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Gotcha! Pics of the powerful turned into surveillance shots

Exploring the bounds of digital imagery and surveillance, artist Daniel Mayrit makes photos of financial and political powerhouses look like they were snapped by security cameras.

Daniel Mayrit

Grainy, washed-out surveillance images have a way of making subjects, no matter who they are, look mysterious, even sneaky and suspicious.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, looks like he's been captured by a surveillance camera. Daniel Mayrit

Take the photo of London Mayor Boris Johnson to the right. Or the below pic of Martin Gilbert, CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management. It's easy to see how both could be perceived as emitting a certain "I have something to hide" vibe.

In truth, they've been manipulated by artist Daniel Mayrit for "You Haven't Seen Their Faces," a provocative photography project that features portraits of powerful London financial and political figures altered to look like images taken from surveillance cameras.

On display through August 31 at PhotoEspana 2014's Photography 2.0 exhibit in Mayrit's hometown of Madrid, "You Haven't Seen Their Faces" challenges viewers to ponder the power of mass image proliferation in the era of Google and Facebook -- and the way image production systems like those used for surveillance purposes can impact viewers' assumptions about the truth.

"Months after the (2011) London riots, the Metropolitan Police handed out leaflets depicting youngsters that presumably took part in riots," reads a description of the project by the artist, whose main interest lies in the relationship between documentary and fiction. "Images of very low quality, almost amateur, were embedded with unquestioned authority due both to the device used for taking the photographs and to the institution distributing those images. But in reality, what do we actually know about these people? We have no context or explanation of the facts, but we almost inadvertently assume their guilt because they have been 'caught on CCTV.'"

Indeed, most of us have mainly seen surveillance images related to news stories involving alleged wrongdoing (and, as in case of the Boston bombings, we've seen the havoc that can result when those images get misidentified).

But while many of the photos in Mayrit's work look like they were snapped as the subjects scurried from court, "in the same way that we cannot possibly know if the youngsters portrayed by the police are actually criminals, we can not assume either that the individuals here featured are dishonest or have any involvement in the current banking scandals," says the artist, who is based in London, a city widely known for its vast network of security cameras.

The title of Mayrit's project pays homage to "You Have Seen Their Faces," a 1930s photographic documentary book by Margaret Bourke White that captured faces of rural America during the Great Depression. But while White turned her lens on the victims of an economic crisis, Mayrit flips the model to focus on some of those on the other end of it -- the 100 most powerful people in the City of London, as listed by Square Mile, a monthly British lifestyle and business magazine.

Is Martin Gilbert, CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management, trying to hide behind his sunglasses? Daniel Mayrit

"I thought the title itself, 'You HAVEN'T Seen Their Faces,' was a rather direct comment on the fact that the people portrayed here live in a comfortable anonymity," the artist told Crave. "Intended not as a judgment but rather as a plain fact since most of us don't have any idea of what these people, who arguably run the world's economy, actually look like at all."

Mayrit found images of his subjects online and then used Photoshop to alter them, aiming for a uniform look, but tailoring the pictures on a per-photo basis to give each a distinct feel. How did he lend his prints just the right surveillance je ne sais quoi?

"Finding a shot taken from an elevated vantage point is rather crucial," he told Crave. "Another key feature is the blue tones and low saturation of most surveillance images, so tweaking those two also helps a lot towards achieving the desired effect." So does showing the pixelation, he added.

Mayrit's not the only artist to recently explore the potentially tricky terrain of a networked society. It's hard to forget Leo Selvaggio's anti-surveillance masks, which foil security cameras by giving everyone who wears one the artist's visage. Maybe Mayrit could grab some of those images and do a series on clone-army surveillance shots.