Writing photographs (#1YearNoCam)

The visual turn on the internet has been evident for a few years now. Our cameras are computers, always in our pockets, always connected to the internet. We share photos in conversation, in seduction, for a laugh, to make a political point, to show the world who we are, where we are, what we like or to share information. Facebook and other networks prioritise images in our news feeds, blog posts now (unlike a decade ago) look strange without an image near the top, and we create visualisations of our research or arguments so that people will share them. The shareable image is the soundbite of bygone media days.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a digital poet like Jhave (pronouced jah-vey) would choose to write as though he were photographing.

1YearNoCam_Jhave_Nov18

David Jhave Johnston is a well established writer of electronic literature known for his beautifully multimodal works. He combines images, sounds, movements and words into literary works that are more than literature. Originally from Canada, he lives in Hong Kong and his Tumblr, jhaveHK, was full of photographs of his surroundings before he made a vow to abstain from photographs a few days ago:

1YearNoCam_Jhave

It’s interesting, don’t you think, that this manifesto, this statement disavowing images, is itself shared as an image? So many of our images on the internet today contain text. This statement requires the image format only to preserve the layout (strict, formal, simple, with a neutral font and no use of bold or italics) and to include a signature, the mark of the human hand contrasting the typed words.

Perhaps the statement is already imagined hanging on the wall of an exhibition in a year’s time, as other artists’ statements have hung on gallery walls.

“Every time I feel like taking a photo, I shall describe the photo in writing as if I had taken it”, Jhave writes. The dominance of the photograph already has us thinking in photographs, framing the world around us in our imagination even when we don’t take the photo with our cameras, noticing symmetries and contrasts in our visual surroundings that we might not have seen without the knowledge of the camera deep in our culture. Susan Sontag put it thus on the first page of On Photography in 1973:

In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.

I find it easy to see Jahve’s written photographs in my mind, as street photos, photos of the everyday, art photos.

1YearNoCam_Jhave_NoV-MOULD

Jhave’s written photographs are timestamped and geocoded in the manner of a digital photograph, though not mechanically: Jhave writes in the location of each: “5F stairwell CMC, HK” and Tumblr adds the time stamp when Jhave posts the text.

Hans Kristian Rustad is currently working on the influence of the camera on literature, including digital literature, and I have heard others speak about the ways in which the technology of the camera affects our ways of thinking about and representing the world, visually of course, but also in other modalities. One of Hans Kristian’s recent articles is about the Norwegian poet Hanne Bramness’s 2010 book Uten film i kameraet (translated to English in 2013 with the title Without Film in the Camera) where photographs, some by famous photographers, some by amateurs, are described in words.

I love that Jhave’s #1YearNoCam is not just about how we see the world as photographs but also about a sort of asceticism in refraining from taking photographs. The title clearly follows on from last week’s #1WkNoTech project (a netprov led by Mark Marino and Rob Wittig where participants pretended to abstain from technology for a week while tweeting about it to support each other) and can similarly be read as a sort of critique of the idea of digital detox. I’ll be following the project over the next year – and I’ll probably find myself writing these little snapshots of my world in my mind, as well. Maybe I’ll imagine some written photographs I haven’t actually seen, as well.

1YearNoCam-jhave_hayles-hand

 

20. November 2014 by Jill
Categories: Digital Art, Electronic literature | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. This is fascinating, and a perfect piece of serendipity for me. I teach life-writing classes for older learners, and one exercise we do is to look like a photographer and describe one thing we saw every day. I think I will take the exercise online…

  2. What I found interesting as I read this is that I can’t imagine this sort of work having nearly the same effect if it were done using “traditional” materials. If this writer were to keep a physical journal to write these snapshots in and were to publish individual pages either as a book or in a gallery, I feel like the message wouldn’t be the same. This work pushes against the visual standard of the digital age while also requiring the medium of digital publishing to make its statement. This paradox is a powerful component of the message.

    It also wouldn’t reach nearly the same audience if it were to be an exclusively traditional piece. I wonder if the demographics of art audiences (and possibly the way these audiences conceptualize art itself?) varies between locations for viewership. In the digital form, this work reaches both a wide audience and an audience that is potentially very different from those who purchase books or go to galleries.

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