This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar in digital media aesthetics on machine vision, and in today’s class we discussed drone art, using Dziga Vertov’s manifesto from 1923 (“I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it.”) and Daniel Greene’s article “Drone Vision”, which was published in Surveillance & Society last year. The art works we discussed were James Bridle’s Dronestagram, the anonymous Texts from Drone, and Muse’s VR music video “Revolt”. I thought the class went really well, so I wanted to describe what we did.
A major point in Greene’s article is that Texts from Drone anthropomorphizes drones, whereas Bridle’s piece does not. Vertov certainly anthropomorphizes the camera in his manifesto, and I find this anthropomorphication very interesting, especially in terms of posthumanism and shared cognition between humans and machines.
I wanted the students to mark passages where the movie camera was anthropomorphized or where it was the speaker in the sentence.
Doing this in detail led to really interesting discussions. We talked about passages where it was not clear who the “I” who was speaking was. In one paragraph it’s the human authors of the text (“We affirm the kino-eye”) and in the next it seems human at first (“I make the viewer see…”) but then it’s definitely the camera speaking (“I am kino-eye. I am a builder.”) Then we leave the first person perspective for a while before sliding back into the human subject position: “I promise to drum up a parade of kinoks on Red Square.” And the conclusion positions the camera as secondary to the human: the kino-eye challenges the human eye, and the kinok-editor organises the images produced.
The students noticed that the first stage of anthropomorphising the camera was to refer to it as though it was a slave in need of liberation. Objects do not need to be emancipated. The grammar of sentences is used too, allowing the camera to be the subject of the sentence in the middle portion of the manifesto, but only to be the object in other sections (“The camera ‘carries’ the film viewer…”, “I have placed you…”).
I will definitely plan this kind of directed reading in future classes?—?it was very productive.
Next we looked at a few minutes of Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, and then moved on to Greene’s article about drone vision. The students had already written their discussion forum posts about the different art works, so they talked about each of them, but paying more attention to the question of anthropomorphisation of the drones, using the Vertov we had just read.
An important point in Greene’s argument is that Bridle’s Dronestagram in some ways buys into the military-industrial complex’s portrayal of drones as objective and precise, making war “smart”. The bloodless images are bland enough to be displayed on a coffee shop wall. The piece aims to subvert our understanding of drone warfare, but instead makes us empathise with the drone itself, or the drone pilot, not with the victims.
“Bridle mistakes the discourse of drone vision, the story of seamless, imperial visual supremacy, for its operation,” Greene writes (page 241). In fact, though, Greene argues, by trying to let the viewer occupy the drone’s eye view, we “embrace the discourse of drone vision, rather than the work of it” (page 242).
Greene contrasts this apparent bloodless objectivity to the very different Texts from Drone, a collection of memes submitted to a Tumblr. The Tumblr is now gone, but can still be viewed through the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine. Here, we don’t see as the drone sees, instead we face it as though it was a person. The drone even has a name: D-Ron. Many of the memes show it responding to texts from Obama:
But as the meme develops, other people pose questions to the drone.
D-Ron has a clear personality. It not only enjoys bombing people, it finds it funny. It doesn’t try to rationalise its slaughter as “just”, on the contrary, it enjoys “collatoral damage”. D-Ron speaks in the language of the internet, and it’s not just the grammar and spelling: its attitude is also like something you’d find on 9gag or Reddit.
Daniel Greene writes,
The real power of Texts from Drone is the degree to which D-Ron himsefl is made an actor in the work of Empire, rather than a mute instrument of its policy. He celebrates, without any pretense of military gravitas or regret over mistaken targets, his role as global police. (page 244).
We also see drone as “an ally, not an instrument,” Greene writes (244), with goals and language clearly distinct from Obama’s.
The third work of drone art we looked at was Muse’s VR music video “Revolt” (from their album Drones) which has been released on the app VRSE and can be viewed using a cheap Google Cardboard headset. A couple of the students had already seen the video (we built Google Cardboards a few weeks ago) so for the rest I hooked my phone up to the projector and showed them the non-stereoscopic version. You can get an idea of the experience by viewing it as a 360? video on YouTube, where you can click and drag to see “behind you”, if you view it in Chrome. It’s a far better experience using Google Cardboard though.
This video is entirely focalised from the point of view of a drone. The video begins with startup code, and ends when the drone is shot down. You see everything through the wide-angle lens of a surveillance drone, and at some points in the video, information about enemies or targets (the women charging the police officers) and assets (the police officers) is overlaid the image. At one point (about 4 minutes into the video, one of the musicians even kicks the drone, apparently breaking it.
We had a great discussion about how the viewer is really positioned here. The lyrics tell us “You’re not a drone!” (encouraging us to revolt) and yet we are clearly locked into the drone’s perspective. The heroes of the video and the album are clearly the women who revolt, but we see the events from the perspective of a drone who is pitted against them. The students pointed out that we seemed to switch drones at certain points (for instance after being kicked) and so rather than showing an anthropomorphic drone, perhaps the video is simply focalised from the perspective of a drone pilot working at some remote console. Much to discuss here.
I recently finished writing a chapter for The Sage Handbook of Social Media, which is being edited by Jean Burgess, Alice Marwick and Thomas Poell. My chapter is about self-representations in social media, like blogs and selfies and such, but in the table of contents, the editors put the title as “Self-presentations in social media.” Presentation, not representation. Uh oh. What, exactly, is the difference, I wondered? I have always preferred to use representation, because my background is in literary studies, art history and media studies, where we are taught to analyse representations. Representations are constructed. They are not authentic or unmediated or objective, and I like that assumption. But many scholars who study digital media prefer to think about presentation.
This is the most popular image on Instagram. Ever. It was posted by Kendall Jenner in May 2015. It shows Jenner herself, and although it is obviously not a selfie, it was posted by her to her own Instagram account and so is certainly a form of self-representation.
I ended up spending quite a while reading and thinking about the differences between representations and presentations, and Jenner’s image became a bit of a catalyst for that.
Here is what I ended up writing about the two terms?—?and yes, it includes a semiotic analysis of Jenner’s image. How could I not? But I don’t watch the Kardashians, and I don’t know all the backstory here. I expect I missed a lot. I’d really appreciate it if you share any extra knowledge you have!!
But here is what I wrote about what I think the difference is between representation and presentation.
Representation or Presentation?
Before discussing visual, written and quantitative kinds of self-representation in social media, we need to think about the term representation. Why are these forms of self-expression representations and not presentations? The short answer is that the two terms provide two different ways of looking at this phenomenon. A representation is an object, a sign that is seen as constructed in some way, and that stands instead of an object to which it refers. Talking about representations lets us analyse the selfie, the tweet or the graph of a run. A presentation is an act, something that a person does, so talking about presentations allows us to analyse the way that the person acts to present themselves.
It’s a little more complicated than this, unfortunately. The terms representation and presentation are used differently in different disciplines, making their use quite complicated in an interdisciplinary field such as internet studies.
Twentieth century linguistics, with influential scholars like Saussure and Pierce, led to the semiotic understanding of representation as a system of signs, that is, sounds, words, images or objects that stand instead of a concept or an object. For instance, the word ‘tree’ is a sign that refers to an actual tree.
As Stuart Hall explains in his textbook Representation, scholars see representations as culturally constructed (Hall 1997). Hall describes three theories of representation: reflective, intentional and constructive. In the reflective approach, the sign or the representation is thought of as a reflection of reality: ‘language functions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world’ (24). In the intentional approach, one assumes that ‘Words mean what the author intends they should mean’ (25). However, both these theories are seen as flawed by most contemporary scholars, Hall included. Most scholars today see representation as constructed. Representations can have different meanings in different cultures and in different contexts. For instance, a selfie shared on a private Instagram account to a group of friends will likely be interpreted differently from a similiar image published in a newspaper.
The most liked image on Instagram in 2015 was a photo of Kendall Jenner lying on the floor in a white, lacy dress with her hair spread around her arranged into seven heart-shapes. In semiotic terms, this is the denotation of the image: what is shown or the literal meaning of the sign.
Jenner’s photo is obviously not a selfie, as her hands are visible in the frame, folded over her stomach as though she is laid out like a corpse. She couldn’t have arranged her hair herself, either. The image can still be seen as a self-representation: deliberately staged, photographed, and posted to her Instagram account, where it gained over 3.2 million likes.
Being so clearly staged, Jenner’s image provides us with plenty of signs to analyse, and the most interesting semotic analysis is not with the descriptive analysis of the denotation of the signs, but of their connotations. Connotations are common associations connected to a sign, not private associations that only one individual might have, but associations and references that are shared by larger cultures or groups. Jenner’s image has some very obvious signs with well-established meanings or connotations in our culture.The hearts that her hair has been shaped into connote love. Her white lacy dress signifies a bride, which again signifies love, and, in a traditional sense, new, virginal but soon-to-be-consummated love in particular. The traditional wedding dress is white because white stands for innocence in Western culture. Jenner is laid out like a corpse, with her hands folded as is traditional in Western funerals, and her eyes are closed. The floor is white with a black graphic pattern and could be interpreted as suggesting a river, although this is not an interpretation I would have arrived at had not the dead maiden with her outswept hair made me think of Ophelia, the girl who loved Hamlet and drowned herself.
Paintings of Ophelia usually show her hair floating out in the water she lies in, and her dress is often shown as white.
Jenner’s photo is an example of the way that death is frequently aestheticized in Western visual culture, and we could certainly take the analysis of the image much further by thinking about why a photo showing Jenner as a dead virgin is the most liked photograph on Instagram. A semiotic analysis always begins, though, by studying the image or the text itself and considering what signs it consists of and what those signs signify.
Seeing selfies and blogposts as representations is something that makes sense if you are considering them as texts to be interpreted or from the point of view of media studies. Another important theoretical tradition has its roots with the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(1959) is heavily referenced in scholarship about social media. Goffman wrote about the way in which we perform differently and thus present ourselves differently to different people and in different contexts. In social media, it is difficult if not impossible to keep different audiences separate. On Facebook, a typical user will be friends with close family, high school classmates, co-workers and distant relatives. Goffman describes how we perform differently in face to face interactions with these different groups of people, but in social media, it is often impossible to keep those contexts separate from each other. danah boyd calls this ‘context collision’ (boyd 2011).
If we were to analyse Jenner’s image as a presentation, rather than as a representation, we would focus less on its status as a set of signs, and more on the role Jenner was performing by posting this image, perhaps considering questions such as who the image was intended for, where and when it was posted, what responses it was met with and Jenner’s motivations for creating and sharing the image. One approach would be to interview Jenner herself and perhaps also people who had seen, commented on or reposted the image, but it would also be possible to learn a lot from the image itself, from studying Jenner’s other posts and from examining the comments and the contexts in which the image was republished or discussed. We might compare the image to other images posted by non-celebrities, or perhaps we might find a surge of homage images copying or playing upon the Jenner image. Often ethnographers and sociologists want to learn about practice across a group of people, and so a study of self-presentation rather than self-representation on Instagram might explore how users typically create and share images rather than focusing on individual examples like Jenner’s image. Other scholars simply don’t use the terms, like Katie Warfield, who prefers a phenomenological approach, arguing that focusing on the visual artifact of a selfie often means ‘neglecting the fleshy producer of the image, who in the case of selfies, is also the heart of the image’ (Warfield 2015).
Presentation and representation are also used in different ways than those I have just described. Aristotle wrote about representation as mimesis, that is, an attempt to realistically mimic the world. In theatre, some critics use the term representational acting to describe the ‘naturalistic’ form of theatre where actors do not acknowledge the presence of the audience. In this style of acting, there is an imagined ‘fourth wall’ between the actors on stage and the audience, and audience members are like flies on the wall observing the action. In presentational acting, on the other hand, actors acknowledge the audience and speak directly to them (Bakshy 1923, 12). Often these modes of acting overlap, as in literature, where the narrator may invoke the ‘dear reader’ at times while at other times telling the story with no overt acknowledgement of any reader. An almost opposite use is found in the field of interpersonal communication, where John Fiske explains that representational codes produce a text that can stand alone, whereas presentational codes are indexical and cannot “stand for something apart from themselves and their encoder,” that is the person who spoke or communicated (Fiske 2010).
Ultimately there isn’t necessarily any strict difference between the terms representation and presentation as they are used in scholarship on social media. In practice, most analyses will really view the material from both perspectives. In this chapter, I will primarily consider expressions of the self in social media as representations, but I use the term fairly broadly.
The editors said it was fine for me to change the title of my chapter to “Self-representations in social media.” So I did.
I would love to hear your opinions, though. Does this match your take on the ways that presentation and representation are used in scholarship? And what is the real background for Jenner’s Ophelia photograph?
Vi trenger humanister som kan se det digitale i historisk kontekst, som kan forstå den digitale estetikken, som kan analysere etiske problemstillinger og utvikle teknologifilosofi.
Det å forstå teknologi handler ikke bare om å kunne bygge den og programmere den. Det å forstå teknologi krever også at vi forstår hvordan teknologi, kultur og samfunn henger sammen og påvirker hverandre.
Vi trenger humanister som forstår teknologien godt nok til at de kan se hva det gjør med oss, og som kan si oss hvordan vi skal styre teknologien for å skape det samfunnet vi ønsker. Vi trenger humanister som forstår det digitale og som deltar i samfunnsdebatten, som underviser i skolene våre, som er med på å fatte beslutninger om teknologiutvikling i alle samfunnsområder.
Om vi ikke forstår teknologien, så kan vi ikke styre den. Da styrer teknologien oss.
Vi trenger humanister som kan analysere og fortolke samtiden vår.
Men humanister i dag må også kunne bruke digitale metoder i forskningen, enten det gjelder å analysere store tekstmengder, bruke kartdata, gjøre visualiseringer, utvikle ordbøker eller bruke datalingvistiske metoder. Innen digital humaniora ligger vi dessverre langt etter resten av verden.
I dag finnes det utmerkede enkeltmiljøer, men de er lite koblet sammen og lite synlige. Infrastrukturprosjekter finnes til dels, men dekker på langt nær hele behovet. Det er ikke det at det ikke finnes etablerte forskere som arbeider med digitale metoder. Tvert imot, vi var tidlig ute i Norge, med NAVFs edb-senter for humanistisk forskning alt på 70-tallet, men miljøet ble utrolig nok nedbygget rundt årtusenskiftet.
Når jeg snakker med de som har vært med lengst, virker mange slitne: de har prøvd og fått nei for mange ganger og orker ikke mer. Men det er absolutt håp: I mars i år arrangeres den første digital humaniora-konferansen i Norge. Den er dratt i gang av en stipendiat, ikke av en etablert forsker.
For å gjøre norske humanister i stand til å bruke digitale metoder på en god måte må vi synliggjøre det som finnes og finne måter å koble kompetansen og prosjektene sammen. Da får vi utnyttet det gode, men altfor spredte arbeidet som gjøres i digital humaniora i Norge.
Det er også behov for mer robust teknisk infrastruktur og særlig teknisk støtte til utvikling og vedlikehold av databaser, språksamlinger, ordbøker, digitale utgaver, arkiver og andre forskningsresultater fra digital humaniora. Humaniora har tradisjonelt vært teoriutviklende og analyserende, og det har ikke vært mye praktisk utviklingsarbeid. Dette er under endring. Klart vi fortsatt skal bevare de tradisjonelle humanistiske metodene, men vi må også finne ut hvordan vi best kan støtte humanister som utvikler teknologi som en metode for å forstå, analysere og endre verden, enten det er gjennom mediedesign, databaseutvikling eller kunstnerisk utviklingsarbeid.
En særlig utfordring er det at eksternfinansierte prosjekter gjerne dekker utviklingsbehov i prosjektperioden, men ikke etterpå. Det finnes ikke midler til teknisk drift i dagens humanistiske fakulteter. Hva skal vi gjøre med alle databasene og arkivene som utvikles og så forsvinner fordi det ikke er penger til å gjøre sikkerhetsoppdateringene og vedlikeholdet som kreves?
Og hvordan skal vi gi teknisk støtte til forskere og studenter som ønsker å bruke digitale metoder, men ikke i utgangspunktet vet hvordan gjøre det? Vi trenger stabil teknisk støtte for å kunne utvikle og vedlikeholde digital humaniora-prosjekter. Vi trenger å utvikle studietilbud som gir masterstudenter et grunnlag for å bruke digitale metoder, og vi trenger et sted forskere som ikke vet hvordan de skal gå fram kan få hjelp. Det fins ikke i dag.
Det er et problem at digital kompetanse ikke har vært prioritert i de tradisjonelle humaniorafagene. Det ville ikke vært behov for et fag som digital kultur, som jeg er professor i, dersom det digitale ble tatt på alvor i alle humanistiske fag. Men universitetets faginndeling, og kanskje særlig humanioras faginndeling er skapt for å konservere kunnskap. Faggrensene fremmer ikke tverrfaglighet eller nyskaping, og de fungerer ikke nødvendigvis godt i et samfunn som er i endring.
Vi må styrke humanioras evne til å forstå og analysere vår digitale samtid. For om vi ikke forstår hvordan teknologi og kultur henger sammen, så velger vi bort styringsmulighetene våre.
Last semester I, and a hundred and fifty other people who teach at my university, heard Dee Fink talk about how to be a better teacher. The thing I remember the best is that he told us that if we improve our teaching just a little, we will enjoy ourselves so much more. I have fun teaching when I’m engaged in it. But if I just do it because I have to, I end up hating my job. So this semester, I plan to have fun by being a better teacher.
A slide from Dee Fink’s lecture at the University of Bergen on 10 Nov 2015.
Fink had lots of specific good ideas, like helping students find their own motivation for learning, but his advice that I particularly want to focus on is designing integrated courses, meaning courses where the learning outcomes, the learning activities and the assessment work together.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve usually started planning the next semester’s teaching when the emails come from the bookshop asking for a reading list. For the spring semester, book lists are supposed to be sent to the bookshop by 1 November. By 1 December we’re supposed to have a complete reading list up on the web so students can begin to plan.
That means that I generally start planning a course by thinking about what students should be reading. Looking at the syllabi my colleagues around the world write, that seems to be the main focus of most course design.
Really, though, we should be starting with what we want our students to learn. At UiB all our courses have learning outcomes, but reading through the stated learning outcomes for the course I’m teaching, they are much too general. It was really useful thinking through different kinds of learning goals, using one of Fink’s handouts (well, downloads), A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.
I don’t just want students to learn the content in the readings I give them. I want them to become better self-directed learners. And as this is the last semester before they start writing their MA thesis, it’s especially important that they spend this semester really learning all they need to research and write independently. I realised that one of my main goals for the seminar is to help foster a robust writing community that the students can continue to develop themselves next year.
Fink talked a lot about the broader learning goals we should be thinking about. We don’t just want to educate students who can reel off facts. We want students who work together, who care about the world and each other, who are confident in themselves.
A concept that really appealed to me was that of forward-looking assessement.In two or three years, how and in what kind of situation would you hope that students would make use of what they learned in the course?
We know these students future employers want to hire people who can work together with others, know how to learn, can think independently and critically, can communicate orally and in writing, can use their knowledge in new areas, and can network and build relationships. Knowledge about a specific topic comes after all those things.
How can they learn the things I want them to learn? Not just by reading, that’s for sure. Here are some of Fink’s ideas, with my early notes for the course:
The bread and butter of the approach is figuring out what you want students to learn, how to best help them learn it, and how to assess that they really learnt it. After spending an hour or so on the workbook, I was ready to plan the course as a whole:
We have one major limitation when it comes to assessment that matches the learning activities: it’s very difficult to set up a course that uses continuous or formative assessment. Assessment generally happens at the end, in Norway. In this course, there are two obligatory assignments during the semester, and both must be approved for students to be allowed to submit the final paper. But students’ grade for the course is entirely determined by their grade on that final paper, the semesteroppgave in my notes above. So I can’t do very much with the graded assessments.
However, I can make sure that my assignments support the learning goals. I decided to change the two obligatory assignments from the typical “write a short essay” and instead choose something that would help support my ultimate goal, that students go out and build a better society! So to show that they know something about the history of visual technologies, they will be making infographics. And to show they understand not just the history but also the theory and practice of visual technologies, they will create a pitch for an imagined product that somehow critiques the standard way of seeing through technology.
At this point, I was ready to start outlining the semester, and beginning to slot in readings and assignments. I decided to divide the semester into three sections: history, theory/analysis, and a writing workshop period.
I outlined each class, including hands-on activities as well as readings and reflective writing to do before each class and assignments to do after each class.
We only have ten sessions, three hours each, so I had to drop some of the practical activities I wanted to do, like building camera obscuras, but we will get to do things like visiting the Maritime Museum (which is right next door actually) and having a demonstration of how to use a sextant.
Canvas also allows you to explicitly connect learning outcomes to assignments, so I did this, to help both me and the students remember why we are doing what we do.I’ll give them points according to this matrix so students can have an idea of how they’re doing, although the points won’t count towards the final grade.
I wrote out the readings for each class as assignments too, which may well turn out to be overkill, but it will mean that each week, students will get reminders to complete their readings and reflection notes by a particular time. Here is an example.
Feel free to look around the course website – everything except student discussions and their work is open to the public, and CC-licenced, so you can reuse it if it’s useful. If you click the “TYPE” tab on the assignments you’ll see them all nicely sorted, and the modules page shows an overview of the whole semester.
I may have gone a little overboard on planning this semester. I certainly don’t usually have this level of detail, and maybe it won’t work well to have such detailed assignments for graduate students. If so, we can always tweak it. But it has been very satisfying to think about designing this course by starting with the learning goals, and building from there, and I’m looking forwards to this semester so much more than I tend to look forwards to teaching.
Of course, it does take time. And Canvas keeps perfect track of how much time I spend. Nearly 16 hours, just in Canvas. See the time there, second from the bottom?
I spent 2 hours before that, with the workbook. I’m sure I’ve spent more time than that thinking about it and reading and looking for books and so on, but probably not a lot more. And I spent about 90 minutes writing this blog post, which I’m hoping will help me next time I design a course and have forgotten how excited I was about this one. I’m fortunate enough to have chosen the topic for the semester, and it’s a topic I’m passionate about and reading and writing about anyway, so it’s fine to be spending time on it. The preloaded time use might be more difficult to manage if it were a big course where I was less knowledgeable about the topic.
And although I’m really not sure I like being able to see how much time everyone, including me, spends in Canvas on the course webpages, it’s interesting that the students have already started spending time on it as well. The first class isn’t until January 21, so they’re early – which is great, because they have a reading assignment due for that first class.
How do you plan your courses? Have you found any good techniques? Do you have any suggestions?
I’m really excited about the course I’m teaching this semester. DIKULT303: Digital Media Aesthetics is a graduate seminar with a topic that changes from year to year, and this year it will be about machine vision, my current obsession, and a topic I think is going to be immensely important over the next decades. The key question is: What happens to our understanding of the world when we no longer primarily rely on human perception but use machines and algorithms to sense our surroundings? We’ll be reading theory, learning about the history of visual technologies, and exploring digital art, literature, apps and games that engage with the question of machine vision.
UiB is switching to a self-hosted Canvas installation as an LMS, and I’ve been enjoying figuring out good ways to use it to craft a course design where learning activities, learning outcomes and assessment are well integrated. So if you’re curious, you can look at the syllabus or the modules to see how the course is structured. This lets you see the individual assignments, readings and lecture topics.
DIKULT303 is an MA level course primarily for students of Digital Culture at UiB, but also welcoming exchange students and MA- or PhD-level students from other programs at UiB. If you are interested in taking the course, sign up at Studentweb if you are a Digital Culture MA program, or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are in a different program.
But you may be wondering what I even mean by machine vision? Here is a short introduction to the course topic.
We will begin the semester by learning about the history of visual technologies. We will visit the Maritime Museum to learn how vikings navigated by the stars and the sun even when they couldn’t see them, and how to use a sextant. We will learn about perspective in painting, camera obscuras, kaleidoscopes and early photography. We will discuss Rodin’s objection to the speed of the camera, and learn about the development of both photography and computers were to a great extent driven by a desire to identify each member of the population. We will discuss whether Google Street View or satellite images of the world change the way we see our surroundings. We’ll try out VR using Google Cardboard, and will discuss the theories of the New Aesthetic, reading work by Virilio, Uricchio, and others.
This is an example of a video showing us something that we cannot see without technology. It’s actually not a recording, but an animation based on scientific studies of the brain, first published at Art of the Cell, a medical animation company, but since reposted many places and often with the following text: “This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness.”
Part of the reason this image appeals to us is the anthropomorphic strut of that myosin – and the words that go with this image. “This is what happiness really looks like.” What do we mean by that? What it really looks like?
Consider the first photographs of an unborn child, popularised in the 1960s by Lennart Nilsson’s still popular book, A Child is Born. The photo below is a slightly updated version of one published in Life Magazine in April 1965 (This issue was digitized by Google Books so you can look at the cover here, and scroll through to page 54 for the whole story). To me, the child looks like a traveler in space, the specks like stars against the black of space. I immediate thought of the photos of the Earth, thinking they were taken about the same time, but of course, the iconic Blue Marble photo of Earth wasn’t taken until 1972.
Is this what an unborn child, or the Earth, really look like?
Leafing (well, scrolling digitally) through the issue of Life where Lennart Nilsson’s photos were published, I notice the spherical shape is repeated. First, on the page immediately after the section on the in-utero photographs, there is an ad for a car, where a fisheye view of what can be seen from the back seat of the car is shown, bright blue on a black background.
Then on page 83, which is a full page ad for Hughes and Comsat, showing a new satellite that will enable live trans-Atlantic telecasts and phonecalls. A globe is shown in the ad. Not a photograph of the Earth itself, because no photograph of the whole Earth yet existed. There seems to be a desire, though, for photographs of spheres floating in space.
The spherical image in the Ford ad was clearly taken with a fisheye lens (Links to an external site.). Fisheye lenses weren’t mass-produced for photography until the early 1960s – so just before this issue of Life was published. Nilsson used fisheye and wide-angle lenses both for his photography inside the body and for other photographs. And he even presented images actually taken outside of the body – like that of a foetus taken from the womb of a woman who was killed in a traffic accident – as though they were taken with wide-angle lenses.
Stencils like this show that the position of Aylan’s body has become iconic in itself, Ray Drainville argues in a research report on the images of Aylan.
The short paper Radhika Gajjala and I wrote about the negative portrayals of refugees on the Twitter hashtag #RefugeesNOTwelcome was just published in Feminist Media Studies. Hooray for the fastest idea to publication ever!
A closely related project is the Visual Social Media Lab at the University of Sheffield’s The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*. I love the format of this 70 page research report: 18 scholars have written very short papers on different aspects of the reception of the image, from an analysis of exactly how the image spread on Twitter and other social media, through an analysis of data from Google about how different countries’ searches about migrants changed after the image went viral, discussions of the growth of Facebook groups like #WelcomeRefugeesNorway to discussions of the iconography of the image itself.
One of our findings, that echoes findings in the Aylan Kurdi report, was how images that become popular in social media often reference familiar images. This can be used rhetorically in many ways. The visual similarities between the images of Syrian refugees crowding train stations and images of Jews being crowded onto trains to concentration camps during the second world war may well have increased European sympathy for the refugees. But visual references can also be used to make the opposite argument. One of the examples Radhika and I analyze is very explicit about this:
Image shared on #refugeesNOTwelcome.
Here photos allegedly of current refugees are contrasted to an example of a familiar idea of what a worthy refugee should look like.
Other composite images made the argument that the men escaping Syrian were cowards, in contrast to brave women staying to fight.
Another way of understanding images is through the iconography of the long traditions of art history. Several chapters in the Aylan report do this.
Ray Drainville analyses the images of Aylan’s body lying on the beach in the context of the aestheticisation of death in Western art, which has been particularly evident in portrayals of the dead Christ. Even the foreshortening of the most shared image of Aylan’s body is familiar from a well-known painting of the dead Christ.
Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Note the foreshortening of the body.
Aylan Kurdi on the beach.
Jim Auchlich compares the image of the police officer carrying Aylan’s body away from the shore to a pieta:
Essentially, it is a Pieta, originally coined in 11th century Byzantium the iconography developed in Northern Europe from about 1400 as a stage in the depiction of the Passion of Christ (Figure 11). As such we could tag it with the words: Family; Sacrifice; Martyrdom; Displacement; Flight; Survival; Protection; Resurrection; Redemption; Salvation; Pity; Mercy; Sorrow; Piety and ultimately Victory over Death. Crucially, the body is held forward by an authority figure (Mother of God, father, soldier, policeman, fireman). The body is held in a gesture of offering up, as if to bear witness and to implore for the intercession of an even higher authority.
One of the images that was heavily circulated was the police officer carrying Aylan’s body.
Michaelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican shows Mary holding Jesus after his death. The pieta motif is one of the most common in Western art history.
The images were immensely influential in Europe, but of course they were also spread elsewhere, particularly in Middle-Eastern cultures, where the pieta is not part of the cultural heritage. Auchlich notes this, mentioning that different images were more popular in non-Western sources.
It is interesting to note that accounts of the event from non-Western sources favour the image of the body alone to signal a different visual tradition.
An example of a version of the Aylan image showing Aylan as an angel.
There is a lot more to say about these images, and about the many edited and altered versions of the Aylan images. The short papers in the Visual Social Media Lab’s report or my and Radhika’s short paper are just touching the top of the iceberg. But taken together, they say a lot.
Did you see Eric Pickersgill’s photo series Removedlast week, showing people staring at their phones – except the phones had been removed from the image? The photos really hit a cultural nerve and were very widely shared. They play to the image of us humans as enslaved to technology, and to the idea that we are less human when we become engrossed in our media technologies.
I’m at IR16, the Association of Internet Researcher’s annual conference, and yesterday I presented a paper about the ways science fiction and social media metaphors dehumanize users of technology. I’ve found three metaphors that keep returning: that of the fetus, the corpse and the zombie.
A few weeks ago a student from my university died at Trolltunga, that astounding rock you see in the photo above. She wasn’t taking a selfie, but she was standing in line to have her photo taken. She fell 300 metres.
Why do you think she wanted to take that photo? Well, look at that tourist ad from Fjord Norway again: “If you want a lot of likes on Facebook you should go walking in a picture postcard.” Their website expands:
Several such places have become icons or collectibles. Your holiday pics of these motives will end up on a wall of some kind, either framed in glass above the mantelpiece, or receiving an avalanche of “likes” on your social media of choice.
Here’s another tourist ad for Trolltunga:
That image might give a visitor ideas, don’t you think? Here are the other photos in the image carousel:
If you actually read that Mashable story it says 12 people died from selfies so far this year. Eight people died from shark attacks. Those are global figures. Obviously, both forms of death are extremely rare.
And yet it’s not just my friends who are sharing the story: more than 82,4 k people have done so, Mashable tells me.
By connecting connecting selfie deaths to shark attacks, Mashable adds ridicule to the tragedies of these deaths, and as we know, ridicule is an extremely effective form of discipline that is very frequently used on people who take selfies.
Not all selfie deaths relate to crazy photos on clifftops, and not all deaths on clifftops have anything to do with selfies.
But I am sure that part of the reason that people want to take crazy photos on clifftops, whether a selfie or a photo taken by someone else, is that tourist offices market them.
Over the last few weeks my Facebook feed has been full of the Syrian refugees. Along with more than 80,000 other Norwegians, I joined the group “Refugees Welcome to Norway,” and once I started liking posts from there my entire newsfeed overflowed with generous people finding ways to help the refugees. Most of all I am fascinated by the many shared posts written by the refugees themselves: sharing photos and stories of their travels, thoughts, fears and gratitude.
Then I discovered the Twitter hashtag #refugeesNOTwelcome. It shows an entirely different reality. Angry people post photos with slogans. A crowd of men, and the text: “No women no children. Apparently only men flee ‘war zones’?” Two images side by side: A naked, starving African child standing in the red dust of a refugee camp. Men on a boat, discussing something. The child is a real refugee, the text says. The men are not, according to the text: “They are soldiers of Islam. Don’t let the media fool you.” Don’t let this media fool you either: those men probably have nothing to do with the current refugee crisis, and there are many fake images.
Who gets to decide what the world should look like? For a long time we had to trust the mass media if we wanted to learn about the world beyond that which we can see with our own eyes. Those who were directly affected by wars and catastrophes were not able to communicate directly with us to tell us about their experiences. Letters from soldiers were usually only read by the recipient and perhaps a few close friends. After wars, diaries like Anne Franks have had enormous influence, but we have not been able to read or see these first hand testimonies until after the war, after the famine, after the catastrophe. And by then, it has become distant.
Images can be more immediate than words, and images we have seen in newspapers and on television certainly affect our feelings of empathy for the suffering of others. Susan Sontag’s books On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others tell us about how images can both define and trivialize suffering. “To aestheticize war is to anesthetize war,” she wrote.
Maybe the reason that we can bear to look at the starving African child is that the photograph allows us to see the child from a distance. We don’t have to worry that the child will look back at us. The photograph cannot speak, it cannot respond, it cannot require anything of us. We can turn the page, scroll down, and never have to deal with it again.
Before digital cameras and smartphones there was something ritual about taking a photograph. We only took photos of special events: birthdays, weddings and holidays. In the 1960s, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu write about what was “photographable”, and about how we pose for the photographer in a way that was never meant to be natural.
Family photographs on the living room wall show the ideal, not simply in the sense that we try to appear better (happier, more beautiful) than we really are, but in the sense that we show something greater than ourselves in our family photos. Our wedding photos and baby photos aren’t only about individuals. They’re about Family, Love and Happiness.
The photograph of the starving African child that #refugeesNOTwelcome positions as the ideal image of the refugee also shows something beyond the individual: Hunger, Need, Despair. The naked child has its back to us. Its feet stand on red, dry sand. It stands alone. Other people, just as emaciated, huddle in blankets, curled up. To the far right there is a tent. This reality is unfamiliar to me. Neither does it in any way resemble the reality the people posting to #refugeesNOTwelcome know.
This child is not shown as an individual. It is a symbol. A symbol that is marked by difference and distance. Images like this affect us, but do not touch upon our lives at home.
The Syrian refugees we meet in social media are much closer to home. Geographically, culturally and communicatively: these people are close to Europeans.
I scroll through photos on Instagram and see a photo of a young man looking into my eyes, with other young men behind him. They could be Norwegian hikers, wandering through the mountains, but I know they are refugees making their way through Europe. I can see some of the man’s arm in the photo. He took this photo himself.
Katie Warfield has described the arm that is often visible in a selfie as an embrace. The man in the Instagram photo is pulling us into an embrace that pulls us into his world. A selfie, Warfield argues, is far more intimate than a portrait taken by somebody else. A selfie speaks directly to the viewer: Hello. I am. I am here. Do you see me?
The refugee-haters are on Facebook as well of course. I hardly ever see them though. They hardly ever see me, nor do they see the 80,000 strong Facebook group where we talk about how to give clothes, blankets, houses and support to the refugees who are arriving every day. Facebook’s algorithms keep us safely apart. We do not need to see each others realities.
A few days later I take another look at the Syrian’s Instagram account that I found. There are new images, with Arabic texts that are beautiful but incomprehensible to me, although Google’s machine translation suggests possible meanings. The images themselves need no translation, though. I see a new selfie of the same man, sitting at a table in a café. He looks calmly into the camera. Maybe he is relieved to have arrived at a safe place.
There are images of birds. Birds flying. A pigeon. The most recent image is a drawing of Syria as a black map opening up into a swarm of black birds flying away.
Social media let us see the others, see those who are fleeing or suffering, and to see the ways in which they are like us.
I see photos on Facebook of a suburban street that could have been anywhere in Europe, with a photo next to it of the same street in ruins after being bombed. The street could have been my own street. Just as the drowned boy in the red t-shirt could have been my child.
The refugees have smartphones and Instagram and Facebook accounts just like we do. Used smartphones are cheap nowadays. Over 2,6 billion people in the world have smartphones. Soon all refugees from all wars and catastrophes and famines will use the internet to share photos, find help and tell their families that they are still alive.
One day we will see photos taken by starving children as well. When we see those images, we’ll see photos that show how they see the world. We’ll see them as individuals and not simply as symbols of Hunger, Need and Despair.
Maybe it is the images in social media that will let us see each other and understand each other, despite the languages and cultures and algorithms that keep us apart.
If we want to see each other. Because in social media, you only see the realities that you want to see.
Does anyone know of research on or other writings about the use of social media and other technology by Syrian refugees?
The contents of a 34-year-old refugee’s bag, his sole possessions after fleeing. He carries a smart phone and a flash drive of family photos.
It’s clear many refugees are using their smartphones and social media to survive, communicate and plan their journey. This article from the NY Times on August 25 is interesting, and talks about how important smart phones, GPS maps, solar chargers and cash SIM cards bought in each new country have been to refugees. It also explains how traffickers advertise their services in Facebook groups. For instance, it cites the “Arabic-language Facebook group Trafficking to Europe” but also groups that I think are for individuals helping each other, like (again Arabic language) “Smuggling Into the E.U.,” with 23,953 members, “How to Emigrate to Europe,” and “Smuggle Yourself to Europe Without a Trafficker”. If you’re still in Syria, there is, for example, “a popular Facebook page in Syria reporting real-time counts of mortar rounds falling on Damascus and maps of their locations.” The Syrian refugees are largely middle class and well-educated and have tech to a greater extent than many other refugees, as I understand it. If you or I had to flee from a war, we would no doubt bring our phones too.
There are other significant uses of technology going on as well. The UN High Commission for Refugees wrote a news story in 2013 about how they use technology to help refugees in camps: Biometric scanning of refugees on arrival, and you get money based on an iris scan after that – which might be useful if they lose their other ID, but also obviously has far-reaching consequences in terms of surveillance and control not just while they are receiving aid but in the future. Also, the UN has handed out 120,000 SIM cards that I think, from reading the story, might only allow users to RECEIVE information messages and call the UNHCR information line. And there is satellite surveillance of the refugee camps.
Here in Norway there is a lot of activity on Facebook groups like Refugees Welcome to Norway, which now has almost 80,000 members (in a country of just 5 million that’s a lot) and there are also lots of local groups which coordinate donations of food and warm clothing and more to newly arrived refugees. I’m sure other countries have similar groups.
I have tried to search Instagram to find more actual examples of how people are using images and status updates to document/share/reflect upon/whatever their time as refugees, but tags like “syria” or “refugees” don’t do a lot of good. Quite possibly hardly any refugees are using social media in this way. And of course, Syrian refugees actually using Instagram would write in Arabic so my searching in English is likely useless.
If you know more about this, and especially if you know of anyone doing research on it, I would love to learn more.