Packing Heat

The New York City Police Department’s Domain Awareness System is a vast monitoring network that links 8,300 cameras and 500 license-plate readers around the city with software that can track movement. Under a separate program, the department operates a fleet of surveillance helicopters equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR), a type of thermal-imaging technology.

Thermal-imaging cameras were originally developed for the battlefield. Aerial-drone operators and snipers track targets using infrared radiation, which can distinguish between ambient temperatures and heat generated by the human body. The Department of Commerce classifies high-resolution FLIR cameras as “dual-use,” meaning they have both civilian and military applications, and therefore restricts their export. In 2014, however, a low-resolution version was introduced for sale as a clip-on accessory for mobile phones, part of a growing commercial market for infrared technology.

I photographed New York City with a thermal-imaging camera on my phone to see how a technology designed for surveillance rendered the human form. This project followed news reports, in 2013, that New York police officers would be issued infrared scanners with the aim of scaling back controversial practices such as stop-and-frisk. The NYPD later decided against implementing the scanner program.