Abundant photography: the misleading metaphor of the image flood


Erik Kessels Flickr photographs flood

“We’re exposed to an overload of images nowadays.”

That was the impetus behind Erik Kessel’s 2011 “Photography in Abundance” installation, in which he printed off 1 million pictures to illustrate the number of daily uploads to Flickr.

Kessels argues we confront a glut images on social media:

Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed. By printing all the images uploaded in a 24-hour period, I visualise the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences.

The metaphor of a flood of images drowning us all has become commonplace in photographic commentary, another of the many conventional wisdoms that shape how we understand contemporary image making and its challenges. This week has seen two more iterations.

Michael Kamber was quoted in a New York Times review of the new Associated Press book on the Vietnam War:

Today’s war photographers produce work “every bit as good as anything out of Vietnam…But when you put more stuff on the Internet, it competes with more stuff on the Internet.” Back then, he said, “great photographs had tremendous staying power: you didn’t have access to billions of photos.”

In a review of Jerome Delay’s working showing at this years Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, James Estrin wrote on Lens that:

His task is to take photographs that will make the viewer stop and look at them in a world that is flooded with more than a billion pictures every day.

Estrin’s invocation of the image flood is an especially interesting example of how this metaphor persists. Writing twelve months previously – also about the Perpignan festival – Estrin observed:

The prizewinners are applauded by their colleagues in the crowd who seem oblivious to the tsunami of vernacular photographs about to wash away everything in its path.

What makes Estrin’s 2013 reiteration of his 2012 point noteworthy is that John Edwin Mason wrote a detailed and sympathetic critique of Estrin’s 2012 claim (in which Mason linked to my previous 2011 post on this issue). Mason gently unpacked Estrin’s argument and by highlighting photography’s historical context drove a stake through the heart of the argument. But unlike a vampire, the flood metaphor lives on. Why?

60 seconds on internet - photo uploads

On the face of it, the metaphor of a contemporary image flood has a lot of evidence to support it. We’ve all seen the astounding numbers (from graphics like this one on an internet minute) used to capture the contemporary proliferation of photography:

  • Facebook’s billion users upload 300 million photographs daily, rising to 1-2 billion on holidays, meaning Facebook receives seven petabytes of image content monthly, and stores more than 220 billion photographs in total
  • Instagram has 100 million users who upload 27,800 photos per minute, meaning the site is now home to 5 billion pictures

The numbers seem irrefutable. Those for Facebook and Instagram come from the sites themselves, so we can assume they are credible. We can raise questions about the global total of photographs though. Estrin’s 2012 post links to a Visual News graphic on cell phone photography, which in turn references Jonathan Good’s 2011 post “How many photos have ever been taken” on the 1000memories blog. A close reading of that post, interesting though it is, shows the global total is based on a series of suppositions:

Digital cameras are now ubiquitous – it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos.

‘Estimated’…’if’…’would be’…not unreasonable claims, but assumptions and projections nonetheless. Overall I don’t doubt these claims point towards the general scale of global image production, but they are not quite the objective data they seem to be. More importantly, though, does this number of global images actually produce a flood?

The trouble with the flood metaphor is threefold. The first is that it renders image consumers as passive victims of a force of nature – we drown in the tsunami which against our will sweeps everything away. But image consumption is not a natural process. It involves a series of conscious decisions – to open the book, read/view the news site, watch television, subscribe to the Instagram feed, click on our friends Facebook albums, and so on. Like Mason, contra Kessels, I don’t see us drowning in other people’s personal representations to the exclusion of news and documentary images. As Mason wrote:

…there is no evidence – none – that people think that photos of sunsets and photos of body parts are equally important.  Quite the contrary, people wielding camera phones – people like you and me – have demonstrated time and again that they understand the difference between amusing their friends and recording something of significance.

For that reason I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the likes of Jerome Delay are competing for attention with the vast majority of Facebook uploads.

Secondly, focusing on the macro level – aggregating the global numbers of image on social media sites – hides the much smaller number of images per person. As one assessment concluded, “Roughly broken down into individual Facebook users, the numbers translate to…one picture uploaded every 3 days per Facebooker.” Similarly, the 1000memories calculation quoted above assumes 150 snaps per person per year. Viewed this way, the situation hardly seems overwhelming.

Finally we have the most important point about why the mantra of the image flood is misleading. While there are billions of photographs online, we do NOT actually have access to all of them all of the time. You have to decide to follow people on Instagram and then you have to decide to look. And Facebook is the most closed site on the internet – it’s a walled garden that makes sharing outside its borders difficult, and you cannot get to someone’s personal album if they don’t give you prior access. In other words, either you or a friend has to turn the spigot on the reservoir before pictures come your way, and when they do it’s more like a controlled stream than an endless flood. Having never encountered anyone other than a photographer or photography critic who fretted about the flood, I’d suggest the population at large – the people producing the bulk of the picture uploads – are largely undisturbed by this stream.

So why is this metaphor of the flood endlessly repeated in the face of counter arguments? In many ways it is either an alibi or code for larger issues. It is part of the contemporary manifestation of historic concerns about information overload. It signifies the tension between “amateurs” and professionals in the image economy. It gives a possible explanation for why photographs don’t have the power to change many think they once had. And it offers a possible account of why photojournalism seems to be perpetually in crisis.

Each of those issues deserves close attention because each comes with questionable assumptions as baggage. But we cannot deal with each specifically if we continue to repeat misleading metaphors that deserve to die. It is hard to drive a stake into something as fluid as the mantra of the image flood, but we really have to avoid its easy repetition if we are going to move understanding forward.

Photo credit 1: Copyright Erik Kessels/Gijs Van Den Berg/Caters News

Photo credit 2: Foxcrawl, VIDEO: 60 seconds on internet

12 Responses to “Abundant photography: the misleading metaphor of the image flood”

  1. Margaret Waage

    It certainly makes the point, ‘too much of a good thing,’ but for photo junkies.. there’s always room and time to look at or make another image. If the purpose of photojournalism is solely to change, it doesn’t address what comes before that…to record what is happening. That the technologies have made image capture ridiculously easy and available to everyone is why there are so many pictures made daily. The impact of an image may have changed due to the volume..but the image that communicates well still has value in and of itself.

  2. Alec Leggat

    When I taught photography to beginners in the late 1980s I used to talk about the pervasive nature of photography as part of the demystification process. Photographs are very familiar, anyone can make them. They all have a purpose, arguably, but not all will be consumed by all potential viewers, as you point out. You’re right to suggest that most people aren’t concerned about the apparent ubiquity of photographic images. People filter most of the images available to them and hey don’t all get consumed, just the ones selected. And, how long does it take to decide whether or not to continue viewing an image once you confront it?

    Coming back to working with photography after abreak of about 15 years, I see that not much has changed in terms of the type of photography that is being produced by emergent documentary/photojournalist photographers. The only real differences I’ve noticed are the rise of participatory approaches and the increase in developing world photo stories. The latter is likely to be because of the availability of cheap international travel and it would be nice to think that the former is as a result of younger generations of photographers taking on the ethcial challenge of photography as an objectifying and alienating practice.

    The concern of professional photojournalists over the sanctity of their profession is perhaps the one constant in all of this.

  3. Aric Mayer

    Thanks for this, David. I think your observations are excellent. I might add one thing. The people who use the flood metaphor in your piece (Kamber, Delay, Estrin) are all engaged in one way or another in efforts to create or define photographic visions for specific publications. This is a huge curatorial task and in today’s distributed user journey online, a near impossible one. The image of the flood makes sense if your job is to edit the existing images into coherent, comprehensive, or even representative collections. You rightly observe that the flood metaphor doesn’t hold up for the consumer because they are capable of editing the flow of images they receive and naturally balance it to what they want. The power to create and edit has shifted to the consumer. By controlling the channels that they allow to flow into their attention, they have the power to regulate the image flow as they choose. The consumer isn’t drowning. But the curator might be if they are trying to access or compete with the entire flow.

  4. Yeshen Venema

    Thanks for sharing this David, some excellent points and comments here. I agree, the power is very much with the consumer to choose what images to look at, where and when.

    I recently began working full time of a freelance photographer (product and lifestyle). I did have reservations about doing so because I assumed many more businesses would be doing their own photography. While in some cases this is true, I have found that my clients are still keen to engage and trust a professional to do the job.

    Reading this also reminds me I have a shelf of old film cameras waiting to be used again!

  5. bradbell.tv

    Great insights!

    To create flood:
    1. Think globally
    2. Count every raindrop (4.7 quadrillion!!?)
    3. Imagine all the drops are falling in the same place at the same time.
    Flood 😉


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