I’m writing a book this semester about how we see ourselves through technology, and today I presented the project to the Communications Department here at UIC, where I’m a visiting scholar this semester.
Of course I forgot to press the record button on my phone, so don’t have the audio track, but the talk was recorded on video so at some point it will be online, I’m promised. Here are the slides.
Slideshare apparently no longer displays speaker notes, which makes the slideshow rather useless unless you already know what I intended to say about each image. Here’s the same slideshow on Google Drive – if you follow the link and click the little “settings” cogwheel at the bottom right you can open speaker notes and read a short version of what I said.
I’ve structured my book project around three modes of self-representation that I argue are important in our culture right now: textual, visual and quantitative. During the presentation of this talk to the communications department at UIC, someone asked about musical self-representation, and what about dance? There are probably other modes of self-representation I could look at, though I think these three are the most important online at the moment. Certainly curation should be seen as a fourth mode of self-representation. Steve Jones noted that Will Straw had written interesting things about self-curation in relation to record collections. Certainly Pinterest and Tumblr and various other media set curation as key.
I’m going to present my research on digitally mediated self-representation here at UIC’s Department of Communications on Wednesday March 12 at noon. If you’re in Chicago, please come! It’s in room 1169 in the Behavioral Sciences Building, the one that looks a bit like a spaceship.
Terri Senft is also working on selfies, and started up a Selfie Research Network on Facebook the other day. The group already has 180 members and is a very active site of sharing and conversation. There’s a Zotero bibliography and a shared Evernote folder as well, and a database of people is in the making, so feel free to join if you’re interested.
One of Terri’s questions to the group was whether we should submit an experimental session for AoIR in Bangkok in October, and lots of great ideas come up. Me, I want to do an online workshop. Ideally for AoIR, perhaps for my students next semester, but definitely building on the way that the online self-portrait courses I’ve taken are structured – so requiring participants to share images – but also thinking about ourselves as scholars and researchers. Really, every piece of scholarly writing is a selfie, of sorts, more or less obviously. As we study visual, networked culture, we need to be thinking more about how we ourselves develop and communicate ideas visually, and a workshop where we actually create images and think through photography would be really interesting.
Foucault talks about technologies of the self, and about ways in which different cultures have seen it as necessary to cultivate (and discipline) the self, and that self-care for the ancient Greeks was seen as a pre-requisite for self-knowledge. Self-portraits and blogs can be a very deliberate form of self-cultivation, as the title of the book Blogging for Bliss suggests, and in addition to books there are online courses you can take in order to become a happier, more confident person through self-portraits, blogging or scrapbooking. I’m currently following Becky Higgin’s Project Real Life, and last year I followed the NOW YOU self-portrait course.
These courses are all about empowering women – always women – to see beauty in themselves and their surroundings. They can also be seen as a way in which women are disciplined, much as women’s magazines, as Angela McRobbie notes, have been “instrumental in the training of middle class young women,” from “cleanliness, hygiene, and the whole business of good housekeeping” to “fashion, beauty and rituals around the social calendar and courtship”.
I don’t have clear assignments in mind, but I’d like at least something that is very concrete and specific and that has participants actually taking photos. I’m not sure how far to delve into taking conventional selfies.
- Photograph workspace, or self doing research (writing? reading? in café? at desk? in bed? interviewing informants? thinking?)
- Everyone analyses the same selfie or case study (e.g. a celebrity’s selfie) together
- Everyone finds an example of certain kind of selfie (pregnant selfie, selfie with friend, selfie with children, selfie alone, sad selfie, funeral selfie, silly selfie, sexy selfie etc) and shares that image to the private group with a brief analysis. We see what happens when you read all the individual images and analyses together.
- Take photos of various research related items and create a collage. Write, um, something.
- Take a photo of an accessory, gadget or piece of clothing that helps you feel confident as an academic – for instance when presenting at a conference. Or that doesn’t help you feel confident.
- Creating academic memes, like Talan Memmott’s for electronic literature, or the ones Leonardo Flores has his students create.
I’m sure there are better ideas, this is just a start.
You could take something like this in many different directions. You could certainly do a sort of leading people through finding themselves as researchers through photography and writing thing. But I think what would be more interesting is if we can find ways to cultivate thinking visually as researchers.
I got a pile of books about the history of self-portraits at the UIC library yesterday, and I’m particularly enjoying Raynal Pellicer’s Photo Booth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait (Abrams, New York, 2010; translated from French by Antony Shugaar). There are so many similarities between the ways people experimented and played with early photo booths and the way we play with digital selfies today. Photobooths really made self-portraits accessible to the general public.
Did you know the surrealists loved them, too? Automatic photos – it’s like automatic writing, perfect surrealism! Here’s Yves Tanguy in the 1920s.
Look at this wonderful definition of the photobooth by members of the surrealist movement in the December 15, 1928 issue of Variétés: Revue mensuelle illustrée de l’esprit contemporain (which I unfortunately can’t find online – it’s quoted on page 92 of Pellicer’s book:
The Photomaton is an automatic device that provides you, in exchange for a five-france token, with a strip of eight attitudes caught in photographs. Photomaton, I’ve been seen, you’ve seen me, I’ve often seen myself. There are fanatics who collect hundreds of their ‘expressions’. It is a system of psychoanalysis via image. The first strip surprises you as you struggle to find the individual you always believed yourself to be. After the second strip, and throughout all the many strips that follow, while you may do your best to play the superior individual, the original type, the dark fascinating one, or the monkey, none of the resulting visions will fully correspond to what you want to see in yourself.
Bridgette Reed’s Pinterest board of photo booth images has a lot more examples. You can also browse the PDFs of La Revolution Surrealiste beautifully digitized by La biblioteque française – in the last issue, in 1929, Magritte’s painting “je ne void pas la cachée dans la forêt” is framed by photo booth portraits of 16 male surrealists with their eyes closed, all presumably dreaming of the naked woman in Magritte’s painting.
The surrealists were of course fascinated by automatic art, and as Priscilla Frank writes in commentary on an exhibition of photo booth art in Switzerland a couple of years ago,
it makes sense that surrealists would be entranced by the photo booth, an automaton that operated independently of human consciousness or human hands. Even the subjects were barely in control of their position, those photo flashes come too fast. The resulting images are pure, independent imaging; the subject is caught in limbo between pose and natural stance. In the endless stream of images, strip after strip, the people themselves lose their humanity and begin to look like automatic images as well.
Of course, if we’re comparing photobooth portraits to today’s selfies, we should be looking not so much at artistic use as at ordinary peoples’ self-portraits. But somehow I was even more fascinated by the photos of celebrities I found on Pinterest boards like Lucia Pena Sota’s FotoMatones. Oh, some of them are polished and glamorous, but many have that searching look that I see in the mirror when I gaze at my own face, or in the selfies I delete shortly after taking them. Or maybe they’re just practicing. After all, they only get a few goes with a photo booth, it’s not like a digital camera where you can shoot a hundred selfies and delete ninety-nine of them.
I’m reading an interesting just-published paper by Meryl Alper, “War on Instagram”, about how (read it at New Media & Society or without the paywall at Academia.edu) The paper discusses how photojournalists are using smartphones and in particular Instagram and Hipstamatic to produce documentary images that are heavily filtered, like Damon Winter’s “A Grunt’s Life” series for the New York Times.
Another example is Lowy’s Hipstamatic photo of Hurricane Sandy, which made it to the front page of Time Magazine:
Yesterday, Talan posted a link to Filter Fakers, a website that provides us with the useful community service of alerting us to Instagram photos that are incorrectly tagged #nofilter. As Talan wrote, “who cares?”
Photojournalists care, it seems.
Lowy’s concession to his critics – “toning down” the illustrative style of the very Hipstamatic photo filters that won him acclaim – touches upon an endless discussion about understanding all photography as a manipulated interaction between style and substance, and a timeless debate over the ethics of combining photojournal- ism with aesthetics. (Alper 2013: 4)
[S]cholars such as Luc Boltanski (1999) have argued that the aestheticization of what we see in the media emotionally and morally insulates viewers from the suffering of others. (5)
That’s a point made by Susan Sontag, too, as Alper notes on page 7: a worry is that “aestheticizing war leads to anesthetizing war”.
Part of the concern is, it seems, the eternal “but who is the author?” question. Alper quotes news photographer Nick Stern, who wrote that
It’s not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It’s not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It’s the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image.
Does that matter, though? And aren’t our images always mediated through the work of others? If not through the code written by app designers in Palo Alto, then by the mechanics of a camera designed and redesigned by a series of people? No photographer is in control of the whole process. The best one can do is choose between different apps, cameras, processes, chemicals, software, papers all made by other people. It’s interesting how the idea of the lone genius still remains.
The place of these images in a stream – or alternatively, on the front page of Time Magazine – is also worth considering. Alper argues that the meaning of an iconic and disturbing war photo such as the famous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running from napalm would have had a very different effect in a news feed between “photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed” (7).
I’m not convinced that this is particularly different from the ways we encountered photographs a few decades again. On television, in a news broadcast sandwiched between commercials and soap operas, or in a newspaper with ads and trivia on the next page. The very reproducibility of the photograph means that it will be encountered in many different settings, and not always in serious, museum or documentary style contexts.
The roughness of the smartphone image also claims a kind of authenticity, and Alper quotes two different embedded war photojournalists who chose to use smartphones to mimic the soldiers’ own photographs. Alper discusses some definitely problems with this too simple idea:
Winter and Guttenfelder’s rationale falls into an anthropological trap, justifying the use of the iPhone and Hipstamatic as “naturalistic” because they empathize with how soldiers produce their own images of the war. The professional embedded photojournal- ist using Hipstamatic performs a sort of imagined autoethnography of soldiers’ own media-making practices. This performance is based on individual photographers’ highly time-bound conception of the kind of photos these soldiers would take if imbued with professional skills and competencies, as if that were the only distinction between the lived experiences of soldiers and embedded photojournalists. Embedded photojournalists are not observers, but rather, participant observers: their presence invariably alters the setting of their shots, regardless of the type of camera and the degree to which the device becomes silent and unnoticed.
The “imperfect” Hipstamatic photographs taken by embedded photojournalists are potentially misleading because they feel as though they might come from the “subjec- tive” perspective of troops rather than the objective perspective of the embedded photo- journalist. Adopting the perspective of soldiers might be appealing for photojournalists because soldier participation and visibility in the representation of war can often appear to be a “bottom up” alternative to “top down” political and military positioning (e.g., Andén-Papadopoulos, 2009; Smith and McDonald, 2011). This appeal to the vernacular in professional war media production is a reflection of what Turner (2010) calls the “demotic turn” in popular culture, or the increased visibility of “ordinary people” in media production without a necessarily more democratic public sphere.
These photos, constructed around an image of the hypothetical soldier, do not account for the polyvocality of multiple soldier perspectives and voices, speaking for troops by speaking through their imagined mode of photography. (11-12)
Alper doesn’t really discuss the soldiers’ own photographs, other than as a contrast to the professional photojournalists’ photographs, but in her conclusion she raises the #nofilter question that I started this post with. Obviously, there is no real way in which a photograph can be “unfiltered”:
Whether or not a photo has been processed with the sepia tinge of the Sutro filter, or the washed-out Walden, all photos taken though a mobile photo app such as Instagram or Hipstamatic are in some way “filtered.” Technically, even basic Instagram photos take the shape of a square, versus the automatic rectangular dimensions of an iPhone’s built- in camera. Ideologically, “#nofilter” serves a social and cultural purpose for those who employ it. The claim to clearly demarcate the real from the artificial says more perhaps about the person taking the photo than about the photo itself.
I’m reading as much as I can find right now about ways in which technology filters and mediates self-representations, like through selfies or with a Fitbit or on Tumblr or Instagram – so if you know of any work I should be reading, please let me know!
Facebook is just as interesting in reading between the lines as Google is. In the Facebook Third Quarter Earnings Conference Call on October 30, Mark Zuckerberg explained that one of Facebook’s main goals is “understanding the world”:
What I mean by this is that every day, people post billions of pieces of content and connections into the graph and in doing this, they’re helping to build the clearest model of everything there is to know in the world. A big part of why this works is that people can share things with any audience they want. They don’t have to share publicly with everyone at the same time; they can share with just their friends. So this means that the model of the world that people are building in our systems includes things that people only want to share with just a few people. This has the potential to be really powerful, but right now, we actually do very little to utilize the knowledge that people have shared to benefit everyone in our community.
I was very impressed with Oxford University Press’s Tumblr page, which is actually exciting enough to be consistently on Tumblr’s trending blogs list (you can only see the trending list in the mobile app, not on the website) and thought their obvious skill in finding tidbits from academic books that appeal to Tumblr’s young demographic might mean they’d have good books on digital culture. But although they have an interesting series on Digital Politics (check out the upcoming Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in Politics by Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner) I can’t find anything interesting on digital culture or new media from a humanities perspective. Their media studies section is astounding: they list the subcategories as “television, radio and film” – that’s it!? This is 2013, for goodness sakes! Am I missing some great books, or is Oxford simply not very interested in digital culture?