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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

Categories
Featured photography politics

Syria and the power of images

AP Photo-Shaam News Network

What is the relationship between imagery and action in Syria?

Following the horrendous chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, two international actors have made statements that suggest some link.

In UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s 26 August “Remarks on Syria” he stated:

We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident. We owe it to the families of the victims to act.

Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, tweeted:

Images distributed via social media have been significant throughout the war in Syria, especially as photojournalists were barred from entry in the early days of the conflict. And it is interesting to note how Ban Ki Moon spoke of television and social media, and not newspapers and magazines.

Atrocities like the chemical weapons attack are made present through videos uploaded to social media sites – The Guardian reported that within hours 120 videos had been put online:

most depicting scenes of men women and children in respiratory distress, on watery floors, and doctors describing the victims’ symptoms. Other videos showed scores of bodies wrapped in white shrouds, or lying on grey concrete. White foam was bubbling from the mouth and nostrils of many victims. Some writhed in distress, apparently struggling to breathe.

The connection between imagery and action is not strictly causal. Streams of distressing images over the last two years have not forced international action despite the death toll in Syria exceeding 100,000. Yet now, when the “red line” of chemical weapon use is crossed, high-level officials invoke imagery in order to establish a reason for action. That suggests images do not automatically produce specific responses, but they can function as the impetus for a response when backed by political will.

Note: thanks to Mark Esplin for the Ban Ki Moon reference to social media.

Photo credit: ‘This image provided by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show mourners next to bodies of victims of an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network).’

 

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More posts photography

Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.

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media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.15: Syria, social media and photojournalism

Both the scale of the protests in Syria, and the violence of the regime’s response, is growing. Yet photojournalism is able to offer little about this vital story. While we have seen powerful coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen, there seem to be few if any photojournalists – either freelance or associated with the wires – at work in Syria. I have seen one Flickr stream from Syria, but given the nature of the regime, a larger photographic absence is perhaps unsurprising.

In the place of photojournalism, media outlets are using video footage and screen grabs taken from social media sites. For example, to illustrate its 25 April story “Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began,” Reuters has a gallery of ten images many of which come with this warning:

this still image [was] taken from amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on [date]. Editor’s note: Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of the video from which this still was taken.

Reuters Pictures is selling many of these images for clients in a package labelled “Arab States Conflict (Anti-Government Protests in Syria – 25 Apr 2011).” The Guardian used one of them at the top of its Syria live blog on 26 April, and has a related gallery of pictures from protests in Homs here. While the social media provenance of the images is explicit in the Reuters’ credits – they read “REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV” – it is interesting that a picture produced by others can by watermarked by Reuters to protect its value.

Some of the social media-derived pictures are dramatic, as in the case of the man throwing a rock at a tank in Deraa (above). Many of them show large crowds streaming through the streets of various towns, the military gathering around those protests, and the deadly consequences of live fire.

There is, I think, a curious effect of this reliance on amateur images. On the one hand, their lack of a professional aesthetic – especially their graininess, poor focus, and unsteady composition – signifies authenticity and immediacy. The image makers are more interested in the politics than the picture. And yet, on the other hand, their capacity to make us connect with the events portrayed is diminished by the way they render people as anonymous crowds in a middle distance. As a result we lack, I feel, an insight into the people, their passions and purpose.

In Egypt especially we saw photojournalism using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further enhance our connection.

The coverage of Syria to date offers a different lesson. It’s not an argument against ‘citizen journalism’, because in the absence of professional photojournalism the only alternative to getting pictures via social media would be total blindness. We need professionals and amateurs to combine in producing a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, when the professional are not present, something is lacking.

Top photo: A man prepares to throw a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Credit: REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.

Second photo: Syrian anti-regime protesters waving their national flag and holding a sign that reads in Arabic “Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Druze, I am Syrian” during a demonstration in the central town of Homs. Credit: YouTube/AFP/Getty Images.

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media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.2: John Moore, and the iPad autograph

Thinking Images – an occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

 

John Moore’s long term project Detained – covering prison sites run by US military and intelligence agencies as part of the global war on terror – was featured on the Lens blog this week. Moore’s work is an important act of documentation, both covering and connecting sites that otherwise remain relatively obscure. It was reviewed a day before WikiLeaks – again in partnership with an array of global media outlets – released another tranche of documents from the Iraq war. These revealed more accounts of torture and more civilian deaths resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq. The more we find out the grimmer the picture becomes. (Caption for photo above: ‘Oct. 27, 2005: A juvenile detainee in a solitary confinement cage at Abu Ghraib was punished for talking through a fence to other detainees’).

This week Barack Obama became the first president to autograph an iPad, during a campaign stop in Seattle (photo: Susan Walsh/AP). Earlier this year Obama expressed his disdain for such devices, when he remarked that “with iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” Obama’s critique chimed with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim earlier this month that “the revolution will not be tweeted” – shorthand for saying that the transformative power of social media was being over-hyped. A couple of things unite Obama and Gladwell. First, both have no experience of the technologies they criticise. Obama confesses he doesn’t know how to work any of the things he names, and Gladwell has never been a Twitter user (something that led Jay Rosen to call Gladwell’s article an instance of journalistic malpractice. Alexis Madrigal is far less critical, but nonetheless points out two of Gladwell’s false assumptions here). Second, both see the platform itself as a political agent rather than just a mode of distribution, which nonetheless – because of the ease and scope of political collaboration it makes possible – has potential political consequences. An interesting counterpoint to this techno-cynicism is that in China (from where I am currently writing) it is the social media and sharing sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc) that are blocked. That doesn’t prove that they are inherently transformative, but it shows some regimes fear that might just help those pursuing change.

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education media economy

How the social media revolution challenges the university

Recent changes in media brought on by developments in the web, its impact on established news outlets, and the rise of social media have dramatically altered the ecology of information. Its time to starting thinking what this means for universities.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on “revolutions in the media economy” (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) detailing the changing context for us all, including universities (the focus of part 4). I had begun to think through these issues last summer and my first take on them was aired at a June 2009 workshop on “Affirmative Critique” at Durham University that explored the work of Jane Bennett and William Connolly.

For the university, the new ecology of information means possible changes in the ethos of academic life, including the transformation of both teaching and academic publishing. For example, Jeff Jarvis, whose thinking has influenced mine over the last year, recently told a TED conference in New York that the lecture model is “bullshit.” Moreover, given the prominence now being accorded to “impact” in the future audit of UK academic research, we need to consider how we might rethink the creation and circulation of critical work produced in our universities.

My colleague Stuart Elden, editor of the important geography journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, suggested I write a commentary for the journal based on my contribution to the workshop. This has now been published and you can access it here. The publishers have made it open access beyond their normal subscription pay wall (though in the first version of this post that link was not functioning properly).

In the commentary, I ask:

  • What happens to the university when we move from mass production to the link economy?
  • What does it mean to go from broadcasting to engagement?
  • Why does academic publishing subscribe to pay walls?
  • How can we really have an impact?

Embracing the dynamics of the social media revolution in the production and distribution of information generated through our work in universities would be a major political step towards opening up the academy and enhancing its impact. I don’t have the answers, but I hope I have posed some of the questions that will get us to think about this unavoidable challenge.