Categories
media economy photography

Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?

Should we be worried about image abundance in the contemporary world?

In recent weeks I have heard a number of affirmative answers to this question. At both the University of Sunderland’s excellent “Versatile Image: Photography in the Age of Web 2.0” conference and the Les Rencontres d’Arles symposium on “Photography, the Internet and Social Networks,” a number of contributors voiced concerns.

Heard in presentations and conversations were declarations about the number of circulating images. We live in a time of “too many photographs” and the digital revolution is “worrying and dangerous”. Metaphors of flooding were common. We are inundated with pictures, leaving us as a “lonely figure found amongst the surfeit of images”.

This proliferation was said to have negative consequences. This “over-abundance” makes us “image bulemics” suffering from visual excess. “Quality has been exchanged for quantity”, “taste is dulled and crushed by multiplicity”, and we have arrived at a point where “nobody believes images anymore”.

This quote seems to sum up the connections between quantity, anxiety and effects:

Today the eye of modern man is daily, hourly overfed with images. In nearly every newspaper he opens, in every magazine, in every book—pictures, pictures, and more pictures…This kaleidoscope of changing visual impressions spins so rapidly that almost nothing is retained in memory. Each new picture drives away the previous one…The result—in spite of the hunger for new visual impressions—is a dulling of the senses. To put it bluntly: the more modern man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees much too much to still be able to see consciously and intensively.

But this quote is not recent. It dates from 1932, and is from a German article on image fatigue (reference below). It shows that, in a period we regard as a time of editorial control, relative slowness, and contemplation, anxieties about visual abundance and its effects were also common.

Although few express worries about being swamped by words or text in contrast to pictures, concern about “information overload” has an even longer history. Having located concerns as far back as 1565, Vaughan Bell wrote:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

What is driving the contemporary concern about image abundance? In part it’s the scale of production enabled by digital production and circulation. There are probably 500 billion digital images produced each year, and more than 60 billion have been uploaded to Facebook (with 8 billion on Photobucket, 7 billion on Picasa, and 5 billion on Flickr). When the majority of mobile phones have cameras it is no wonder we take a lot of images – the iPhone 4 is now the single biggest source of Flickr uploads.

I don’t doubt that the ease of digital technology means that overall there are more pictures than ever. However, these macro statistics can be a bit misleading. As Joerg Colberg pointed out a while back, if you take the overall number of photos on Facebook and divide it by the large number of users, the average Facebook album is little more than a hundred images per person. Is that any larger than the analogue prints collected in a traditional family photo album?

The anxiety associated with image abundance condenses a range of concerns. Listening to the debates at Arles in particular, I think this anxiety is driven by a professional concern about the rise of the amateur, and the way in which this is seen as destabilising traditional frames of cultural reference. Most of the statistics cited in relation to the contemporary proliferation of pictures refer to popular production. What people fear is being swamped, I suspect, are the assumed qualities of the professional image.

Far from being a threat, I see the abundance of images as an opportunity for ‘the professional’. We live in a culture where people avidly consume photos. But in this culture there is still a scarcity of certain types of imagery – those which drive a story.

Critical, engaged and reflective photographers (as well as curators and editors) are the people who can offer in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, the general familiarity and fondness for single images in our ‘photo-op’ culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.

There is much to study about photography in all its forms in the context of web 2.0. But in relation to the metaphors of excess, flooding and their assumed effects, its probably time to move on from repeating clichés of cultural anxiety to embracing new creative production.

 

  • Reference: Paul Westheim, “Bildermüde?”, Das Kunstblatt16 (March 1932): 20-22. I am indebted to Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the quotation. She provided the translation, which comes from her dissertation, Ecce Homo Prostheticus: Technology and the New Photography in Weimar Germany (Yale University, 2001).
Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics

The killing of Osama Bin-Laden is another of those issues in which politics is located in or around the image. However, the debate about the rights or wrongs of releasing the post-mortem photograph obscures the fact that any such image will inevitably have been staged.

I’ve read the many arguments calling for the release of a picture of the dead Bin-Laden (see Pete Brook’s post of many links, as well as Joerg Colberg’s and Michael Shaw’s considered statements). In principle I would opt for openness and transparency, but in this instance I have a difficult-to-articulate unease about the calls for the Obama administration to disclose what they have got.

My unease stems from the fact that the killing was not an act of justice. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway, just to be clear) this is not to suggest Bin-Laden should be mourned. The issue is how we think about our actions in the world. Watching crowds in the US come out on the streets to celebrate a killing is to see an ironic reversal. It’s easy to imagine many of those individuals scorning mourners at, say, Arab funerals for their ‘barbarism’ in the exultation of death. I imagine the release of the post-mortem photograph in this context, where it might function as the bounty hunter’s evidence that the outlaw is no more. I’m not sorry Bin-Laden is gone. I just don’t feel the need to see an image that will close the circle that began with George W Bush’s call to get him ‘dead or alive’ and effectively render the operation as just.

The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame.

The White House’s release of a series of photographs on its Flickr stream showing the President and his national security advisers in and around the Situation Room (see above) was a fascinating but carefully managed insight into the conduct of Bin-Laden’s killing. If the post-mortem photo were to be released, it would also be part of this managed stream. But it was a small detail around another picture in the Flickr stream, of President Obama addressing the media, that showed how central the photo-op is to politics.

In a fascinating account, Donald Winslow reveals how some of the photographs of the President delivering his television statement were “from a re-enactment of his 11:45 p.m. EDT speech, performed minutes later strictly for the benefit of still cameras.” The image shown here is from one of the official White House photographers in the room during the speech. Excluded from the live event were photographers shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times and a freelancer who was filling the ISP (Independent Still Photographer) pool photographer’s slot. As one of the four photographers present recounted:

President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Many newspapers overlooked that detail in the photos caption and ran it as record made live. When they discovered it had been staged there were some angry responses, but as Winslow reported “the ‘photo op’or re-staging of a Presidential speech for the benefit of still cameras has been a long-standing practice for various administrations.”

The concern about the production of this picture deflects attention from a wider issue. If we take a step back we can see that most of the formal moments that feed news photography are theatrical and thus effectively staged. Things like a politician’s press conference, campaign speech, factory tour, walkabout, and voter meet-and-greet take place in order to produce images. (As someone who used to work as a Senator’s press secretary in Australia, I’ve participated in the organisation of these various devices). If the lens is only trained on what is in front of it that construction is missed. Those that are railing at this moment from Obama’s speech generally fail to expose the endemic conceit of daily politics and its visual coverage.

Some photographers do pull back, take in the wider scene, and show how our pictures are often of staged events framed in particular ways. From extreme situations we have Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and other examples of what some in photography inelegantly call a “goat fuck.”

From domestic politics, I recall (but cannot at the moment find) some great David Burnett photographs showing US presidential campaign stops where a vast auditorium hosts a tiny crowd of party faithful who, when pictured, look as though they fill the place. From the UK we have this great image (above) by Simon Roberts from his 2010 Election Project (which he discusses in a podcast here, starting at 51:30). This reproduction cannot do justice to the details of the large print version, but it nonetheless shows Brown in the center being interviewed by a television crew in the ‘press pen’ while other journalists and staff mill around the edges, greatly outnumbering voters. This image shows the context of a campaign stop, and happened to record one citizen, Gillian Duffy (centre, on the footpath in a blue skirt), starting to shout at the Prime Minister, precipitating an encounter that escalated into a major political crisis for Labour.

Images that address the construction of images, pictures that reveal the pervasive nature of the photo-op in our political culture, are essential to photography’s critical purpose. Calling for more of them, as opposed to a post-mortem document, might be the best response to a week in which the political and the visual have once again been enmeshed.

UPDATE 7 MAY 2011: I have revised paragraph 7 above in line with the Jeremy Nicholl’s final point in his first comment below. It now makes clear the official photo used above is from the live speech, and that it was the five news photographers who had to capture the reenactment. Jason Reed of Reuters wrote about these events on the Reuters blog and included a photo he made showing the others news photographers capturing the reenactment. After initial publication he also added a final paragraph clarifying the reasons he was asked to work this way.

 

 

First photo: P050111PS-0210. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo: P050111PS-0918. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Third photo: Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency). 122x102cm. Copyright Simon Roberts.

Fourth photo: Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama Bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Copyright Reuters/Jason Reed.