I just came across a fascinating document in the US National Archives from 1961 called “Snapshots at Random” by Jane Schnell. I do not know the context in which the document was produced, but it encourages “camera fans” to take pictures for the CIA while they are traveling or living overseas.


“Everyone who has taken photographs in a foreign country has collected potential ground photographic intelligence. . . The most omnivorous and insatiable broker for the photo intelligence market is the CIA Graphics Register.”

“If you have a batch of photos taken anywhere abroad, properly identified and preferably with negatives, the Register would like to look them over. . . And if it knows in advance that you are going to have a tour in some less well frequented place, it may be interested enough in promoting your hobby to supply you with camera and film.”

“With a minimum of effort, adding to the picture you normally would take anyway a notation of the place, time, and direction and as much descriptive data as you can, you are likely to produce some useful photos.”


What did the CIA Graphics Register want travelling camera fans to photograph? First and foremost they wanted “photographs of prominent persons in almost any field, especially the military, political, economic, and scientific.”

“If an election is coming up and campaigning is in progress, why not take a few pictures of the speakers? If they are within 50 feet of a 35 mm. camera, the heads can be enlarged to an identifiable likeness. The closer the better, naturally, but the main thing is to get them on film and in focus.”

Other than prominent people, what else might be worth photographing for the CIA? Oh, anything really. . . you know like. . . gas storage tanks.

storage tank

“If a new gas storage tank is being built in the city where you are stationed and you drive past it going to work every day, why not photograph it once a week or once a month? The photos will tell how long it takes to build it, what types of materials and methods of construction are used, and how much capacity is being added.”

Ok, but what if you don’t know what a gas storage tank looks like? Not a problem!

“Maybe you don’t know what a gas storage tank looks like, and all you see is a big tank being built. Take a picture of it anyway; obviously it is built to store something. What you don’t know about it the analyst will. That is what he is an analyst for, but he can’t analyze it if you don’t get him the pictures.”


In addition to the pictures, what the CIA also wanted (in fact this is what they really needed) was what we today refer to as “metadata,” that is, they wanted to know everything about the film, camera, exposure, as well as details about the time and place where the picture was taken, and of course they wanted to know what it was a picture of.

“It might be noted, for example, that frame no. 7 of roll 2 was exposed at 1330 on 17 November. . . from a second-floor street window of Hotel Europe in Bangkok, looking down on a passer-by identified as so-and-so on his way to the corner to hail a samlor.”


The author then goes on to talk, in a section labeled “Spies and People,” how it is important to be careful when you go out to photograph a “target.” Here she provides an example of her own experience once in Malaya.

“I once wanted to photograph a new electric power plant in Malaya. So far as I knew, nobody would question my taking the pictures; but it is a little odd for a girl to go around photographing power plants.”

She then talks about finding the power plant, taking pictures of it, the roads around it, and the high power wires. After doing so, she drove down a road where she was stopped by a policeman at a bridge, who was apparently stopping all cars as the sultan was about to pass by.

“I got out of the car, camera in hand, and went up and asked him why [she had been stopped]. He said that I had to wait a few minutes, the Sultan was coming. I asked what was the building on the other side of the river.


“That’s our new power plant,” he said proudly.

“That’s nice,” I said, “Does it work now?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Golly,” I said, “Can I take a picture of it?”

“Sure, why don’t you to to the other end of the bridge, you get a better shot.”


The author regretted that she didn’t get a picture of the sultan, but her point was that “the camera fan who has ulterior motives” has to know how to act.

“If you act suspicious even the ordinary people will become suspicious. If you act quite ordinary even the suspicious people will think you quite ordinary.”

So I guess the goal then is to become what we might call an “ordinary spy.”

ordinary spies

I have no idea where or how this essay was distributed, and I have no idea what the CIA Graphics Register was or is. However, this connection between the information that civilians produce and the intelligence that government agencies collect is fascinating (and also frightening).

In World War II, the Nazis collected photographs of Russia that German tourists had taken before the war, and they used those images in the planning of bombing raids. And this apparently was effective. As a result, after the war the Soviets banned foreigners from taking pictures of many things, such as bridges and government buildings.


This production by civilians of potential intelligence is now happening on an enormous scale. Everywhere on the Internet we find photographs and image collections and the associated metadata.

Whether it be metadata that is deliberately recorded for “academic” purposes (like the shot above of a metadata section from an entry in a database of historical photographs from Southeast Asia at the University of Wisconsin), or that is “encoded” into the picture files by the cell phone that was used to take the picture, today people are making freely available a phenomenal about of images and information about those images.

So whereas in the past the CIA had to ask American citizens for help in collecting information about places like Southeast Asia, now people all over the world provide that information freely every minute of the day on Facebook and in countless other places on the Internet.

To see the entire “Snapshots at Random” document, see http://research.archives.gov/description/7283459