyone with a webcam, a computer and an internet connection.
In 2002 cellphone companies started adding built-in cameras into their phones. Sending photographs and uploading images to computers and the internet became easier the ever. The next year Jenni announced she was shutting down her website. Right before the new year started, her site went dark. But the end of her experiment was a new beginning: regular internet users could now do what she had done as a lone geek pioneer at the dawn of the internet age.
The tech entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash recently tweeted “Now we are all Jennicam,” referring to the explosion of myriad new “social media” practices beyond lifecasting, from tweeting to facebooking, used to produce an online presence. In one sense this is true, and we are all like the 19-year-old Jenni of the 90s, but a longer historical perspective, taking us back to the early twentieth century, shows us how we are also like that startled deer first captured by an automatically triggered camera. This slightly longer history leads us to a different conclusion—now we all are wild game.