Henning, Michelle (2022) Photography: The Unfettered Image

Michelle Henning (2022) Photography The Unfettered Image
Michelle Henning (2022) Photography: The Unfettered Image

Book Description

We live in a time in which photographs have become extraordinarily mobile. They can be exchanged and circulated at the swipe of a finger across a screen. The digital photographic image appears and disappears with a mere gesture of the hand.

Yet, this book argues that this mobility of the image was merely accelerated by digital media and telecommunications. Photographs, from the moment of their invention, set images loose by making them portable, reproducible, projectable, reduced in size and multiplied. The fact that we do not associate analogue photography with such mobility has much to do with the limitations of existing histories and theories of photography, which have tended to view photographic mobility as either an incidental characteristic or a fault.

Photography: The Unfettered Image traces the emergence of these ways of understanding photography, but also presents a differently nuanced and materialist history in which photography is understood as part of a larger development of media technologies. It is situated in much broader cultural contexts: caught up in the European colonial ambition to “grasp the world” and in the development of a new, artificial “second nature” dependent on the large-scale processing of animal and mineral materials. Focussing primarily on Victorian and 1920s–30s practices and theories, it demonstrates how photography was never simply a technology for fixing a fleeting reality.

Table of Contents

  • List of illustrations
  • Preface and acknowledgements
  • 1 The Itinerant Image
  • 2 Unfixing the Image
  • 3 Reproduction and Transparency
  • 4 The Book of the World
  • 5 Second Nature
  • 6 The Universal Equivalent
  • 7 Streams and Flows
  • 8 We are Here, but Where are You?
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

About the Author

Michelle Henning is Professor of Photography and Cultural History in the London School of Film, Media and Design at the University of West London, UK. Her previous publications include Museums, Media and Cultural Theory (2006) and Museum Media (2015). She is also a visual artist, working with PJ Harvey on Let England Shake (2010) and The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016).


The Morphing Forms of The Vernacular

Is the Relationship Between Vernacular Photography & Memory Shifting in the Digital Age?

By Lydia Shearsmith (23rd June 2021)
Martina Lopez (1998) from Questioning Nature’s Way

This paper investigates the relationship between vernacular photography and memory in the digital age. Specifically, it contemplates how the digital age is affecting vernacular imagery, the relationship we have with memory and finally the representation of the self and its effect on how we are remembered. Throughout I discuss different digital advancements that have developed through the digital age and analyse the effect it has on photography’s relationship to memory.

Informed by the writing of theorists such as Daniel Plamer, David Bate, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Geoferry Batchen and Jose Van Dijck, it introduces different viewpoints which help inform the argument. The photographic practice of Corrine Vionnet, Jason Lazarus, Chino Otsuka, Diane Meyer, Greg Sand, Nan Goldin and Chompoo Baritone provide different approaches of how the relationship between photography and memory support such points made through practice / visual illustration.

The themes discussed investigate the morphing nature of vernacular photography; in particular, the impact of the migration from the photograph as physical artefact to a digital file is having on the photograph’s relation to memory. I move on to consider the effects these changes may have on memory itself, focusing on the possibility of there being a death of memory. I conclude with a discussion of how social media is affecting the portrayal of the self and how this affects personal legacy.

Key Words: Vernacular, Family, Memory, Digital, Social Media

  • List of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Chameleon Vernacular
  • Chapter 2: The Death of Memory
  • Chapter 3: Idealism & the (In)Stability of the Self
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Bibliography
Greg Sand (2012) Brothers
List of Figures
  • Cover Image: Greg Sand (2012) Brothers
  • Figure 1: Unknown (c.1850) Couple with Daguerreotype
  • Figure 2: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections
  • Figure 3: Jason Lazarus (2010) from Too Hard to Keep
  • Figure 4: Jason Lazarus (2018) from Too Hard to Keep
  • Figure 5: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife
  • Figure 6: Corinne Vionnet (2005) from Photo Opportunities
  • Figure 7: Screenshot by author (2019) #Beach on Instagram
  • Figure 8: Erik Kessels (2011) from 24 Hours in Photos
  • Figure 9: Erik Kessels (2013) from Album Beauty
  • Figure 10: David Ariel Szauder (2013) from Failed Memories
  • Figure 11: Diane Meyer (2013) from Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten
  • Figure 12: Chino Otsuka (2005) from Imagine Finding Me
  • Figure 13: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections
  • Figure 14: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife
  • Figure 15: Greg Sand (2011) from Once Removed
  • Figure 16: Nan Goldin (1982) Greer and Robert on the Bed, NYC
  • Figure 17: Mona Hatoum (1998) from Measures of Distance

Since the early 19th century, photographs have played an important role in the act of family life and cultural practices. (Figure 1) These photographs, representations of the visual culture of everyday life, are referred to as vernacular photographs (Batchen, 2014). Vernacular photographs often document special, rarefied moments that the photographer wishes to remember and look back on in the future. The photographs are fragments of reality that anyone can acquire (Sontag, 1977: 4); whether their production is for remembrance, record or for capturing the enjoyment of a moment, vernacular photographs capture everyone’s present with the intent of memorializing it.

Figure 1: Unknown (c.1850) Couple with Daguerreotype

However, due to digital and technological advancements, the relationship we have with vernacular imagery is in flux, especially concerning memory; due to the presence of a photograph being a physical object, yet now morphing into a digital file. As a digital file, a photograph has “increased flexibility that may lessen our grip on our images’ future repurposing and reframing, forcing us to acknowledge the way pictorial memory might be changed by ease of distribution” (Van Dijck, 2008: 58). The state of a digital file and the position it can take through the internet and social media has the potential to change the relationship we hold between vernacular imagery and memory. Throughout this paper, I will be exploring this relationship through analysing how vernacular photograph’s form and meaning is changing in a digital climate, assessing how these changes are affecting the ability of memory and finally, how photography is becoming more about self-assurance, than it is about our personal memories. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections

Chapter One: The Chameleon Vernacular will assess the progression in the role of vernacular imagery in recent history. Exploring how the change from physical, cherished photographic prints, to digital ways of taking, storing and sharing, is changing the way we view a photograph – Addressing whether we can still place as much importance on a photograph that may never take a physical form. I will be arguing that although vernacular photography holds an essential position in our lives, instead of holding importance in the act of remembrance; they are instead imparting significance on the moment itself and its use as a tool of communication.

Chapter Two: The Death of Memory, explores the role of vernacular photographs in the act of remembrance and how through either personal choice or file corruption, these images could cause a literal loss of memory. I will also reason that photography may not be an accessory for memory, more so a prompt of something that we have forgotten, that we may never remember. Furthermore, I will analyse how the progression of digital technology is creating an opportunity to record and save every aspect of life, resulting in the inability to forget. Applying it to the relationship between memory and forgetting, thus by having memory, how we must have the ability to forget.

Chapter Three: Idealism & the (In)Stability of the Self, will demonstrate how vernacular photography is altering from being a prompt of personal memory to being an idealised representation of the self, specifically an idealised legacy. I will explore how digital visual culture is affecting the way we are representing ourselves, dictating how we want to be seen in the future. I will demonstrate this by looking into the reasons we take and keep photographs of ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the camera. Arguing that through striving for the perfect image, our photographs have started to become a diminished record of who we are.

Chapter 1: The Chameleon Vernacular

Vernacular photographs are often considered to be priceless objects, that “speak to us and for us, reinforcing our memories and histories and cultivating our sense of self, [they become] precious physical traces of our individual identities and histories.” (Zuromskis, 2016: 18). The photograph plays a vital role in documenting who we are, where we come from and can even project an idea of whom we might become. Before the invention of digital photography, there would be a prolonged period between the taking and the viewing of a photograph, which naturally imparts a heightened significance on the photograph. It allows for a reminiscence of the recent past, acting as a reminder that has a physical presence indicating longevity.

Figure 3: Jason Lazarus (2010) from Too Hard to Keep

Jason Lazarus’ archival project entitled Too Hard to Keep (Figure 3) highlights the profuse connection an individual can have with a physical image. To create the archive Lazarus “solicits submissions of images that are too hard for people to keep but too painful to destroy” (Smith, 2018: 198). The notion that there are photographs that hold that much emotional value to a person they cannot be kept, nonetheless they cannot destroy demonstrates how photographs can be more than just a visual representation of a selected moment. Too Hard to Keep highlights and awareness that once a photograph ceases to exist physically, the connection between its possessor and the moment it depicts is altered, there is a possibility of it being forgotten altogether. However, by handing the photograph into someone else’s possession, in this case, Lazarus’, the moment does not die, it can still hold onto its legacy even if it will never be understood again. The photograph has control over the mortality of a memory. However, how is the change from photographic print to digital file going to affect the emotions attached to a photographic image? (Figure 4)

Figure 4: Jason Lazarus (2010) from Too Hard to Keep

The development of digital modes of taking, storing and sharing challenges the role of vernacular photography in everyday life. Unlike, the photograph print, a digital file has a disposability due to the ease of its creation. As Susan Murray explains: “The ability to store and erase on memory cards, as well as to see images immediately after taking them, provides a sense of disposability and immediacy to the photographic image that was never there before” (Murray, 2008: 156). The personal value of the photographic image is decreasing due to the accessibility of production and the ability to store an abundance of images without it inhabiting a physical space. Furthermore, due to the instantaneous modes of taking the digital photograph “can speak instantly to the world, and our reminiscence happens in real-time.” (Lavoie, 2018). Taking a photograph is no longer a means of documenting moments to be looked back on as the past but as a moment that is recorded and viewed as the here and the now.

With our reminiscence happening in real-time, the status of a photograph as being a prompt of memory is also changing. The ephemerality of digital files results in the photographic image being regarded as temporary instead of fixed, especially to a younger generation. As Jose Van Dijck state: “Most teenagers consider their pictures to be temporary reminders rather than permanent keepsakes” (Van Dijck, 2008: 62). This indicates that there is an awareness among younger generations of the photograph’s role of being a keepsake of memory, but they choose for it not to be. This could be a result of living in the moment, alternatively, it could be a result of limited life experience. The older we get, the more reminiscent we become. It would be interesting to explore how the perspective of those considered to be ‘most teenagers’ at the time of Dijcks statement has changed with age.

A cause of this attitude towards a vernacular photograph being a brief reminder could be due to the introduction of social media platforms, especially Instagram and Snapchat, which are both predominantly photo sharing networks. These platforms demonstrate a “distinctive swing towards photographs as a currency for social interaction [which] must therefore be interpreted as part of a broader cultural transformation that involves individualisation and intensification of experience” (Palmer, 2010: 168). This indicates how the photographic image becomes a document of the here and the now; becoming a record of experience opposed to one with the intention of remembrance. The broader audience through social media imparts a stronger social significance of a photograph, in contrast to a personal emotional value that a printed photograph may impart. (Figure 5)

Figure 5: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife

Vernacular photographs have taken on an evidential role in everyday life; “Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had” (Sontag, 1977: 9).  Although, this is still true for physical photographs; the overwhelming number of images on social media platforms and the ease of documenting every moment, indicates that nothing has happened at all if it has not ended up in a photograph. “Photography has become less about the special or rarefied moments of domestic/family living… and more about an immediate, rather fleeting display of one’s discovery of the small and mundane” (Palmer, 2010: 155). Through the ease of uploading images, they no longer hold as great of a significance on any given moment. The photographs have become about proving something has been done, or a place visited opposed to celebrating and recording a special moment with a photograph. This is visualised through Corrine Vionnet’s series Photo Opportunities (Figure 6). To create the images, Vionnet compiles thousands of snapshots found online that relate to a specific tourist destination. The photograph illustrates a mere indication of the number of photographs taken at that specific location and how, through the internet, every one of the files is accessible to the public. This visualises how many people have registered a significance in visiting the location and sharing the fact that they were there.

Figure 6: Corinne Vionnet (2005+) from Photo Opportunities

The abundance of images created as a result of social experience and their aesthetic similarities has a significance in the changing form of vernacular imagery.  As visualised through the work of Vionnet, there is a staggering number of photographs all depicting similar if not the same, things and as a result of this, a photograph no longer has to be a person’s own to be used as an instigator of memory. In 1999 Novak stated that: “We experience much of history as photographic moments and these images from our cultural consciousness can trigger our personal memories in ways that our own snapshots often could not” (Novak, 1999). This can be applied to our current circumstance; however, the images do not have to be historical, they can be anyone’s vernacular image that either shares a visual similarity to an experience you have had or depicts a place you have visited. These images still have the potential to spark a memory.

Figure 7: Screenshot by author (2019) #Beach on Instagram

For example, Figure 7 depicts a screenshot of a search on Instagram of images tagged #beach; it is noticeable how visually similar the photographs are. Even if the photograph is not of you in particular that image could still spark a recollection of a photograph you might have taken or a time when you thought about taking a photograph but did not. It also highlights how we have become aware of our own presence within a photograph, often being the subject ourselves, instead of the one photographing. We have become the subject of our personal photographs as opposed to the people that surround us. This has the potential to alter how the photograph acts in conjunction with memory, which I will further discuss in Chapter Three.

The visual similarity and urge to document everything on social media platforms is leading to an image culture which “deals with ephemeral lifestyle concepts which are frequently changed and updated in the online catalogues through which they are accessed” (Wells & Henning, 2015: 341). Due to the mass of images, it is harder to keep track of what has been taken and shared. (Figure 8) There is an ability to go back and view the photographs at any given point due to their accessibility; however, it is more common to go on social media and scroll through other people’s most recent photographs, placing us in a position where the present is persistently being viewed. This results in greater importance being placed on the consumption of other people’s photographs opposed to our own, and the social interactions they may create. Photographs are posted to make other people aware of where we have been and what we have done, creating the possibility of a future conversation regarding the event. This signifies that an act of remembrance may be a result of a conversation regarding a shared image as opposed to the image itself.

Figure 8: Erik Kessels (2011) from 24 Hours in Photos

Through the digital age, vernacular photography is a chameleon; it is morphing and changing to fit into different circumstances to be as accessible to anyone that chooses to take photographs. The photographic print can still be seen to have an important position in most homes. Nonetheless, its visual language has morphed into different forms to allow for different styles of imagery for different forms of sharing. Whether it be an Instagram post, to depict a good time or a quick photo to a friend as a form of communication. However, I agree with the statement from Nathan Jurgenson that: “Photography has gone from being a medium for the collection of important memories to an interface of visual communication”. (Jurgenson, 2019: 13-14) The most considerable change for vernacular photography is that its significance no longer lies on memory and recollection but communication, as the visual prompts for memory can come from elsewhere.

Chapter 2: The Death of Memory

In Chapter One I outlined how the instantaneous process of taking and viewing an image places us in the here and now, resulting in a system where “Our contemporary documentary vision positions the present as a potential future past, creating a nostalgia for the here and now” (Jurgenson, 2019: 7). The photographs we take make us particularly aware of our stance in the present, resulting in the images we take being ones of self-representation opposed to records of memories to be looked back on in the future. Digital technology allows for our personal archive to be easily accessible, resulting in us revisiting our recent past more frequently than our distant past. This is especially relevant to individuals that lived in a time before digital photography, as to revisit the childhood pictures, they would have to find the physical images. This results in importance been placed on our recent histories, placing a heightened significance on living in the moment opposed to reminiscing our distant past. “The images produced by camera phones are typically experienced as ephemeral artefacts, unlike analogue photographs that are usually meant to be kept” (Palmer, 2010:158), images taken now are short-lasting, revisited close to the time of being taken and quickly forgotten about due to a new wave of imagery.

The personal decision to dispose of images, as a means of controlling the abundance of photographs, also adds to the ephemeral nature of vernacular imagery today. Wells (2015) argues that: “The delete button may be changing the relationship of photography to biography as images that might have been valued in retrospect are now rapidly consigned to oblivion before history and nostalgia can do their work” (Wells & Henning, 2015: 337). However, I believe that we place a significance on the photograph at the moment it is taken, experiencing nostalgia in the present, which results in our value of the photograph quickly depleting as new photographs take their places. This results in us happily deleting and disregarding photographs before they become a relic of our past. Sontag states that: “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art” (Sontag, 1977: 21). This indicates how a photograph can have an unpredictable significance over time, nonetheless due to the ephemerality and readiness to dispose of images to replace them with new ones; there is a potential for these significant photographs to be deleted and forgotten about, obstructing our potential for recollection, and quite different from the physical artefact of the family album. (Figure 9)

Figure 9: Erik Kessels (2013) from Album Beauty

There is the possibility for the death of memory through a personal choice to delete photographs, but what happens when the loss comes from an error beyond our control, one of file corruption. Technological advancements are hard to keep track of and “as we move from one computer operating system or storage medium upgrade to another unprecedented amounts of information are being lost or trapped in obsolete formats” (Wells & Henning, 2015: 344). There is a fragility that comes with digital files and if they are not looked after they run the risk of deleting moments in our lives that we have entrusted to photographs that have fallen into an abyss that they cannot be returned from.

This fragility is illustrated through the work of David Ariel Szauder whose project Failed Memories (Figure 10) creates a visualisation of the process of recalling an image that has at some point being lost. The digital visual language used by Szauder through the image creates a dialogue between naturally forgetting and digitally forgetting and how either way, the loss of an image can cause a sense of corruption in its recollection.

Figure 10: David Ariel Szauder (2013) from Failed Memories

In my opinion, Diane Meyer more successfully addresses this concept through her series Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten (Figure 11) by borrowing “the visual language of digital photography through an analogue process which creates a relationship between forgetting and digital file corruption” (Meyer,2017). Unlike Szauder, Meyer uses personal imagery which creates a more emotional reaction to viewing the photographs. The barriers Meyer creates through stitching into the photographs means that there is anonymity of the subject; however, the scenes can still be deciphered, and the viewer can often pinpoint a similar image from their history, such as sitting in front of the Christmas tree, making every photograph personal. Meyer’s work highlights how although the digital file is more fragile and ever-changing if a physical image is damaged or lost, it is just as fragile. The loss of memory through the loss of an image is just as relevant to old ways of storing as it is to new. The loss of memory is not a new thing; it has just become more noticeable through a higher abundance of images in the digital age.

Figure 11: Diane Meyer (2013) from Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten

There is a potential for digital storage to allow for the creation of a perfect memory, which could instigate the death of memory. Digital storage “is so omnipresent, costless and seemingly ‘valuable’ – due to accessibility, durability and comprehensives – that we are tempted to employ it constantly” (Mayer-Schönberger, 2011: 126). The ease of using and accessing digital storage methods creates the potential to record every aspect of life, giving us the ability to digitally ‘remember’ any given moment. This then prevents the ability to forget, and when “The art of memory relies on the art of forgetting” (Rumsey, 2016: 12), it introduces a paradox between the relationship between photography and memory. Photographs remind us of specific moments in time; however, it is rarely that exact moment that the photograph causes us to recollect.

Roland Barthes articulates that a photograph is “never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becoming a counter memory” (Barthes, 1994: 91). We have become reliant on the photograph acting as a memory. When in reality a photograph is a visualisation of what a moment looked like opposed to a snippet of the actual event. We entrust a photograph to possess a memory that only we can recall, focusing so much on capturing a moment that we do not actually take it in enough to become a memory.

Figure 12: Chino Otsuka (2005) from Imagine Finding Me

The concept that a photograph becomes a barricade for memory can be illustrated through Chino Otsuka’s series Imagine Finding Me (Figure 12). The work consists of Otsuka digitally inserting herself back into her childhood photographs, creating a dialogue surrounding identity and personal history. Discussing her work Otsuka states: “I’m embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history’ (Otsuka in Azarello, 2015). The idea of being a ‘tourist’ creates a sense of the unknown. Otsuka is exploring her own history; nonetheless, she is in unknown territory. Even though she has the photographic evidence of her history of being in that moment, she has no recollection of it. Otsuka is navigating the map of her own life through photographs, but there is only so much she can learn. An imaginary conversation could be had between her two selves, but only she can answer the questions of her own history, but the photographs cannot help insight a recollection.

There is a noticeable risk in both digital files and physical print for a photograph to be easily lost. However, I believe it is the overconsumption of images and the ability to store endless amounts of images that run a risk of corrupting the relationship we hold between photography and memory. From an extreme perspective: “We may enter a time in which – as a reaction to too much remembering, with too strict and unforgiving link to our past – some may opt for the extreme and ignore the past altogether for the present, deciding to live in the moment” (Mayer-Schönberger, 2011:126).  The endless amounts of photographs we keep can result in reminders of our past appearing that we might not want to be reminded of. This has the potential to put us in a cynical position where we no longer want to remember past at all, living entirely in the present. Even if the photographs do not recall painful memories of our past the endless stream of photographs paired with our nostalgia for the present is leading to a similar effect even if it is not a conscious decision.

Chapter 3: Idealism & the (In)Stability of the Self

Due to advancements of social sharing platforms (such as Instagram), our photographs are now shared to a large audience in real-time, opposed to them being kept and shared between a smaller selection of close relatives and friends. This creates a keen awareness of how we are presented and perceived by others in a virtual space. The photographs we take and share become “a certificate of presence” (Barthes, 1994: 87). The photograph can place us in a particular position in time and space, documenting the path we are travelling and making others viewing the photographs aware of it as we go. The vernacular photograph is just as much a record of our personal ‘story’ as it is an accessory for remembrance. However, this record comes an awareness of what we choose to portray and how we choose to portray it. The photograph is a “self-representation that is less about seeing things as they are than about seeing things as we want or imagine them to be” (Zuromskis, 2016: 20), thus resulting in us mediating every aspect of how we are depicted to our ‘audience’.

Figure 13: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections

Taking a photograph requires the subject to perform for the camera and the photographer, however, with the increased popularity of the ‘selfie’ we have become both the subject and the photographer, controlling every aspect of how we are to be displayed to an audience. (Figure 13) Through the process of taking a photograph, we are presenting ourselves not as whom we think we are, and not as whom the viewer thinks we are but as a representation of whom we think the viewer thinks we are (Jurgenson, 2019: 57). We create a version of ourselves that we believe our friend and followers want to see.

Although this is visible through the way we present ourselves in a self-image, it is possibly even more prominent in the way we picture our surroundings and home lives. This is illustrated through Chompoo Baritones series #slowlife (Figure 14). Through the series, Baritone depicts the idealised scene we choose to show other people on our Instagram feed, in contrast to the ‘real’ picture, which shows an accurate depiction of how we live. This series highlights how hyperaware we are of our self-image, showing how we curator an idealised version of ourselves for the public while hiding our real selves, just outside of the frame.

Figure 14: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife

However, due to this mindset and the idealised images that are produced because of it, most vernacular images are beginning to look the same, depicting a perfect reality. These staged mediation of ourselves may be aesthetically pleasing, but they lack soul and emotion. As Roland Barthes would put it, these photographs have a studium, they spark and enthusiasm without special acuity (Barthes, 1994: 26) but they do not contain a punctum, the “accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me” (Barthes, 1994: 27). The photographs have visual interest, but they do not have any emotional power over the viewer or even the subject of the image.

The work of Greg Sand (Figure 15) demonstrates how powerful a punctum can be. Sand’s series Once Removed, takes the subject away from an old photograph, leaving only the studio and a chair within the frame. However, when viewing the photograph, there is an apparent loss of presence, a realisation that there should be a person there. “The removal of the subject who is very much alive in the photograph – forces the photograph to more truthfully depict a present reality in which the subject no longer lives” (Sand, 2011). Sands photographs make us aware that “photographs remind us that memorialization has little to do with recalling the past; it is always about looking ahead toward that terrible, imagined, vacant future in which we ourselves will have been forgotten” (Batchen, 2004:98).

Figure 15: Greg Sand (2011) from Once Removed

Sand’s photographs successfully evoke this by heightening the effect of the punctum through erasing the details of the stadium. What interests the viewer is the lack of a subject, but what ‘pricks them’ is the nostalgia created through the sense of loss. However, the viewer has no idea what or who they are nostalgic for, just an awareness that they are not in a position to be able to remember the person. In contrast to the vernacular photographs, we are creating which produce a legacy of idealism as opposed to an accurate depiction of who we are. We have lost our punctum through digital visual culture.

Our vernacular photographs are more than just a prompt for recollection, but they help to record our personal legacy. However, due to the aesthetic sameness and lack of emotion they possess, our photographs run the risk of writing a bland history, which depicts what we looked like and the perfect things we did in our lives, but not giving an insight as to who we actually where. We create a record of ourselves “to present a sense of being a coherent person over time, to strengthen social bonds by sharing personal memories, and to use past experiences to construct models to understand inner worlds of self and others” (Van Dijck, 2007:3). The documents of ourselves make our legacy genuine, they show the good and the bad and how we became the person we did, but now due to the idealised image promoted through social media everyone’s legacy is a depiction of what they want to show as their perfect selves opposed to their real selves.

Figure 16: Nan Goldin (1982) Greer and Robert on the Bed, NYC

The photographs that depict a more authentic version of who we are those which present ourselves naturally not in a controlled environment and staging but the ones that catch us off guard and have a spontaneity. This can be demonstrated through the snapshot aesthetic used by Nan Goldin (Figure 16). Goldin describes the process of what she wants to capture within her work as an exact picture of her world “without glamorisation, without glorification. This is not a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain, a quality of introspection’ (Goldin, 1996:6). Goldin strives to capture an informed depiction of what the real world is like. Although the images can sometimes be uncomfortable and troubling, not depicting an idealised view, they depict the truth. Furthermore, create a sense of truth as to who the people captured actual are and how they live. Remembering the difficult times can often make the good even better. However, if we continually present ourselves in an idealised form, our legacy will not be exciting because the perfect will start to seem ‘normal’.

Due to the idealised image, there is much pressure being put on individuals to have an idealised life. It is often hard to decipher between whether a photograph depicts the truth of a person or a façade of whom they want to be. This creates a position in which “There is a pressure for photography to structure everyday life in the very process of representing it” (Lister, 1995: 130). Instead of becoming a record of what is happening in a person’s life, the photograph becomes the aim of a person’s life. Photographs can start to influence the places we want to be, the food we want to eat and the person we want to become. “Everything exists to end in a photograph” (Sontag, 1977: 24) instead of the photograph being a result of being in a moment that we feel is special enough to want to remember so we photograph it.

Vernacular photography has become about creating a perfect legacy, due to our awareness that photographs are how we will be remembered, paired with a social pressure to present an idealised version of ourselves to others. However, we seem to have lost sight that our history and legacy develops from a cultural and personal outlook on the photograph. Photography is not about the technology used or the aesthetic it follows, but it depends on our cultural and subconscious way of seeing and reading. Photographs as record give us a position, identity and a power through security.  (Wells & Henning, 2015: 323) Security of a legacy, however, if we conform to visual cultures, this security may become challenged, resulting in our legacy being lost or untruthful.


The relationship between photography and memory is definitely being affected by the digital age. I have found that “memory and photography change in conjunction with each other, adapting to contemporary expectations and prevailing norms” (Van Dijck, 2008: 70-71). The role of the vernacular image is morphing and changing into multiple different forms; they exist in the physical form and in multiple different digital formats. However, their form is majorly shifting into one of communication and ephemerality, placing heightened importance on the here and the now.

In terms of the vernacular photograph leading to the death of memory, it places us in a position where memory is being affected by multiple different variations of memory loss which often become contradictory. However, the most concerning form of loss comes from our ability of over documentation our lives through the accessibility of digital technology. Moreover, because “remembering also institutes a kind of forgetting” (Bate, 2010), the ability never to forget profoundly effects our ability to remember.

The idealised self-image is where the relationship between memory and photography becomes is challenged the most. As Barthes states “The photograph does not call up the past. The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (Barthes, 1994: 82). However, due to the effect of social media and a strife for perfection, we are creating a document of our existence that only depict what we look like. Depicting an idealised perspective of the relationships we have and the places we have been. The search for recording ourselves to create a legacy means that we place less importance on those around us and the spontaneity. It is no longer about our personal act of remembrance but of how we are to be remembered.

Throughout the process of writing this paper I have come to realise how ever changing the forms of vernacular photography are and how their connection to memory can differ to every person. I had not thought to consider the age group of people and how this may affect their response to photography; but, also how as we age, our relationship with memory changes. This could result in a completely different relationship between, people, memory and photography and the digital age is another factor to be considered. I found through writing this paper that visual trends have a powerful significance on the way we view any images and that our place in culture can affect the way we view photographs as we do.

If I were to continue with this research, I would like to consider how different media, beyond photography, plays a significance in our relationship to memory, especially home video. I feel that this would create an exciting dynamic between the way we choose to depict ourselves in images to the way we act in the everyday. I would also like to explore how different cultures may have a different relationship to vernacular photography, specifically those that are not westernised. (Figure 17) I would also pay closer attention to the complexity of memory, doing more research into the psychology of memory to be able to apply my findings into broader contexts.

Figure 17: Mona Hatoum (1998) from Measures of Distance
  • BARTHES, ROLAND. (1994). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
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  • JURGENSON, NATHAN. (2019) The social Photo – On photography and social media. London: Verso.
  • LAVOIE, STEPHANE. (2018) Modern Photography is changing how we remember our lives. OneZero [Online]. Available at: https://onezero.medium.com/modern-photography-is-changing-how-we-remember-our-lives-4b59adab4a2e [Accessed 04 November 2019
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Showcase Portfolio: Glenn Porter

GlenN Porter

Glenn Porter first studied photography at the Sydney Institute of Technology and has a mix of art, science and photography qualifications. He also holds several postgraduate qualifications including a Graduate Diploma in Science from Sydney University, Masters of Applied Science (Photography) from RMIT University and a PhD in Communication Arts from Western Sydney University. Glenn has also been recognised by the Royal Photographic Society with an imaging science distinction as an Accredited Senior Imaging Scientist (ASIS) and a Fellow (FRPS) of the society. He is currently studying on the MA Photography at Falmouth University. Glenn has exhibited his work in several group exhibitions and has his first solo show in China in 2022. Glenn’s work has been recognised in several prestigious awards as finalist including the Head On Portrait Prize, the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture and the Mullins Conceptual Photography Prize.

The Holga Experiment began as a method of approaching photography from a more instinctive position and being free from technical equipment and fixed ideas about content. It was initially an experiment in opening up my awareness to the environment around me and to shift my photographic vision from being a farmer to a hunter of images – moving out of the studio and into the world with just a single lens and camera. The simplification of the approach to my photography was liberating and the work began to get stronger as I became comfortable about shooting by feeling rather than planning. Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested “Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film” (Cartier-Bresson 1999). Cartier-Bresson also applied a simplistic approach to his photography using the same camera format and focal length lens with the majority of his work. Keeping the method simple, allowed me to explore the purpose of the work from an internal perspective and to develop my work more intuitively.

Glenn Porter (2021) Crow Flying Over Hill, Dorrigo

The work is about my personal connection with photography and my experience with creative practice. It connects me spiritually and symbolically with two ancient Japanese philosophies; ikigai and wabi sabi. The simplification of the photographic process with a hyper-awareness of the environment around me is what this body of work attempts to capture. The work displays an ephemeral moment of my life’s journey with images that celebrate the beauty of the everyday with the imperfection of life.

Glenn Porter (2021) Motel Room, Mittagong

Mitsuhashi (2018) suggests the word ikigai (pronounced iki – guy) is a combination of two Japanese characters iki 生き meaning life and gai 甲斐 meaning value or worth. However, Japanese philosophy is often difficult to translate into western values and language. Mogi (2017) also provides a translated meaning close to Mitsuhashi’s and indicates iki literally means to live and gai reason, while Garcia and Miralles (2017) claims gai translates to worthwhile. The concept of ikigai is for people to find their ikigai by living life while practicing something that gives them a sense of purpose that also derives from personal pleasure. Ones ikigai does not have to be materialistic, success-driven or financial. It is often simplistic values like cooking, growing vegetables, art, fishing and even cleaning.

Glenn Porter (2021) The Jumper, Nepean River

Wabi sabi 侘寂 is another type of Japanese philosophy that examines how we perceive and live life. It is also a combination of two complementary phrases; wabi which is the personal process of finding beauty and sabi which is the joy of things that are imperfect or the decay of things due to the passing of time (Fujimoto 2019). Fujimoto explains how these elements combine to form wabi sabi; “together, these notions form a sensibility that accepts the ephemeral fate of living: celebrating transience and honouring those cracks, cervices and other marks that are left behind by time and tender use” (Fujimoto 2019 p.33). Kempton (2018) describes the wonderment of wabi sabi as feeling the moment “of real appreciation – a perfect moment in an imperfect world” (Kempton 2018 p.5). Wabi sabi can be experienced anywhere and has a lot to do with the awareness of the feeling and environment. Fujimoto (2019) claims “describing an aesthetic consciousness bound up with feelings of both serenity and loss, wabi sabi might be found encapsulated in a simple Japanese garden” Fujimoto 2019, p.33).

This project uses an inexpensive plastic Holga lens attached to a DSLR camera body. The Holga lens attached to a digital camera is a variation of the original medium format film-based Holga cameras, nevertheless, the lens is the same as the plastic film cameras and produces similar artefacts. The project also set down some rules; i) the image must be taken with a Holga lens, ii) the lighting must be available light and iii) the image must be cropped square. The Holga lens is a fixed focal length of 60mm with a fixed aperture. Exposure adjustments can only be made using the shutter speed and/or ISO setting.

Glenn Porter (2021) Corella Squadron, Aberdeen

Holga cameras were developed in the early 1980’s in Hong Kong as an inexpensive plastic medium format camera for the Chinese market (Malcolm 2017). Holga’s are often referred to as plastic toy cameras with a low-priced plastic meniscus lens. Images display overt artefacts such as film fog or light leaks, low-fidelity images with strong vignetting.  The image imperfections, caused by the inexpensive manufacturing and lens design, has produced what is referred to as the ‘Holga aesthetic’ and has become highly celebrated. Bates (2011) notes that other plastic cameras like the Diana also produces a similar aesthetic to Holga cameras.

Glenn Porter (2021) Twin Trees, Pine Forest, Armidale

This body of work is a result of my own ikigai, my passion for creating images that resonate with my personal creative vision. The application of the Holga aesthetic works perfectly for experiencing a sense of wabi sabi with the imperfections clearly witnessed within the images. The loss of fidelity due to the inexpensive plastic lens demands an approach that focuses on form and tone as a compensation for sharpness. The square format is in keeping with the original Holga tradition. The body of work is an eclectic set of urban and natural landscapes that connotes my personal concepts or notions of ikigai and wabi sabi which becomes a highly personalised visual statement. The work intends to provoke a sense of stillness, reduction, tone, form and self-reflection, and to also harmonise with the Japanese aesthetic and its traditions.

The notion of ikigai is an important one within this work, not only as an internalised purpose for life, but more so for the joy this purpose brings to me personally. My ikigai, is largely about the production of a body of creative photography work which brings me great joy. Cartier-Bresson describes this concept of joy when practicing photography in his The Mind’s Eye autobiography. He exclaims “To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” (Cartier-Bresson 1999, p.16). Cartier-Bresson also describes the notion of feeling the image during the hunt for images rather than seeing or taking a more analytical viewpoint when shooting. This is a significant point of difference when considering ikigai as a philosophical notion, which impacts how I feel spiritually rather than how I think. Cartier-Bresson further suggests; “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” (Cartier-Bresson 1999 p.16).

Glenn Porter (2021) Road Caution, Uralla

Cartier-Bresson is explaining what it is like to work intuitively and reducing or simplifying the equipment helps promote the notion of working from feeling and gaining the intellectual and personal joy that comes with this approach. I have experienced what Cartier-Bresson is describing throughout this project. It is my connection with photography through my spirit and ikigai. Cartier-Bresson further indicates; “It’s a way of life” (Cartier-Bresson 1999 p.16) and this can be interpreted from a Japanese philosophy perspective as ones ikigai. Nathan Jurgensen (2019) also mentions Cartier-Bresson’s thinking regarding the personal joy photography offers practitioners. He also refers to Jean Baudrillard’s suggestion that there is a certain joy in the transformation of the real into a document within the concept producing a condition of hyperreality (Jurgenson 2019, Baudrillard 1983).

Glenn Porter (2021) The Pontoon, Nepean River

Several theorists like Sontag, Barthes, Jurgenson, Bates have described the condition of photography through how the audience may perceive the work as an extension of reality or reality through the lens of modernity. The intent of this body of work, while it may be interpreted through this lens, is a more egocentric focus on my connection with photography as my ikigai. It does not try to raise issues about the world or society, it is simply a way of expressing how I feel about photography by using photography. The work does however, raise questions about what is photography and what is art?  Cotton (2014) examines these questions primarily from an aesthetic theory position but also explains how phenomenology plays a role in how the interaction between the viewer and the photographs operate within different viewing contexts including gallery, newspaper, billposter, family album, screen etc.

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  • Bates M., (2011) Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity, 2nd edition, Focal Press, Oxford.
  • Baudrillard J., (1983) Simulations, MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Bunnell P.C., (1994) Introduction, essay found in Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective, (2011) Nazraeli Press, Portland.
  • Cartier-Bresson A., (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, Aperture, London.
  • Cotton C., (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, London.
  • Fujimoto M., (2019) Ikigai & Other Japanese Words to Live By, Modern Books, London.
  • Garcia H., Miralles F., (2017) Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hutchinson, London.
  • Jurgenson N., (2019) The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media, Verso, London.
  • Kempton B., (2018) Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, Piatkus, London.
  • Kenna M., (2017) Holga: Photographs by Michael Kenna, Prestel, London.
  • Kenna M., Meyer-Lohr Y., (2015) “Forms of Japan” Prestel, Munich.
  • Malcolm F., (2017) Beyond the Visible, essay found in Holga: Photographs by Michael Kenna, p.5-13, Prestel, London.
  • Mitsuhashi Y., (2018) Ikigai: Giving Everyday Meaning and Joy, Kyle Books, London.
  • Mogi K., (2017) The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life, Quercus Editions, London.
Glenn Porter (2021) Little ‘Big Chook’, Moonbi
Routledge Award Winner: Summer 2021

In Conversation With: Robert Darch

Robert Darch

By Andy Thatcher (14th June 2021)
Robert Darch (2021) from Vale

AT: You’re teaching on the BA Photography at Falmouth University. How has teaching impacted on your practice?

RD: I ran a collective for young photographers (Macula) for seven years. I photographed them for my project Vale and they became a part of that work, so there’s a direct correlation between my practice and that setting, it was kind of blended in. Maybe one area is keeping up to date, aware of current trends and what’s happening in photography. You have an overview of lots of different aspects, maybe not the single area that you’re particularly interested in and I think that opens you up a bit more.

I’m teaching students in a very difficult situation, in lockdown, and they’ve got to make work and be experimental. How can I teach them and say try this and do this and then myself, not? I should embrace that myself. I’ve been taking pictures through Zoom and I was initially reticent – it’s through a computer screen and that doesn’t interest me. But I like a challenge and I’m competitive. So – can I get something that looks great and people don’t realise it’s through Zoom?

AT: How do you think photographic practice changes once placed in an academic setting?

RD: A lot of undergraduates find it difficult – they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. There’s this overwhelming sense of deadlines. You’ve got to be quite succinct in terms of what you’re doing, so if you’ve got quite a free-flowing art practice, then you’ve got to find a way to fit that in, which I think is quite useful in terms of working commercially or editorially, with very short time frames to make work. For me, it was OK because I’d done the BA at Newport which is a very tough course and so that was my grounding.

The justification of an idea makes practice completely different. If you’re an amateur, you’re just taking pictures of what you like. So many students want to work like William Eggleston for example – I’ll just walk around where I like and that just catches my eye, take a picture of that. But what is it that you’re doing beyond that? Academia makes you think about questions like the context of the work, the theoretical underpinning. On the one hand, that can be like a weight that’s tying you down, but it can also be helpful. Anything that I make, I ask where does this sit? What is this saying? How are people going to view this? And I also work on a series, rather than just a single picture – a body of work, rather than this slightly more free-flowing way of working.

Robert Darch (2021) from Vale

AT: You reference your childhood a lot in interviews, and my own childhood experience of commons in Kent and Sussex is central to my current project at Woodbury Common. Why is childhood so influential to the way you make work?

RD: Childhood is about formative experiences. When you’re a child, you’re experiencing things for the first time. It has a huge psychological impact on you and who you are. I grew up on the edge of Tamworth and when I was three my Mum would just let me roam in the cornfields, and there was a big house at the end of our road, an old Georgian manor house and they had an annual fireworks party. Going feeding the horses, that feeling of freedom and exploration – that carries forward. These things I did as a child and a young adult, they carry weight and influence the work I make far more than anything contemporary, or any influence of a photographer, because these influences came along in my early twenties. When I make work now that’s more contemporary, like The Island, the melancholy from that is the melancholy from being a teenager. The emotions are from earlier even though the subject is more contemporary.

We’d holiday in Devon and one of my first conscious memories was hunting dogs on Dartmoor, and it was just so unnatural to a three-year-old. These are also memories of remembering, even at ten or eleven I was very quiet and introspective so many of my memories are of memories of those memories if that makes any sense. It’s that internalisation that I visualise in my work.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

AT: There is often a melancholy in your images, sometimes a subtle use of light, sometimes an unmistakable subject as with The Island. Is this a conscious decision?

Yes. Definitely. I sometimes joke that I could describe my work as beautifully sad. I’m not a particularly sad person, but I think you tap into that melancholy you’ve experienced from life and with The Island I was referencing that sense of being a teenager and your first girlfriend breaking up with you and sitting in your room and listening to sad music, wallowing a bit. That sadness is not depression though. You’re slightly nostalgic about that intensity of feeling – being in the Midlands and it’s winter and it’s wet and it’s bleak and it’s raining and you’re just bummed out and there’s something about that. It’s not a great emotion but it’s a powerful emotion and it’s something you tap into. Because I had all those years of illness, I can easily tap into that notion of being in a room and listening to melancholic music. Music can capture melancholy so well, it really is the best medium for that. I don’t think photography can ever do that in the same way.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

I’ve never been clinically depressed so for me, it’s that bookend of emotion – without the sadness you don’t know the joy. You’re melancholy and sad about what is past and what is gone – there’s a weight there. Because Vale is about being ill and losing my twenties, there’s that juxtaposition between bucolic, sublime summer landscapes and these young, beautiful people, and there’s an obvious juxtaposition with looking sad in that landscape. The work is layered. It’s carrying emotions. It’s a direct reflection of that sadness.

Robert Darch (2021) from Vale

AT: Your work often blends the fictional and the documentary, and you’ve mentioned that you’re a frustrated filmmaker. Would you consider working with video? What can photography achieve which film cannot – and vice versa?

RD: Before I went back to do my Masters, I was working a lot with video. With Arnolfini and Spacex, I did all their video work, and a couple of music videos for local bands. I always made skateboard videos, little short videos on holidays. But photography was always my first love, and I decided to study it. I’m definitely someone who likes to work by myself as I’m confident enough to know what I’m doing – this is my work, this is my vision – and photography allows me to do that, it’s all me, there’s that selfishness. The best films happen where you’ve got one or two people who’ve got a clear vision and they’ve been left alone to make it, rather than diluted with different voices.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

The advantage of film is mis-en-scene – you have sound and you have music to create atmosphere, particularly in horror, to create that tension. The Moor was in a way an attempt to create something that had that aesthetic, but you were missing the sound and the music. A way to explain the series would be to imagine it was stills from a film that doesn’t exist. I wanted to make these very striking photographs, creating images that would be like the film poster. I hadn’t seen anything similar, like an artist or a photographer working in this way and this always makes me question the validity of what I am doing. I think this is quite common.

The power of the still image is the time that you have with that image. I felt like there could’ve been video with Durlescombe, like with the threshing machine and the moving image of that working was amazing, and that could’ve easily made an interesting documentary subject, but I think it was a question of practicality. If I wanted to work in film, I wouldn’t be interested in just using the moving image like conceptual, fine art. I would want to make this big narrative, with actors, have all this staging, etc.

Robert Darch (2018+) from Durlescombe

AT: This blend of the fictional and the documentary brings to mind Gideon Koppel’s film Sleep Furiously, set in a partly-fictionalized Welsh sheep farming community. What can an imaginative engagement with place achieve that an, ostensibly, more objective documentary approach cannot?

RD: I think the notion of documentary is outdated – this sense of what you are seeing as the viewer as the truth. A factual account is not the case. It never was documentary, it always was subjective, dependent on the creator, their motivations aesthetically, their political background, what they were trying to tell an audience. In the case of Durlescombe, that allowed me a much broader reach in terms of places and locations. The name is a place holder, a tool to collate this work in what that sounds like a real place. The work is 95% documentary. It might appear quite similar in terms of the staging to the The Moor, but nothing is staged, it’s all happening there, so I’m taking the pictures of these scenes in front of me, like the image of John in the barn just leaning down. You’re seeing things happening and then you’re capturing them. And in terms of the portraiture you’re just telling people to stop what they’re doing sometimes. I remember that excitement, particularly with the threshers, because I was there and I didn’t have that control anymore. It was often about stepping back and seeing the whole scene.

Robert Darch (2018+) from Durlescombe

I’m photographing the Ten Tors and that’s much more documentary but I’m imbuing it with this melancholy, this heavy black and white, so there’s still a subjective narrative there. It’s truthful in a lot of ways to the Ten Tors, but a lot of days they’re walking and it’s sunny and it’s easy but I’m focussing on this young-people-versus-nature, so it’s my subjective version of the Ten Tors.

I always make work that’s layered. If it’s very straight, it’s not telling me something new or something different. There’s not enough there to engage me. Work that interests me makes me look at it and question what I’m looking at. Was this staged? Is this documentary? You’re questioning the veracity of what you’re seeing. That’s what I find interesting.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

AT: What photographers have influenced you along the way? Whose work excites you currently?

RD: The work I’m drawn to is predominantly like the work I make. It’s people who are working in a similar way but differently. Like they’re picking up on similar influences, for example, myths and folklore. There’s so much photography out there. I’m drawn to work that impacts me, that draws out an emotional response, that I have this instant reaction to in terms of how it’s photographed, or in terms of how it’s presented.

Jem Southam is a critical influence. I was introduced to his work during my BA at Newport and out of the British work I was shown, in terms of landscape, it was the work I was drawn to. He was working in colour, large format. The Red River is one of my favourite photography books. It was integral in informing how I could look at the landscape as it was the first book that I had seen with a real lyrical, poetic quality; it was much more than just a series of pictures of the Red River. The work resonated with me and I knew then at twenty-one, that’s how I wanted to approach photography, with emotion, poetry and feeling. Then after moving to Exeter, I found I was living around the corner from him and was introduced to Jem.

My favourite contemporary photographer is Tereza Zelenkova. She’s a Czech photographer whose work predominately deals with myth and the landscape. Themes of the uncanny really underpins her work. Similarly, Robin Friend. He studied at Plymouth quite a few years ago with Jem and his book Bastard Countryside is really fascinating – that notion of a spoiled landscape is really interesting. Vasantha Yogananthan is a Peruvian Indian photographer. He deals a lot with his identity, photographing in India but around this idea of narrative in myth and religion. His work is sublime and complex.

AT: What other artists, writers, filmmakers and so-on have influenced your practice?

Painters like John Northcote Nash, Eric Ravillious whose subject is the English landscape. Constable would come into that too. Also Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. It’s this beautiful sense of place and light – they’re integral to these painters.

Influences from literature are very much more from my childhood. Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion of the World has a backdrop of poaching and pheasants in this autumnal landscape. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five is coastal, with a level of mystery and exploration. More recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was an influence on The Moor, particularly the notion that you’re inhabiting this dystopian environment but there’s no explanation about the dystopia.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

I talk about childhood films like Black Island and the British Film Foundation films. They wouldn’t get shown now but they made great one-hour films with real attention to light and detail. The acting was sometimes a bit ropey, but they had a huge impact on me as a young child. And also contemporary filmmakers like Wim Wenders that have crossed over into photography. His book Once was one of the early photography books I had and I’d go through it a lot looking at the pictures. His latter films weren’t so good, but his visuals and the colour in films like Million Dollar Hotel are sublime.

AT: You’ve mentioned you are a heart and not a head photographer. Can you say a bit more about that?

RD: It’s a very basic generalisation, but I want people to have a very emotional response to my work. I try to make images that provoke some kind of emotional response. I’m drawn to subjects through my own personal history and formative and emotional experiences. You have a lot of contemporary photography that’s very intellectualised. To me it doesn’t really have any aesthetic value. It can be really clinical, very much about the concept, which sounds sophisticated but it’s actually quite simplistic. A lot of that work is quite elitist and aimed at a very small audience. It’s not something that interests me. However, it can be successful when you combine a complex theoretical underpinning with sublime, aesthetically engaging images. For me, I’ve always got to be drawn into work by the image. I’ve got to have some emotional response to it. If I’m not drawn into the image, then why would I care what it’s about? That doesn’t mean the work I make isn’t layered or contextualised, but that theory is always secondary to the images for me. Often in over-intellectualised work, the images seem to be an afterthought.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

AT: I find Dartmoor fascinating, particularly as it’s an entirely manmade landscape and deeply scarred. That resonated with me in The Moor. That’s not the Dartmoor most people seek and expect. What is your relationship to the Picturesque and the Sublime more typically depicting the moors?

RD: It comes down to a subjective response to it. You’ve got people like Gary Fabian Miller who’s going out and walking in a small part of the moor and then making sublime camera less pictures in his darkroom. My response is working in that Arthur Conan Doyle tradition of how the moor is viewed, this unforgiving, bleak, mysterious landscape. Also, the moors written about by Enid Blyton as this place of trepidation and mystery. It’s nice to walk on Dartmoor in the sunshine but I don’t have the same emotional response to that. I like being a bit scared, lost and excited because this is a bit mysterious. I have been following the Ten Tors recently and we’re out in the middle of the moor in thick cloud and it’s like being on another planet. It’s so unnatural, it’s unbelievable. The response I have to that captivates me. I’m fine with people taking pretty HDR pictures but to me they’re just superficial pictures of pretty landscapes, they don’t have any emotional depth. It’s always that distinction: what’s the work saying above and beyond it just being a pretty picture of a landscape. That’s what Dartmoor is for a lot of people.

When I started my Masters, I always knew I wanted to make a work about Dartmoor. I had a very intense emotional response to it from a very formative experience when I visited as a young child. I was drawn to this landscape. I questioned who had made work on Dartmoor? Was there anyone who had envisaged it how I see Dartmoor? There was Gary Fabian Miller, working with camera less photography. Chris Chapman who was making more traditional documentary work. Susan Derges who was working with camera less photography as well. And more recently Nick White has made a series on the militarisation of Dartmoor. I think it’s important to be aware of who has worked in a similar area as you.

In the end, I titled the series as The Moor because I wanted some ambiguity about the location. It’s interesting to note that recently the Black Mirror episode Metalhead was shot in some of the same places I used for The Moor, that someone with a similar dystopian idea was drawn to a similar landscape.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

AT: Outside of your personal connections and photographic practice, what informs your relationships with places?

RD: When I was on the BA at Newport I was so influenced by everything from America. I’d walk around the edges of my small Midlands town and try and take pictures that looked like a Robert Adams picture, with big open landscapes and a horizon. Even though I’ve never been to America I’m so influenced by their culture, pictures, filmmaking, television and photography, it feels like I have been to America. I can imagine if I do visit, it will have such a strange familiarity.

This culture and the visual references hugely influence what I do. For example, Vale draws on these influences; some of the images are imbued with a sense of Southern Gothic, spirituality and religion.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

I don’t have an academic relationship with landscape. It’s very much instinctive, that I feel like there’s some familiarity with the place. I will find a place and I’ll have an emotional response to it that’s derived from personal experience. I’m not so interested in a political landscape. Although The Island is the most political work I’ve made, it’s not really political in terms of dealing with that sense of struggle and ownership. It could just as equally have been about Covid, that melancholy and people being by themselves. Leaving Europe was the genesis, but it can work outside of that. It’s almost a precursor to the bleakness and melancholy of Covid.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

AT: Finally – the inevitable question – how have you responded to Covid-19 in your photography? Has it caused a change in the way you see place and your practice?

RD: My initial plan was not to make any new work during the lockdown. I was going to catch up on editing. I started cycling again and I was regularly cycling up to a tree on the southern edge of Exeter because it was just an easy focal point for a short cycle. As I was there, I just started taking pictures.

Then I got asked by a curator and a photographer to do some pictures using Zoom or a similar platform. I was initially reticent because I thought it was going to be terrible, it didn’t interest me or seem to fit into my practice. However, I’d been mulling over an idea for a year or two about referencing a sense of past Britain. Incorporating references like Agatha Christie, imagining characters that would inhabit these novels – and picturing the landscapes of the English Riviera. I had met with a young actor before lockdown to discuss taking some pictures, but this didn’t happen because of lockdown.

However, after a while I thought it would make sense to try and photograph her through a screen as she often emulates screen stars, so there’s a direct correlation. It’s a combination of new pictures through Zoom and archive images that I took pre-Masters when my subject matter was located more around the British coastline.

It’s really at an early stage but aesthetically, it’s sitting together nicely. The heavy use of grain is covering up the screen moiré from Zoom, but it’s also referencing something and adding an ambiguity. People are trying to work out what I’m doing – is this new, is this old?

It’s been good in terms of having a focus, still being able to photograph with somebody under lockdown. An easy way to describe the work is this love/hate relationship I have with this sense of Britishness. I like a lot of the British landscape and some of this nostalgia around the past, but I hate the small-mindedness and I hate the Brexit.

I envisage places the same as before Covid. Cycling up to the tree, making work there, was very much to do with the sense of that place and the significance of that tree for a lot of people in Exeter. The newer work is very much about place and Britishness. Covid has stopped me continuing the work on Durlescombe. For example, I’m not photographing on the farms because I don’t feel it’s particularly right, but there’s no rush and no deadline and I can carry that on at the time I feel is appropriate. It’s good to be open to new ways of working. I think that’s important to students as well not have this fixed idea of this is what I’m doing.

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Through the Looking Glass

Crossing The Boundary Between The Surveyed and The Seen

By Leila Ghobadi-Ghadikolaei (11th June 2021)
Maxime Matthys (2019) from 2091: The Ministry of Privacy


This dissertation focuses on surveillance and voyeurism in photography. The argument debates the necessity of surveillance imagery against the invasion of privacy that voyeuristic work confronts. Drawing on the work of Michael Wolf, Weegee, Merry Alpern and Sophie Calle as key examples, this dissertation compares the effect of surveillance photography versus voyeuristic photography. In addition, the argument examines deeper the aspect of control that surveillance provides within society, including how it alters behaviour, referencing the work of Trevor Paglen. Furthermore, the debate considers how privacy is breached through voyeurism and compares the balance between this control and invasion. Finally, the discussion references the work of Edward Hopper, in terms of painting’s ability to be voyeuristic. Through comparing his practice to Karin Jurick, Richard Tuschman and Thomas Struth, the dissertation discusses how painting can subvert traditional expectations and align itself to the photographic world. Overall, the dissertation aims to consider how surveillance fits into the society of the 21st century, influenced by modern concerns of technological developments and sacrificing information. Through use of theorists and key writers, such as Foucault, Phillips and Sontag, the discussion focuses on how the public navigate the relationship with constant observation, and photography’s role within this.

Key Words: Surveillance, Voyeurism, Privacy, Control, Boundary


  • List of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Brief Considerations on The Nature of Photography as a Tool of Surveillance and Voyeurism
  • Chapter 1: The Omnipresence of Surveillance and the Intrusion of Voyeurism
  • Chapter 2: The Undefined Boundary of Surveillance In the Public Realm
  • Chapter 3: Edward Hopper: The Voyeuristic Painter
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Bibliography
Merry Alpern (1994) from Dirty Windows

List of Figures

  • Cover Page: ALPERN, Merry. 1994. Untitled. From: Dirty Windows. 1994.
  • Figure 1: HIKVISION. 2016. Hikvision Singapore.
  • Figure 2: GÜTERSLOH. 1995. George Orwell 1984 Roman Hardback Cover.
  • Figure 3: SKEEN, W.H.L. 1880. Group of Veddahs.
  • Figure 4: HALE, Luther. 1860. Portrait of Man and Woman.
  • Figure 5: CHABAD SYNAGOGUE. 2019. Court Evidence of Surveillance Footage from the California Synagogue Shooting.
  • Figure 6: ARCURS, Yuri. 2014. Keeping an eye for security – Stock Photo.
  • Figure 7: WOLF, Michael. 2010. 23. From: A Series of Unfortunate Events. 2010.
  • Figure 8: WOLF, Michael. 2010. 8582. From: A Series of Unfortunate Events. 2010.
  • Figure 9: HENNER, Mishka. 2011. St Haagsche Schoolvereeniging, Den Haag. From: Dutch Landscapes. 2011.
  • Figure 10: WEEGEE. 1945. Lovers at Palace Theater II. From: Movie Theaters.
  • Figure 11: CARTER, Kevin. 1993. Starving Child and Vulture.
  • Figure 12: ALPERN, Merry. 1994. Untitled. From: Dirty Windows. 1994.
  • Figure 13: ALPERN, Merry. 1994. Untitled. From: Dirty Windows. 1994.
  • Figure 14: CALLE, Sophie. 1988. Untitled. From: Suite Vénitienne. 1988.
  • Figure 15: CALLE, Sophie. 1983. Hotel, Room 26. From: The Hotel. 1983.
  • Figure 16: GOV.UK. Date Unknown. Good and Bad Examples of Printed Photos.
  • Figure 17: PAGLEN, Trevor. 2010. They Watch the Moon.
  • Figure 18: PAGLEN, Trevor. 2016. NSA-Tapped Undersea Cables, North Pacific Ocean.
  • Figure 19: PAGLEN, Trevor. 2015. Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1), NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean.
  • Figure 20: HOPPER, Edward. 1938. Compartment C Car.
  • Figure 21: EVANS, Walker. 1936-1941. From: Many Are Called.
  • Figure 22: HOPPER, Edward. 1952. Morning Sun.
  • Figure 23: TUSCHMAN, Richard. 2014. Morning Sun. From: Hopper Mediations.
  • Figure 24: HOPPER, Edward. 1942. Nighthawks.
  • Figure 25: MENDES, Sam. 1999. Jane Undressing Window Scene. From: American Beauty.
  • Figure 26: JEUNET, Jean-Pierre. 2001. Amélie Watching Mr Dufayel At His Window. From: Amélie.
  • Figure 27: HITCHCOCK, Alfred. 1954. Rear Window Opening. From: Rear Window.
  • Figure 28: JURICK, Karin. 2006. Hopper. From: ArtistZ.
  • Figure 29: STRUTH, Thomas. 1990. Art Institute of Chicago I. From: Museum Photographs.
  • Figure 30: JURICK, Karin. 2006. Renoir. From: ArtistZ


In defining surveillance and voyeurism “we might say they are two sides of the same coin – voyeurism being personal, the product of a wilful individuality… while surveillance is impersonal” (Badger, 2010: 87). Since the invention of photography, it has always been true that “to collect photographs is to collect the world” (Sontag, 2008: 3); however, the span of this collection and documentation of human existence has never been to the degree and volume that it is currently. Foucault comments “our society is one not of spectacle but of surveillance” (1991: 217), which remains increasingly relevant to the current social climate. With developments in facial recognition technology and 350 million security cameras worldwide (SDM, 2016), I believe that surveillance is a key topic of debate in the 21st century, especially in the last year. This is due to the rapid developments of surveillance technology in China and the increasing discussion around the topic in other countries. As a species we are at the culmination of recorded existence and verification by photographic devices (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Hikvision (2016) Hikvision Singapore

Moreover, the understanding that “the visual image is possibly the dominant mode of communication in the late twentieth century” (Edwards, 1992: 3) is still applicable. A key aspect of this relates to the tourist gaze and ability of the average person to document at their own accord. Furthermore, the existence of social media platforms such as Instagram where “the majority of Instagram authors capture and share photos that are of interest to the author” (Manovich, 2017: 31) is relevant. In this way, it is natural to question purpose and necessity of this technology, as well as subjective boundaries of acceptance, particularly when this is beyond our control.Therefore, this dissertation is relevant to the modern day due to the focus on social acceptance of surveillance and voyeurism, as well as photography, in a world of growing observation.

Firstly, I will touch on the nature of photography as a tool of observation, discussing photography as a window for viewers. I will build upon the reality disclosed and depicted, including early anthropological documentation. Next, in Chapter 1, I will discuss how “the whole world is satelized” (Baudrillard, 1994: 35). Through acknowledging how “photographic images are pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history” (Sontag, 2008: 166) I will propose how I believe surveillant documentation is inescapable. I will discuss how surveillance inevitably happens whereas voyeurism crosses a viewer’s comfort.

Furthermore, I will link how photographers use surveillance techniques and concepts to create work, making observations about people; as well as work lending itself to a voyeuristic tone and the way in which I think this pushes viewers too far. Considering the themes in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), “we need to ask ourselves whether the future society we want to live in is one which constantly watches its citizens” (Thomas, 2019) (Figure 2). Therefore, I think it’s important to comparatively argue how voyeuristic photography and surveillance photography are received. Also, “the surveiller expects to be in a relation of power over what he or she surveilles” (Kember in Lister, 1995: 116) is a factor of debate when considering surveillance in this chapter. I argue the importance of questioning roles of power between the viewer and the viewed, and how this affects acceptance of imagery.

Figure 2: Gütersloh. (1995) George Orwell 1984 Roman Hardback Cover

Then, in Chapter 2, I will argue for the necessity of observation and control through surveillance. However, I will discuss issues with observation related to absence of public awareness and social media. Related to this, Philip-Lorca diCorcia makes a good point that “there is no expectation of privacy in a public space anymore in this world… in a way it’s about what you do with those images” (2010). This reflects how we understand that public and private spaces are separate and must accept this, whilst also touching on the notion that what is done with images is important. To expand upon this, my argument will acknowledge necessity of surveillance, whilst also discussing the rights to awareness the public has of what happens with these images and videos of us; such as the long-term storage and whether we are being actively watched or passively recorded.Furthermore, in a society that is becoming more like Orwell’s dystopia, the idea that “so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never become aware that they are oppressed” (Orwell, 1989: 216) appears more relevant. In this chapter I will also argue how our awareness of the prevalence of surveillance affects our opinion and acceptance of it.

Finally, in Chapter 3, I will focus on Edward Hopper’s paintings as a case study. I will discuss the voyeuristic nature of photography in more depth, touching on the ability of paintings to be uncharacteristically voyeuristic and the relation of windows in paintings, photography and film. Furthermore, I will debate depicted realities and how the purpose of observation is questioned

Brief Considerations on The Nature of Photography as a Tool of Surveillance and Voyeurism

A key aspect of photography is that “it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing… but an awareness of its having-been-there” (Barthes, 1977: 44). Thus, I acknowledge that photography is rooted in the trace. Furthermore, referring to conceptions of photography Szarkowski asks “is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world?” (1978: 25); I would argue that it is representative of both. Viewers perceive photographs as windows into the world and it is in the nature of images to reveal, both about the photographer and the subject photographed.

Sontag observed that “reality as such is redefined – as an item for exhibition, as a record for scrutiny, as a target for surveillance” (2008: 156). This view is mirrored by “photography cannot ignore the great challenge to reveal and celebrate reality” (Abbott in Tagg, 1988: 156). Surveillance as a form of photography follows the same role in recording reality, although for more lawful and controlling purposes than contemporary photography.

Figure 3: Skeen (1880) Group of Veddahs

The ability of surveillance to record us holds the same power to confirm existence and document, as that of 19th century anthropological photographs (Figure 3 & Figure 4), photography has always been inherent in showing the real, albeit not always the truth. Said touches on this related to Orientalism and the West’s tendency to convert the view of the East into an ideology of Western superiority; “the tradition of experience, learning, and education that kept the Oriental-colored to his position of object studied by the Occidental-white, instead of vice versa” (1979: 228). The fabricated reality depicted by Western photographers of the Other in anthropological imagery, reflects the absence of truth in photographical representation.

Figure 4: Hale (1860) Portrait of Man and Woman

Although, photographs have the ability to disclose information beyond description, meaning they are key in surveillance imagery. Moreover, Bate says “social truth was embodied in the modern technological process of “documenting”” (2016: 59). The reality surveillance discloses is assured to such a degree that it is able to be used in legal trials as a form of evidence (Figure 5) I think that this is related to the understanding society has, that surveillance imagery is untampered with and pure documentation of human behaviour.

Figure 5: Chabad of Poway Synagogue (2019) Court Evidence of Surveillance Footage from the California Synagogue Shooting

Chapter 1: The Omnipresence of Surveillance and the Intrusion of Voyeurism

In my opinion, it is not a question of should surveillance exist, rather acknowledgement that it does, as well as a response to how photography fits into this concept. Focusing on inevitably of surveillance ultimately reflects the concept that “photography is nearly omnipresent, informing virtually every arena of human existence” (Ritchin, 1990: 1). However, the comparative argument considers the breach of privacy I believe voyeuristic work holds, and the confrontation of our scopophilia that affronts us. As Bate described “… the scopic drive is in this sense a source of conscious and/or unconscious pleasure” (2016: 214), in this way my argument questions when this pleasure breaches privacy.

Furthermore, I oppose Phillips’ opinion that “our culture appears to be accommodating itself to the fact of surveillance and no longer considers voyeurism the danger it was in the past” (2010: 15), in reference to medical concerns of the sexual nature of voyeurism. Whilst I believe we are becoming more accommodated to surveillance, due to it becoming part of our subconscious awareness, I think we have social codes on what is acceptable to look at and what is not. Also, acceptance of a surveillance world relates to Adam Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalisaiton, whereby we live in a constructed fake world. The purpose of this suggested by Curtis is “to spread a state of bewilderment and powerlessness across the globe” (Adams, 2016) which I believe surveillance cameras fit into; their omnipresence is unfathomable to the public, leading to the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.

Sontag commented “photography is essentially an act of non-intervention” (2008: 11); I believe that surveillance and particularly surveillant photography is a reflection of this concept. As a society, to a degree we have accepted that in public spaces we are watched – “he is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication” (Foucault, 1991: 200). My view is not only is this accepted but often it’s encouraged as it leads to the feeling of public safety. Therefore, I think that we are used to being observed at a distance, and this leads to acceptance. (Figure 6)

Figure 6: Arcurs (2014) Keeping an Eye for Security: Stock Photo

In terms of this, my opinion is that surveillance is subconsciously registered. Related to photography, we consider the surveillant distance the camera can offer to also be advantageous as “we want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera” (Sontag, 2003: 50). Sontag refers to our expectation of photography as a spy and in this way surveillance photography succeeds. Moreover, we acknowledge our own fascination with photography as a medium to look into untouched lives of others.

In reference to Kember’s comment earlier regarding a surveiller’s power, I believe that this also applies to photography; as viewers we understand that we’re in power over those photographed due to our awareness of looking. However, I think viewers are morally reassured when looking at images of people in public spaces, again, due to understanding that they could be a witness.

Figure 7: Michael Wolf (2010) from A Series of Unfortunate Events

A key example of work we’re likely to be more comfortable with is Michael Wolf’s 2010 project A Series of Unfortunate Events (Figure 7). The series which looked “for anything weird or bizzare that had been captured by the ravenous cameras” (Casper, 2011) of Google Earth’s vans is not only comfortable for viewers to look at, but often amusing and curiosity-evoking. In my view, this comfort is due to the understanding that Wolf photographs images already taken, similar to Jon Rafman’s The Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2016) and Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture (2012). I agree that Google Earth seemingly possesses an “indifferent gaze” (Dyer, 2012) which Wolf uses advantageously, allowing a viewer to feel fascinated.

Figure 8: Michael Wolf (2010) from A Series of Unfortunate Events

In addition, I argue that Wolf’s series is accepted due to the level of detachment provided in looking. Related to surveillance, particularly Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century panopticon, Foucault comments “it had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception” (1991: 214). This also relates to Google Earth imagery as viewers consider the technology a source of information with an ambiguous gaze. The pixelated style and context give permission to enjoy the work, without concern about why the photographer did not intervene.

Furthermore, societal understanding of Google Earth means that the viewer is less concerned about purposes of the original imagery. In addition, the blurred or absent faces also reassure the viewer that personal identity is not at jeopardy, demonstrated in Figure 8. Related to my argument, this reinforces that distance and anonymity of surveillance bring a certain level of observational comfort.

Figure 9: Mishka Henner. 2011. St Haagsche Schoolvereeniging, Den Hang from Dutch Landscapes

In comparison, Mishka Henner’s 2011 Dutch Landscapes project also uses Google Earth. (Figure 9) With focus on significant Dutch locations, such as government sites, Henner acknowledges how censorship is “imposed on the landscape to protect the country from an imagined human menace” (2011). Although, I think there is a sense of hypocrisy in that governments enforce censorship for their buildings, but expect complete access to the public, I also understand necessity of national security.  Alike to Wolf’s work, the series acknowledges how “the Google eye is so ubiquitous” (Medina, 2013) and again ignites the viewer’s curiosity.

Similarly, I believe that Arthur Fellig’s (Weegee) 1940s Movie Theaters series reflects viewer’s acceptance of observation. (Figure 10). In terms of the series, “the photographs capture everything that is unseen during a movie screening” (Brennan, 2015); in this way, Weegee mirrors the curiosity into lives of others that Wolf provides. In my view, this is due to the fact that Weegee’s images are not shocking. Sontag commented that in terms of journalism “images were expected to arrest attention, startle, surprise” (2004: 19) and I think the familiarity of the series prevents this.

Figure 10: Weegee (1945) Lovers at Palace Theater II from Movie Theaters

Therefore, I argue that Wolf and Weegee’s work are examples of how “photographs depict realities that already exist” (Sontag, 2008: 122). In my opinion, the understanding that the human behaviour is in a public space and the viewer could’ve been a witness reassures those looking at the work, alleviating feelings of guilt or intrusion. This also relates to citizen journalism; I believe a viewer is less likely to question if it’s acceptable to be looking as they identify themselves as a fellow observer. This links to the urge to photograph as “they strive to record what’s happening from their perspective or vantage point” (Allan in Hájek, 2014:176). Related to this, Sontag made a key point that “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted” (Sontag, 2008: 24) and I believe observant photography is evidence of this.

In addition, Gill comments “any act of observation implies a certain detached alertness” (in Phillips 2010: 241) which aligns itself with viewers of Weegee’s, Wolf’s and Henner’s work, as both photographer and viewer engage with detached vigilance. Furthermore, I think we don’t consider viewing of this kind a threatening act, therefore the power viewers possess over the subject is not as big of a concern. In addition, as viewers assume photographers to have responsibility and power in choosing to take images, viewers feel able to assume the photographer is accountable for their concerns and guilt, whilst still acknowledging their right to look. A key example of this is Kevin Carter’s Starving Child and Vulture (1993) photograph, which caused criticism from viewers who argued he should have intervened rather than document. (Figure 11)

Figure 11: Kevin Carter (1993) Starving Child and Vulture

However, the question of “does documentary inevitably create a prurient voyeurism for example, an unethical desire to look into the lives of others?” (Bate, 2016: 61) must be asked when considering documentary imagery. It’s important to debate when scopophilia breaches a boundary for viewers and causes discomfort. Moreover, in my opinion, when we feel that we’ve overstepped the boundary of privacy we begin to consider why we desire to look and our moral stance in relation. In a society where we are watched, it is voyeurism with its tendency for “invasive looking” (Phillips, 2010: 6) that I think many viewers are opposed to. Although we understand that “we watch, and we are watched” (Phillips, 2010: 6) I think voyeurism holds a degree of closeness that viewers often wish to disengage with in terms of photographic work.

In my opinion, a key example of this boundary being crossed is Merry Alpern’s 1994 series Dirty Windows. (Figure 12) Over six months Alpern produced intimate images of a secret New York lap-dance club that she described as having “something to do with wanting to understand how people connected, no matter the circumstance” (Alpern in Vermare in Cotton, 2018: 130). This is understandable to any viewer due to our inherent curiosity about others and human interaction, what’s interesting is the extreme to which Alpern considers this in her work.

Baker comments “our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole – that’s our craft” (in Phillips 2010: 208) in regard to photography. I agree with this statement in the sense that it’s always the photographer’s nature to be curious, which drives them to pursue an image. Furthermore, the idea of photography being a window is inherent within the medium, as mentioned earlier, suggesting the inevitability of looking to be about seeing into an aspect of the world. This is certainly true of Alpern, however I think that the nature of the series brings into question a viewer’s own morals. In my view, it is not necessarily the content of the imagery which offends, as we understand the concept of pornography and a viewer’s enjoyment of watching others engage in sexual activities. (Figure 13).

Therefore, I think it’s the way in which those being photographed are unaware their intimate acts in a private space are now available for viewing beyond the window itself. Unlike Wolf and Weegee’s works, the activities portrayed in Alpern’s photographs aren’t within the public sphere and therefore the subject hasn’t consented to this visibility. I believe the act of looking at people having sex in a private space is understood as culturally unacceptable, and therefore Alpern’s series doesn’t follow our social normalities. I argue that when viewers breach societal rules, in any regard, they feel unease and shame. Moreover, this relates to conditioned behaviour through the idea that “perhaps inevitably in cultural life a child’s voyeuristic enthusiasm is curbed by parents and other adults, who impose social rules about when looking is appropriate or not” (Bate, 2016: 77).

Figure 14: Sophie Calle (1988) Untitled from Suite Vénitienne

Similarly, in my opinion Sophie Calle’s work produces the same unease of looking as Alpern’s.  As demonstrated in Figure 14, she followed a man in Venice for 12 days. Although the man was aware of what she planned to do from the beginning, I think viewers still feel a sense of forbidden looking. In my view, there is the sense that Calle invades the subject, especially in Figure 15 where she used her job for the intent of her photography. Viewers don’t wish to think about the possibility of being followed or their trust in a stranger to be taken advantage of. In this way, I believe that Calle’s work offends viewers on behalf of the subject as they wish to avoid hypocrisy or a double standard. Related to this, Ulin comments that “for Calle, the idea is to push the bounds of propriety, to go where one wouldn’t ordinarily go” (2015), whilst she succeeds in this, she also forces the viewer to engage in this. The sense of stalking the images in Suite Vénitienne possess, also seen in The Hotel, cross boundaries of acceptable looking for viewers.

Figure 15: Sophie Calle. (1983) Hotel Room 26. from The Hotel

The idea that “we have expectations concerning a particular circle of unfamiliar people whom we might meet, and we have expectations concerning how these people will behave towards us” (Rössler, 2005: 115) is true in the sense that “we do not expect our being seen to be recorded on film and thus converted into something that can be shown in public” (Rössler, 2005: 115). I think Calle’s work directly relates to this, making viewers uncomfortable as they acknowledge that we put trust in strangers and don’t expect them to breach that.

Therefore, I think that as viewers we’re comfortable with surveillance work like Wolf’s and Weegee’s due to the way it provides us with distance from the subject. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that the subjects are already in a public space frees viewers of guilt, as they believe themselves to be possible witnesses already. In direct contrast, I believe that Alpern and Calle’s voyeuristic style is more likely to offend. This is due to the sense of privacy being breached in private spaces, causing viewers to feel morally incorrect. Furthermore, the viewer is uncomfortable for the subjects who expect privacy, which I believe makes the feeling of forbidden looking prevalent. However, building upon this discussion, purposes of surveillance and observation beyond photographic curiosity are questionable, relating to boundaries that are defined in terms of privacy.

Chapter 2: The Undefined Boundary of Surveillance In the Public Realm

In terms of surveillance, I think the purpose of technology to control the masses is necessary, however public knowledge and ability to regulate being watched is an issue. My argument is, that defining boundaries related to presence and intrusion of surveillance within society is the key problem. The comment that “privacy has been defined by what it protects or provides, namely dignity, personhood, individuality, autonomy” (Phillips, 2010: 55) stands true, however I believe surveillance isn’t as simply validated by this.

To a degree, the concept that “a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission” (Althusser, 1984: 56) is true. Although surveillance arguably limits our free will, I think it simply reinforces our natural public behaviour. Moreover, use of surveillance aids in deterring illegal and dangerous behaviours beyond societal expectations of public behaviour. However, I also argue that surveillance presence has led to construction of socially accepted behaviour beyond taught morals; such as the understanding that you wouldn’t steal due to being caught on camera.

In terms of photography, I believe that claiming street photography can be truly candid is false; in public people provide certain personas and more formal behaviour. Foucault commented “we are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on stage, but in the panoptic machine” (1991: 217) which I think is partly true for the 21st century culture of observation. However, the effect of the panoptic society also means we’re on a stage in a sense, through how we portray altered versions of ourselves.

Figure 16: GOV.UK (Date Unknown) Good and Bad Examples of Printed Photos

Moreover, in my opinion, control of the public provides benefits such as safety and as Lister says, “surveillance and classification are forms of social control which operate through the acquisition and organisation of information” (1995: 96). A key example of this information aspect would be passport photos (Figure 16). I believe that the use of documentation of people for safety is accepted and supported. Surveillance holds a similar power in classifying us for identification. During research it became clear that positive evidence related to spy photography and drones was virtually non-existent. In my view this makes sense, due to modern concerns related to surveillance. However I think that benefits are often overlooked.

Despite the benefits, the point that “it generates a degree of conflict between the control of and control on behalf of individuals and communities” (Kember in Lister, 1995: 117) is valid. In my view, the issue with surveillance is regulation. The public are most affected by surveillance, however they don’t possess power to dictate acceptable standards. With facial recognition technologies being introduced, as well as gait recognition, which has the ability to identify you from your walk, the issue of pushing surveillance too far comes into question. As Phillips comments “voyeurism and surveillance provoke uneasy questions about who is looking at whom, and for what purposes of power or pleasure” (2010: 6) which becomes increasingly relevant to modern humanity.

Furthermore, I think that the problem doesn’t only occur in public but also through use of phones where “it has now become commonplace to hear of Google using individual searches to sell targeted ads, Twitter promoting content on your feed based on who you follow, or Facebook data being scraped to enhance political campaigns” (Stuart, 2019). Whilst many users still hope for mobile phones to be possessions of privacy, the reality is that our information is worth a lot and is now being surveilled and sold. I argue that in the 21st century we must come to understand that as soon as we have a phone we have sacrificed our privacy. Also, I believe this extends to visual culture as information related to us is documented through photographs and shared online.

As Ritchin comments in reference to media, “many advertisers have since abandoned such publications, leaving them behind for the more selective reach of search engines plugged in to even more individualized interests” (2013: 20). I think the act of being online is transactional; public gain of unlimited worldwide information and connections, in trade for the companies’ gain of private sensitive information. The problem is “we don’t know if they’re potentially subverting security measures in order to facilitate spying on us” (Granick in Belkhyr, 2019), suggesting how the public have an absence of knowledge in terms of surveillance laws and their rights. In my opinion, photography in its surveying nature, is also part of the issue as many people don’t know their rights related to images.

Figure 17: Trevor Paglen (2010) They Watch the Moon

In terms of photography, Trevor Paglen’s work focusing on surveillance and the digital world, comments on issues to do with privacy and understanding of the internet. (Figure 17) In reference to the internet, Paglen comments “it’s this thing that nobody can quite describe that seems like it’s nowhere but everywhere at the same time” (in Chapman 2016). I think that his work looking at US intelligence buildings and underwater internet cables aids viewers in understanding physicality of surveillance and the internet.

I think that Paglen’s work brings into question the scale of the photographic surveillance network and creates a wider picture of this reality. The intangibility of the internet makes the concept of being watched difficult to grasp, however the physical evidence shown in Paglen’s photographs reinforces the real (Figure 18). Furthermore, “his is a practice broadly underpinned by an investigation into the relationship between vision, power and technology” (Clark, 2019) and in this way brings the intent of surveillance into question. My view is that the intention of surveillance and those that watch us is questionable, largely due to the public’s absence of knowledge surrounding this.

Figure 18: Trevor Paglen (2016) NSA-Tapped Undersea Cables, North Pacific Ocean

I believe that due to Paglen’s work suggesting the vast scope of the surveillance network, viewers consider true intentions of those observing us, as mentioned earlier. (Figure 19) My view is that Paglen’s work is successful in revealing part of this unknown world. However, as many companies who hope to gain access to our information online are private, we may be unable to truly realise these intentions. The physical evidence of surveillance in the photographs suggests how truth regarding the topic is concealed from us, and the use of the internet has caused distraction from the reality of being watched. This relates to the idea of the image world as “the circuits of surveillance cameras are themselves part of the décor of simulacra” (Baudrillard, 1994: 76). We understand we are being watched, however we do not know the extent of this. Furthermore, we are drowned in online information, a lot of which is irrelevant or distracting, preventing our ability to fully comprehend the truth of our sacrifice.

Leading on from this discussion regarding privacy, the concept of voyeurism in visual culture becomes key in understanding the ways of invasive looking and how this instinct is ingrained in creative representations

Figure 19: Trevor Paglen (2015) Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1), NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean

Chapter 3: Edward Hopper: The Voyeuristic Painter

Photography’s nature is voyeuristic, “the photographic attraction resides in a visceral sense that the image mirrors palpable realities” (Ritchin, 1990: 2). In this way, photography has always felt close to, a part of, or even synonymous with reality. Whilst it is rooted in the trace as mentioned earlier, photography is not necessarily a depiction of reality, rather just the real. Moreover, despite Ritchin’s comment that “without this reliance on palpable fact, however, photographic currency, like that of painting, becomes the imagination” (1990: 2), some painting is able to mirror the real to a degree. A key example of this would be Edward Hopper’s realism paintings depicting American life. (Figure 20)

Figure 20: Edward Hopper (1938) Compartment C Car

In relation to photography, Gordon comments “voyeurism is inherent in the medium. It’s a voyeuristic medium, unlike, say painting, which can be voyeuristic but is not necessarily” (2010). However, Hopper’s work is evidence of the way in which painting can be voyeuristic; I propose that paintings help us to understand photographic voyeurism due to developing awareness of composition and the choices painters make, similar to choices a photographer makes. I think this strongly links to the unusual style of Hopper’s work and causes the viewer to feel slightly unnerved by the paintings due to the realistic aesthetic.

Figure 21: Walker Evans (1936-1941) from Many Are Called

Reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Many Are Called (1936- 1941) series (Figure 21), the paintings appear to the viewer as a photograph would, reflecting Hopper’s distinct style in the ability to paint like a photographer captures. (Figure 22) The comment that “the ambiguous, narrative richness of Hopper’s paintings – combined with their subtle, anxious energy – has given them a timeless quality” (Thackara, 2018) is valid. In this sense, the viewer has an understanding of the feeling of familiarity that Hopper’s paintings release. Furthermore, the photographic recreations of Richard Tuschman’s Hopper Mediations series prove the easy transition of Hopper’s work into photography. (Figure 23). Tuschman comments on Hopper’s paintings saying, “he created quiet scenes that are psychologically compelling with open-ended narratives” (2014); the reflection of the work as scenes containing narratives, aids in the relation to photography due to the way it suggests a constructed story.

Related to my earlier point regarding photography being a window into the world, I argue that Hopper’s work acts also as a window, only in a more clearly perceived way. Goodrich observed this by saying “many of his city interiors are seen through windows, from the viewpoint of a spectator looking in at the unconscious actors and their setting- a life separate and silent, yet crystal-clear” (1978: 105).

An example of Hopper’s windows is his Nighthawks painting demonstrated in Figure 24. I think that this painting is synonymous with Hopper due to the way in which it symbolizes how “his works depict urban loneliness, disappointment, even despair” (Peacock, 2017). The identification the viewer feels, especially for those in mid-20th century America, likens itself to photography as viewers understand images through their own experiences and associations.

Figure 24: Edward Hopper (1942) Nighthawks

In addition, the use of windows is not only seen in Hopper’s paintings and Alpern’s photographs, but also in film. A key example of this window-based voyeurism is in American Beauty (1999) directed by Sam Mendes and Amélie (2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Moreover, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) the viewer sees how the use of windows are key to the plot; “by sharing this voyeuristic activity with the audience, Rear Window shows Hitchcock’s view on voyeurism that is a universal pleasure that all human beings pursue” (Hopkins in Saporito, 2015). These similarities reflect how important the concept of observation is within wider visual culture. (Figure 25, Figure 26 & Figure 27)

Also related to voyeurism within painting, Karin Jurick’s ArtistZ (2006) series (Figure 28) depicts observations regarding how viewers look at artwork in the gallery context. In a similar way to Hopper, Jurick’s painterly observations reflect a photographic nature and cause viewers to second-guess what they are seeing, due to the expectation of them being photographs. Jurick herself comments “I still can’t get enough of it” (in Fauntleroy, 2010) in regards to painting. I believe that photographers possess this same drive to capture, as well as a voyeuristic nature, which causes them to continue working.

Figure 28: Karin Jurick (2006) Hopper from ArtistZ

Moreover, Jurick’s paintings reflecting photographic tendencies are evidenced by likeness to Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs (1989-2001). As shown in Figure 29 and Figure 30 their works are relative mirrors of one another existing in different mediums. Regarding the gallery space of his work, Struth commented “it’s not defined like a football stadium or a concert venue. I wanted to capture that interim sense of place” (in O’Hagan, 2011). I think that this links to voyeurism due to the way that viewers are curious about people looking, especially in a gallery space which has the purpose of displaying works to be seen

Linking these works back to Hopper, Goodrich commented “after his early years his oils were composed by a process of imaginative reconstruction in which both observation and memory played parts” (1978: 129) which I think relates to the topic of voyeurism overall. In my opinion, Hopper and Jurick’s works hold familiarity as the viewer is able to identify the representation of the real. The understanding that they have witnessed, and are able to witness, something similar to what is depicted suggests the way in which the works hold a feeling of personal memory. Moreover, I believe that Hopper and Jurick’s styles are evidence in the way in which paintings can possess a voyeuristic nature and make the viewer question purposes of looking, alike to photography.


In summary, surveillance exists and is beneficial in public safety and control. I think we find surveillance photography more acceptable, compared to voyeuristic photography that brings awareness of invasive looking to the forefront. In my view voyeurism offends, as it subverts our learned behaviour.

Moreover, I believe there needs to be improved regulation and public education of surveillance techniques and storage, particularly related to social media, where information has become monetarily valuable to companies. In reference to literature, “as Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, comparing the dystopian theories of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: ‘Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.’ Unfortunately both seem to have been right” (Ritchin, 2009: 90). I agree due to the way the public is unaware of the degree of surveillance and social media’s irrelevance in distracting us. In addition, I have acknowledged photography’s voyeuristic nature and painting’s ability to be. Also, I’ve discussed how visual culture contains the theme of looking and how this is often inherent.

Finally, looking forward to the future of our surveillance society, it brings into question the possibility of a totalitarian state. Lyon commented “if Giddens is right to say that ‘Totalitarianism is, first of all, an extreme focusing of surveillance’ then the enhanced role of new technology within government administration and policing should give us pause” (1994: 11). Whilst the increased prevalence of surveillance is leading to increased regulation questioning, Los commented “the multi-site governance of security, multiple hierarchies and preponderance of networks may not constitute an effective barrier to totalizing forces” (in Lyon, 2006: 74) in reference to widespread use of surveillance. Therefore, I think it’s important to acknowledge, that the omnipresence of surveillance may inevitably be uncontrollable, immeasurable and irregulated, which I think photographic practitioners and theorists will continue to comment upon indefinitely.


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In Conversation With: Shona Waldron

Shona Waldron

Shona Waldron is an interdisciplinary artist based between East Sussex and Cornwall, UK. Working across a diverse range of media including photography, painting, moving image and installation, she articulates a world of uncertainty, frequently using a combination of digital and analogue techniques to manipulate the periphery of fact and fiction. The blurring of these demarcations plays a crucial role in exploring ideas centred around time, space and the nature of existence, presenting life as a source of wonder and infinite possibility. Investigating states of change or metamorphosis is also a recurrent theme as she uses her work to illustrate the transition into a future which is impossible to predict or control. 

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Primordial Loop from Shona Waldron on Vimeo.

Shona Waldron Sensorium

24th – 28th June 2021

The Fish Factory, Penryn, Cornwall

Private View: 24th June 2021: 6pm – 9pm 

BtL: Your upcoming exhibition Sensorium opens on the 24th June 2021. It brings together works from several of your recent projects. Can you sum up any overall themes in your practice?

SW: Sensorium is a collection of work that encompasses moving image, photography, painting and installation. The title draws inspiration from the sensory apparatus of the human body which is responsible for receiving and interpreting external stimuli. Intended to be viewed as part of an immersive experience, each exhibited piece explores themes surrounding the intersection of art, science and technology, evoking the idea of new realities that are activated by our perceptual encounters with the space.

Although my work often makes reference to scientific language and taxonomical systems, there is equally a free-flowing element that induces feelings of fluidity and life in a constant cycle of evolution. There are also parallels made between the organic and the technical, with a blending together of analogue and digital media to allow the subject matter to exist in a transformed state that surpasses the limits of its original definition.

BtL: You seem to be interested in visually exploring the relationship between the technological world and the natural world. Why is it important for you to incorporate a range of media into your practice?

SW: The incorporation of a variety of media and processes is definitely very important. I find that moving beyond the boundaries of a purely photographic practice allows the work to function in a universal context which is useful when dealing with these expansive and broad themes. This mixed media approach makes it easier for my work to emphasise connections on multiple levels, whether it be visual, auditory or as an entire sensorial experience. I think this way of working is helpful in creating a sense of dynamism, something that is of particular interest in light of my ideas surrounding the mutable relationship between technological and biological forms.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

BtL: The title of your video work Primordial Loop seems to both juxtapose and connect the idea of new possibilities / the inter-connectedness of man and machine; the technical and the organic…

SW: Primordial Loop is an experimental video piece that incorporates 3D modelling and animation. Its title draws inspiration from ‘primordial soup’, a term often used to refer to the blend of biological conditions that first enabled life on our planet. In addition to looking back towards these early beginnings, the work explores our immersion in the digital world by reinterpreting natural environments through the screen-based society we inhabit. The study of evolutionary processes is also of great importance as this ultimately evokes a transcendental journey through the past, present and future as well as a fusion of the organic and the technical.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

Emphasis is placed upon these themes from the very onset of the piece which opens with an animation of cells dividing, a sequence that delineates a point of origin and the genesis of new life. The cells then fade out of view to be replaced by jellyfish that float across the scene, gelatinous in form with iridescent hues of purple and blue. Although included due to their    their correspondence with the cells, the jellyfish are notable in presence since they are one of the oldest species to exist on our planet, residing in our oceans for more than 500 million years. This remarkable timescale predates the dinosaurs and is fascinating in light of my ideas surrounding primal states.


Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

Following this, the video transitions into a haze of violet light which dissipates to reveal the shapes and structures of tree branches, rocks and mountains as scenes of a digital jungle emerge. Moving deeper into the landscape and through the undergrowth, circular patterns begin to appear with organic matter converging into the centre point where the panels of the video meet, creating a hypnotic effect that is reminiscent of a kaleidoscope.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

BtL: Do you think your process of digitally constructing the work is important as a way of situating these primitive visual landscapes within the conditions of the 21st Century?

SW: Absolutely. The digital process allows nature to exist in a computational form and suggests that it is not estranged from technology in the way that we might initially imagine. In the text Novacene – The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, (2019) the scientist James Lovelock reiterates this view. He proposes that ‘computers work purely in zeros and ones; from   that they can construct entire worlds … information may indeed be the basis of the cosmos’ (2019: 88). It is this description of the cosmos being made up of information, that is referenced in a literal sense within my work.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

This environment visually resembles many of teamLab’s installations such as The Infinite Crystal Universe. Presented as immersive experiences, teamLab encourages us to reach infinity and oneness by seeking to ‘transcend boundaries in the relationship between the self and the world, and of the continuity of time’ (Pace Gallery 2014). Computer programmes and algorithms are widely used in the creation of these works, engendering the belief in a computational universe in the same way that my work intends to.

teamLab (2015-2018) The Infinite Crystal Universe

BtL: You seems to situate your visual practice across a variety of thresholds. Can you give us a few examples?

SW: Further influential research includes the concept of the technological singularity, a term first popularised in 1993 with Vernor Vinge’s essay The Coming Technological Singularity. In physics, a singularity is defined as a point of infinity, such as the centre of a black hole, where matter becomes endlessly dense and physical  laws break down, resulting in the merging of space and time. In relation to this scientific definition, the theory of the technological singularity hypothesises that we will soon cross a threshold where machine intelligence will surpass biological intelligence, an advancement that will lead to irreversible changes to civilisation.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, suggests that ‘machine intelligence could become indistinguishable from that of its human progenitors within the first half of the twenty-first century’ (2005: 3). What this will look like for humanity is unclear as both a dystopian and utopian scenario would be possible. Either way, it is the notion of transcending current limitations that is most intriguing. It is also speculated that the universe began by such an event, meaning that there was a singularity in our past as well as one potentially in our future, demonstrating the way history repeats itself in a loop.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

This notion of the singularity manifests in Primordial Loop when the screen becomes increasingly pixelated and the motion accelerates, referencing the exponential rate that we are approaching what is often referred to as the ‘event horizon’ (Kurzweil 2005: 7). Once this is reached, the centre of the screen unfolds to reveal a passage into a new space-time dimension.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

The final scene reveals the culmination of this journey into a post-singularity state. The video fragments, breaking apart from its original structure and transforming into multiple screens floating within a dark void. The plurality of the work opens up new ways for it to exist, with the panels constantly moving across the X, Y and Z axes. The music also shifts from its electronic sound to something choral and celestial. At this point in the video, space is perceived in a more fluid way, it bends and stretches, becoming something that we develop a heightened awareness of.

Yayoi Kusama (2019) Infinity Mirrored Room: Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe

This exploration of a boundless existence relates strongly to Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, another key inspiration for my practice. The installation, Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe, is described as a perceptual experience that functions as ‘a harmonious and quiet place for visitors to contemplate their existence, reflect on the passage of time, and think about their relationship to the outer world’ (Hirshhorn 2017). The title of Kusama’s piece acts as an expression of hope and resonates with my own feelings of reverence for the infinite. A sense of spirituality is embodied within the ending of my work, suggesting that it has indeed transcended in the same way that it is predicted that we, as humans, will one day transcend our own experience of reality.

BtL: The photographic strand of your practice, titled Merge/Melt, seems to explore similar notions to Primordial Loop through amalgamating technological and natural elements to create something that exists in a transformed state.

SW: Merge/Melt experiments with the use of digital tools to build new forms and structures, revealing warped patterns and textures that suggest  the physical world is melting into an electronic one. During the production of the series, photographs of jungles and cityscapes were fed into an algorithm and then merged together to generate new entities.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

The Deep Dream algorithm was used specifically for this purpose as it was able to draw out interesting shapes within the depths of the images. Deep Dream is described as a convolutional neural network and was originally developed in 2015 as a means of providing AI researchers with an insight into what an algorithm sees when it analyses an image. Since its inception, however, it has primarily been used as an artistic tool with results that are psychedelic in appearance. The artist Mario Klingemann is one of the pioneers of working with neural networks in this way. The works Archimedes Principle and Parting From You Now, draw attention to the pareidolic details that can emerge from an image, in the same way that humans are able to observe random shapes in passing clouds. The ability of Deep Dream to provide an algorithmic vision of our environments relates to the computational form of nature seen in Primordial Loop, epitomising the suggestion that ‘computation is existence’ (Lloyd and Ng cited in Kurzweil 2005: 342).

Mario Klingemann (2016) Archimedes’ Principle
Mario Klingemann (2016) Parting From You Now

BtL: There is appears both a visual and conceptual fluidity to your practice, yet also a sense of chaos and the unexpected.

Artist and theorist Joanna Zylinska’s text AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams also feels especially relevant. Zylinska refers to algorithmic art as ‘an ouroboros-like circle of random variations’ (2020: 72), a description that encapsulates the chaotic nature of my work but equally observes the connectivity that is so integral to its construction. The effect of this merging process is the predominant feature.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt
Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

In some images, it becomes difficult to distinguish city lights from stars as the sky dissolves into the architecture and structures blend together like coloured inks, a liquid yet luminous appearance that could almost be the result of street lights reflected in a pool of water. Due to the alteration and enhancement of certain hues, some of the images look more industrial and synthetic whilst others, with jewel bright shades of green and blue, are more jungle-like, allowing each composition to exist on a continuum between metropolis and nature. It is this fluctuation that I find most inspiring as it underscores my interest in the creation of multiplicities.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

To clearly communicate a sense of things evolving, I present my images as animated video sequences on screens and opted for a circular format in order to create a stronger comparison to the concepts explored in Primordial Loop. These circular shaped pieces embody a more pronounced mutability and link back to Zylinska’s reference to the loop of the ‘ouroboros’, reflecting wholeness and infinity. They additionally have the look of portals, perhaps acting in a similar way to black holes. This creates a further parallel with my video piece which also leads us through into a new dimension.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

BtL: You are a graduate of the BA Photography course at Falmouth University. Any tips or advice for current / prospective students?

SW: My advice would be to view university as a time to experiment with photography, to try out new ways of working and push the boundaries of the medium. Over the course of my three years at Falmouth, I feel fortunate to have been able to expand my practical image making skills, both with analogue and digital processes. Although it can be strange to do something unfamiliar, I would completely recommend it as it will enable you to develop new areas of interest and gain a broader experience of the arts. And, it goes without saying, to make the most of the university facilities and technical workshops in addition to opportunities for collaborative working whilst you are a student as this provides invaluable support.

BtL: What can we expect from you next?

SW: I am planning to develop more work that expands upon the themes seen Sensorium and incorporates a variety of techniques, I will be continuing to practice in other visual disciplines alongside my photography. In addition to lens-based media, i will be continuing to branch out into other areas such as painting, sculpture and installation – and continuing to experiment. Who knows?

Routledge Award Winner: Summer 2021

Art, Reproduction, Commercialization

Good, Bad or indifferent?

By Toby Woollen (6th june 2021)
‘A combination of repeatability and access. By repeatability, I mean the ability to make exact copies of an image ad infinitum; simple laws of supply and demand dictate that the more objects there are to go around, the less fighting over them ensues, and consequently, value falls’ (Thein, 2013)
Louvre Museum (2020) Mona Lisa merchandise

The commercial side of the ‘art’ world can be seen throughout history. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, the Popes of the Catholic Church ‘strove to make Rome the capital of Christendom while projecting it, through art, architecture, and literature, as the centre of a Golden Age of unity, order, and peace’ (Norris 2007). Artworks were commissioned by the Popes of the time in order to create a legacy for themselves and the church, which in turn helped to instil awe and wonder in the viewers. It is undeniable to say that this form of commerciality was beneficial to the art of the period though, as some of the most ubiquitous works of art were created in this time by artists who had been commissioned by the Catholic Church. Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was a commission by Pope Julius II in 1508 and has been both a tourist and religious attraction ever since, attracting up to 20,000 people per day in summer (Pullella 2012).

Michelangelo (1508-1512) Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

However, as the Renaissance allowed artists to look more towards Humanism rather than Catholicism, many works of art were made that did not focus on Christianity but looked at the value of human life and people instead. Some of these artworks have been commercialised more recently, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a good example of this. Described as ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world’ (Lichfield, 2005), the Mona Lisa has been reproduced countless times by clothing brands and artists alike.

Marcel Duchamp (1919) L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa with a Moustache

Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. was not the first appropriation of the work but it drew more attention to it as critics of the time saw Duchamp’s work as ‘immoral and vulgar, even plagiaristic’ (MoMa 2021), so having a reputation such as Marcel Duchamp attached to the image of the Mona Lisa certainly elicited more attention. Perhaps more importantly however, Duchamp managed to take the work away from the commercial world and mould it back into the art world again. By drawing on a postcard of the original piece, he takes the synonymous image of the Mona Lisa ‘from the banality of reproduction and returns it to the private world of creation’ (Jones, 2001). We could say, then, that commerciality actually led to more creativity for Duchamp; he saw how Da Vinci’s painting had been commercialised and used this to his advantage.

Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (2020) The Scream merchandise

Gift shops are the ideal arenas for art to be reproduced and commercialised. This can, however, dilute the initial context of the work. When talking about Edvard Munch’s The Scream on the TalkArt podcast, Tracy Emin argues that Munch’s work was grossly misunderstood, and that what was initially a work intended to talk about the ‘never ending scream of nature’ ended up ‘being a car key ring, or a fridge magnet, or a cartoon, or a joke. There was nothing jokey about that at all’ (Emin, 2020). She went on to discuss how she has made sure that after her death she ‘will not become a nail file or a key ring’, alluding to her negative view on the way in which the commercialisation of certain works can diminish their context.

‘The context of display is an important issue because it colours our perception and informs our understanding of works of art’ (Barker, 1999, p.8)

Case Study: Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira was born in 1902 in Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory of Australia. He was separated by the government from his parents to attend a Lutheran mission school at a young age and he soon became interested in the possibility of learning to paint. ‘Motivated by a deep attachment to his country and the possibility of a vocation that offered financial return’ (Kleinert, 2000), Namatjira expressed his interest of learning painting to Rex Battarbee, an Australian artist who in 1936 took Namatjira on expeditions as a cameleer. Battarbee lent Namatjira the materials needed in order to paint and taught him how to do so in a European style. Battarbee ‘was impressed by his evident talent’ (Kleinert, 2000) and two years later in 1938 Namatjira would hold his first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery in Melbourne.

Albert Namatjira (c.1950) Twin Ghosts

It is notable that it was only when Namatjira painted in a European manner that he began to gain national and international commercial attention; many people sought to buy works of art from one of the first Aboriginal painters to work in a European style. However, Namatjira, along with all other Aboriginal people in Australia, were wards of the state and were therefore disallowed from making their own legal decisions. He could not, for example, decide to travel between territories. Choices such as these would be made for him by the government and subsequently state departments of Native Affairs (Edmond 2014: 358) and because of his legal standing (or lack thereof), Namatjira was taken advantage of many times during his life by people who wanted to sell originals or copies of his work. Paintings bought for £20 may have then been marked up to as much as £100 (Edmond, 2014: 350). Whilst this may seem like a rather normal occurrence in the modern-day art market, it is important to note not only the immediacy but the lack of control Namatjira had over these deals.

Albert Namatjira (c.1945) Palm Valley

It is undeniable then that commercialisation played a largely negative role in Namatjira’s artistic career. Whilst he may have created some of the most famous and beloved artworks in Australia to this date, they are outshone by the immorality of his treatment. In 1957, his wardship was finally revoked, but Edmond & Williamson (2014) propose that ‘all it meant was that he was no longer subject to the rules and regulations that so-called full-bloods had to observe and thus, from one point of view, was less an invitation to join white Australia than an excision from his own people’ (2014: 365-6). No longer being a ward of the state gave Namatjira some more freedoms, most notably a licence to buy alcohol. The commerciality of his work meant that Namatjira earned more than most other Aboriginal Australians of the time. He used his money to buy and supply alcohol to his family and friends, which he was later arrested and imprisoned for (Alexander 2014).

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In Conversation With: Dinu Li

Dinu Li

Dinu Li is a multi-disciplinary artist and Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University who has exhibited internationally for both solo and collaborative shows. His practice delves into his engagement with his Chinese heritage, the socio-political conditions of place, as well as the intangibility of memory. This interview is a dissemination of a number of key areas ranging from his migration to the U.K and his discovery of photography, through his projects as a professional and his insight into the current educational climate.

by Louis Stopforth (4th june 2021)
Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

LS: You mention your first encounter with photography and how you could read the images. Is this something you have found with producing works of your own, that you could communicate beyond language barriers?

DL: I have been surrounded by photographs since my childhood, growing up in Hong Kong. My dad came to the UK when I was a few months old, and so my understanding of him came via photographs of him displayed on my mother’s dressing table. There were images of him posing in Trafalgar Square, or standing in a snow filled park, or standing next to his car. Those snapshots were placed next to photographs taken in China of my aunt, uncle and cousins. As the photographs were quite small, I paid a lot of attention to observing all the details contained within the compositions, creating my own narratives around what I saw.

I then came across the photographers Chris Killip and Joseph Koudelka by accident whilst wandering around a bookshop in my early-twenties. Up until then, I hadn’t taken photography seriously. I walked randomly inside the store, and casually arrived into the arts department, stopping at bookshelf ‘K’. Without thinking, I pulled out two books, In Flagrante by Killip and Exiles by Koudelka. Using my intuition, I was able to dissect the images to make sense of the world as seen through the eyes of both photographers. I guess my formative years looking at my family photographs must have helped, as I seem to have been able to read those images as if reading text.

LS: Your work delves between contrasts of barriers as well as unity within humankind. Has emigrating as a child caused these themes to have significant prevalence in you work? Especially as you navigated through various cultures and sub-cultures as you settled in England?

DL: Working class families in Hong Kong live in densely populated environments, and neighbours can appear as if they are literally living besides you. As we didn’t have a television at home, I spent my childhood peering through the cracks and gaps of closed shutters or venetian blinds, so I could watch tv programmes from other people’s televisions. My understanding of popular culture was one of half experiences or half satisfactions, as I never got the full picture from looking through those gaps.

I was brought up in Hong Kong when it was still part of the British colony, and so the sounds coming from my neighbour’s television sets was a melting pot between Chinese opera and American detective series depending which channel those families were watching. At one time, I recall going to the cinema twice in one week, watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one day and Chinese revolutionary ballet on another day

I moved to the UK as a seven-year old, but settling here was not easy, as the locals were unwelcoming to foreigners. Within weeks of my arrival, two boys living a few doors away pounced on me one day, as I was about to set off for school. They pushed me against a wall, slapped me around a few times, and filled my pants with handfuls of soil. As they ran off, they shouted “get back to where you come from”. As disturbing as it was, that memory has been a catalyst to some of my work in my art practice. It has been a paradoxical concept to imagine a backwards walk to one’s birthplace, with a trail of British earth leading from a point of departure to a final point of destination.

LS: We Write Our Own History is a photographic body of work that consists of arrangements constructed by demonstrators from the 2014 Hong Kong protests, displaying incidents they experienced. When looking at this work classical painting, particularly works from the Dutch Golden Age, come to mind as unassuming objects carry metaphorical significance. Did you ever think of the work in this way when it was produced?

DL: I have a deep appreciation of painting from the Dutch Golden Age, and it is ironic how my images from We Write Our Own History shares similar tensions to one particular painter of that period called Clara Peeters. For example, it is noticeable in so many of Peeters’ paintings that her table top items are often placed on the very edge of the table, as if on the verge of tipping over. This causes a sense of unease that I hope is also apparent in my photographs.

Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

Another striking feature is the incongruous manner by which items are placed, as if going against traditions of still-life painting. In her painting Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit and Pretzels (1611), Peeters places a large goblet not only at a central vantage point, but also in front of much smaller items. This is unusual, as such items had historically been placed at the back of a large arrangement, to avoid blocking an overview.

Clara Peeters (1611) Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit and Pretzels
Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History
Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

LS: When studying under you, you encouraged collaboration with others. Does this advice stem from your own experience engaging with art institutions or projects in which you have made investigations in conjunction with people? Or is there another reason you stress the importance of collaboration and partnerships?

DL: The status of art and artists was put in question by Duchamp, who acted as agent provocateur, provoking deeper critical engagement in the arts, and as a challenge to systems, institutions and traditions. I share Duchamp’s sentiments in challenging the status quo, and wish to be considered a verb, rather than be labelled by a noun.

By verb over a noun, I mean it is not important for me to be classified as an artist. It is only important to me that I have actioned something or made something. When my work is good, it maybe classed as art or otherwise. Since post-modernity, the status of art has been questioned further, and so the emergence of sharing that status by participation, collaboration and community engagement was inevitable.

The post-modernist American architect Buckminster Fuller wrote the book I Seem to be a Verb (1970), in which he states “I live on Earth at the present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” By that account, and being an integral function, it is no accident that I seek to share the production or delivery of art making with others. At times, my function is simply as facilitator.

LS: Memory and narrative are consistent themes within your works, in particular your trilogy of films within The Anatomy of Place, and your project The Mother of All Journeys. Why is this? Is it an engagement with your native culture or is it a way of providing physicality to an otherwise intangible that may otherwise one day become forgotten?

Dinu Li (2019) from The Anatomy of Place

DL: Yes, I think you’ve guessed correctly. Perhaps the best way to answer your question is to elaborate on another artist, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her sculptures take the form of resin casts, allowing Whiteread to give space a physical presence. What we bypass and ignore everyday are our spaces, as space is invisible. But by giving space a substance, not only does it become visible, but they occupy more presence, more prominence. One of my favourite pieces by Whiteread is also one of her earliest works called Shallow Breath (1988) in which she casted the intimate space directly underneath her father’s mattress, as if Whiteread is making visible, the invisible breaths by her father, breaths that could have infiltrated into the underside of his own bed.

Rachel Whiteread (1988) Shallow Breath

LS: In regards to your trilogy of films (Ancestral Nation, Family Village and Nation Family) was it due to having extensive time working on an off with one subject that the work was concluded as a trilogy or was it more than this?

DL:The genesis to my trilogy came about because I was interested in the word ‘country’ in its Chinese written form. In Chinese, that word can be expressed in three different ways, partly depending on the evolution of the Chinese lexicon, partly due to personal circumstance and so on. For example, in ancient China ‘Ancestral Nation’ would have been used to express the word for ‘country’. People who leave China to emigrate to far away countries often use the words “Family Village” due to its nostalgic undertone. However, Nation Family is the most common way to express the word for ‘country’.

Nation Family Trailer from Dinu Li on Vimeo.

I simply used those three terms as titles for each of my trilogies, and made work in response to the words. For example, for Ancestral Nation, some of the work took place in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, the philosopher generally understood to have helped shape the Chinese characteristics. For Family Village, I examined vernacular architecture in contemporary China. And for Nation Family, I interrogated a specific period in the life of a cousin, by using an old black and white photograph of him as my starting point. It is one of the photographs I looked at as a child growing up in Hong Kong.

LS: During The Mother of All Journeys there is an emphasis on memory, and its relationship to actual time and space. Was the use of photography for you essential given its almost institutionalised place as an artefact of record and its own connection to time and space?

DL: In that project, I was interested in interrogating the authenticity of memory itself and to also problematise photography as a form of documentation. I guess the work started all the way back to those years when I used to form my own narrative about family members through their photographs displayed on my mother’s dressing table. In those years, my mother told my stories related to each photograph, which mixed in with my own imagination about the lives of my relatives. The Mother of All Journeys was an attempt to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of my mother’s life experiences, using old family snapshots to aid our journeys.

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

By the time I was ready to make this work, my mother was already in her 70’s and being forgetful about memories she has instilled in me. Our collaboration involved me recounting my mother’s memories back to her, in order for us to locate the site of her memories. The work involved a lot of missteps, as our combined memories as reliable sources slipped in-between moments of clarity and other moments of uncertainty.

LS: When The Mother of All Journeys was exhibited at the Amelia Johnson Contemporary there seemed to be a clear emphasis on the spatial configuration of the work, and how it was situated both on the walls as well as within the gallery space itself. What influenced this presentation?

DL: Due to the complexities of the project, we divided the exhibition into three parts, using walls as demarcations to define geographic differences. The work involved journeys to China, Hong Kong and parts of Northern England, and so their separation in terms of exhibition display felt necessary.

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

LS: Do you think it is important for photographic work, work that is typically flat surfaced and wall supported, to be displayed in a more spatially configured and engaging way? And are there particular kinds of spaces you like to work with?

DL: I think it is important to work with a given space, responding to the architecture in site specific ways. I find it exciting to display my work in different ways depending on the site, and how the light moves across that space over the course of the day. Sometimes a long wall lends itself to displaying work in a linear fashion. Other times, if a space has a variety of rooms, the same body of work can be reconfigured in other interesting ways.

One of the most interesting spaces I have enjoyed working in recently is Birkenhead Market, where I occupied several market units to display my trilogy and several other pieces. I was so excited to install my work in such a context, as market aesthetics always reminds me of my childhood, since the place I grew in was stones-throw away from Hong Kong’s famous street markets.

LS: After having first-hand experience studying under you at Falmouth University, where you are Senior Lecturer in Photography, I know how you really push students to produce unique and meaningful work. Do you ever find that being in your position, surrounded by students, that you look at things differently based on conversations you have with them or work you see?

DL: I am beginning to see more students working on projects but unable to discuss the meaning behind what they have spent months doing. in their works, there is a trend in projects that appear autobiographical; political without recognising that’s what they are doing; and most recently, a return to documentary traditions in landscape photography. These themes and trends do not feel incidental to me.

From my vantage point, the reason why I think students find it difficult to articulate their projects is very much related to Brexit. There is so much uncertainly to being a student today. They question the value of their work, they are unsure if they are making good work, they are concerned about their futures and they don’t know how to feel about leaving the EU. It is no wonder they find it difficult to discuss the meaning behind their images. Brexit has formed an invisible backdrop to the contexts surrounding the times by which today’s students are being educated.

LS: Given your position you must of course pay close attention to how the arts are viewed by the wider educational sector, and indeed the government. What does the current climate look like for educating students within creative subjects?

DL: I hope educational establishments continues to allow creative subjects to keep pushing the boundaries of what art is. I worry about the professionalisation of creative courses and just hope we allow students the space to be inquisitive, the time to find their voice, and the freedom to try out new ideas. I go back to the notion of identity and wanting to be understood as a verb rather than a noun. In that sense, I hope our students will develop the kind of inquisitive minds that allows them to be more fluid in the way they operate.

Stephen Fry once said “Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

LS: And finally, as for your personal practice is there anything you are currently working or investigating?

DL: I am developing new work, something autobiographical, delving into my own youth, when I was immersed in black youth culture. I’m looking at developing work connected to reggae and dub music.

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Literature Review: Advertising & Social Media

How Has the Rise of Social Media & Social Influencing Impacted on Advertising?

By Amy Miles (2nd june 2021)
In 2015, Facebook launched its first UK advertising campaign, titled Friends and spanning a range of media from TV to posters, magazines and newspapers. Among these images of bodily closeness and handwritten expression there is not one picture of anyone sitting alone at a computer or on their tablet or mobile, tapping the keypad. Yet that, in essence, is what Facebook activity is. There is an inverse relation between the time anyone has to engage in real-world activities and the time they have to spend online looking at pictures, sending messages or ‘liking’ or ‘unliking’ things (and people). Facebook’s campaign draws on the world of robust physical relationships as a means to advertise its online world, which is represented in the ads simply by the box with the tick and ‘Friends’ on it. (Williamson, 2015)
Facebook (2015)

The topic of this Literature Review explores how visual material is used within advertising, and how advertising techniques have changed due to the rise in social media. In a society where social media is expanding, it’s important to understand what effects imagery on social media has on purchase decisions from the public.

The Visual Advert

When thinking about the role of visual material / photography within the advertising industry, we may think of large creative teams executing refined advertising imagery. As Swift (2015) proposes, ‘creative teams became the industry norm in advertising agencies’, with advertising shoots being led by art directors and photographers being seen as ‘cultural heroes’ for making imagery to sell items. (Swift, 2015) As a result of these teams, advertising is an expensive outgoing for companies. In 2004, Baz Luhrmann directed a 3-minute film for Chanel, which cost $42 million (Jhully, 2017).

However, in considering how such visuals are used, staging is one technique used to grab attention of the viewers (Messaris, 1996). Messaris outlines how staging of photographs is a technique used within imagery, involving manipulation of photos, as well as misleading text. In his (1996) text Visual Persuasion: The Role of Imagery In Advertising, he discusses a 1990 Volvo commercial (Figure 1) of a monster truck running over a line of cars, until getting to a Volvo which remained untouched. However, the Volvo in the advert had actually been reinforced by steel beams and that the supports of the other cars had been weakened, therefore misleading the viewer.

Figure 1: Volvo (1990)

Despite being written in 1996, thinking about this technique, the analysis still does apply to advertising today. This is also discussed by James Fox (2020) in his documentary Age of the Image. Fox explains how advertising creates a ‘fantasy world, in which we are happier, healthier and more successful.’ (Fox, 2020) Advertisers then suggest that to make this ‘fantasy’ come true, we should go out and buy the products that they’re promoting. This applies to what Messaris (1996) was discussing in the Volvo advertisement, because Volvo created a fake reality, one which still occurs in advertising nowadays, what makes advertising successful is the fact that it relates to the everyday within consumers lives. Berger (2001) discusses how Fenske, an American copywriter, considers that ‘advertising deals with the minutiae of everyday life’ and an advert may be ‘about something that happened to you that very day’. (Berger, 2001:10). This mirrors Fox’s idea of ‘fantasy’ worlds, potentially enhancing your everyday life to become an ideal ‘fantasy’ within the everyday.

Advertising as ‘Art’?

Is advertising considered as a piece of art in its own right, or is it just purely an advertisement? One argument is that advertising cannot be art because ‘it is conceived for commercial purposes, and controlled and financed by corporations’ (Berger, 2001:13). Berger goes on to discuss how advertising professionals think that it is risky to consider creators as ‘artists’ lest the aim of the advert is forgotten. (Berger, 2001) Nonetheless, there is the idea that this depends on the extent creative freedom the creator of the advert is allowed (Bonello, 2005). (Figure 2 & Figure 3)

Figure 2: Cindy Sherman (2011) Mac
Figure 3: Nan Goldin (2016) Alexander McQueen

Bonello (2005) discusses how Peter Saville (Figure 4) has created record covers, but also advertising campaigns, maintaining creative freedom when creating the work. However, he also argues that the line between art and advertising, depends on the intentions behind the work, and whether something is simply being shown, or whether the work is trying to seduce the viewer (Bonello, 2005). Yet, Jordan Seiler proposes that ‘Ultimately the interest of advertising is not to create something that promotes thought or contemplation. It’s to promote a single message. Advertising is about monologue, and art is about dialogue. The two are completely different’ (Seiler in Krashinsky, 2010). This somewhat compliments Berger’s (2001) argument, that the creation of advertising is to send out one clear message, with ‘art’ sending out a message to the audience that requires more thought and time.

Figure 4: Peter Saville (2002) New Order | Retro

Social Media Marketing

According to Tuten (2018), ‘social media are the online means of communication, conveyance, collaboration and cultivation amongst interconnected and interdependent networks of people, communities and organizations enhanced by technological capabilities and mobility.’ (Tuten, 2018:4) Expanding on this, Zarrella (2009) discusses how social media is different from traditional media, because traditional media are ‘one way, static broadcast technologies.’ (Zarrella, 2009:1) He discusses how social media allows users to connect with one another in real time, as opposed to watching a TV commercial for example, and not being able to connect with the broadcaster instantly. With 4.38 billion global internet users, along with the fact that the ‘average user has accounts with 8 different social media services’, it’s no wonder than social media is now used to advertise products. (Tuten, 2018:5)

In terms of companies deciding which social media platform would be best for them to advertise with, Kietzmann et al (2012) conducted research focusing on the 7 building blocks that form the ‘honeycomb model’, (Figure 5) which would help companies to understand consumer engagement on social media platforms. An example of one of the blocks is ‘sharing’, relating to the ‘extent to which consumers engage, distribute and receive contents.’ (Kietzmann et al, 2012:115).

Figure 5: Kietzmann et al (2012) Social Media Functionality

In synergy to this notion, Newberry & McLachlan (2020) discusses the importance of choosing the right type of social media campaign for the content produced, depending on who the target audience is. (Newberry & McLachlan, 2020) This idea somewhat mirrors the Kietzmann et al’s ‘honeycomb’ model, as if companies want their consumers to reproduce their content as a way of marketing, they’ll need to pick a social media platform that is easily accessible for sharing. Despite Kietzmann’s research being conducted in 2012, the ‘honeycomb model’ does still apply when thinking about what social media platform to advertise on, as numerous social media platforms now exist, even more so than in 2012. Despite more social media platforms existing, the model is still relevant and up to date with the characteristics of social media. (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Twitter response to Gillette (2019) campaign
The Rise of Social Media ‘Influencers’

According to Freberg (2010) ‘social media influencers represent a new type of independent third party endorser who shape audience attitudes through blogs, tweets, and the use of other social media.’ (Freberg 2010:90) Freberg also discusses how social media influencers are identified, explaining that this can be through the content statistics; how many times a post has been shared or how many hits on a blog there are. However, Freberg does also point out that brands cannot solely use this method to identify influencers, and that they need to use other methods to ‘evaluate the quality and relevance’ of social media influencers, as well as the influencers audience impressions. (Freberg, 2010: 91). However, Tuten (2018) describes influencers as ‘develop[ing] a network of people through their involvement in activities’, and explains that others trust and rely on influencers to give a truthful opinion. (Tuten, 2018: 94) (Figure 7)

Figure 7: Sydney May Crouch (2020)

Khamis et al (2017), go on to discuss the role of celebrity endorsements (Figure 8 & Figure 9) within advertising and social media influence, explaining advertising that involves celebrities can be used within mainstream media, as well as using their own social media or websites ‘to cultivate their own audience.’ (Khamis et al, 2017: 5) However, Kl and Kim (2019) argue that the technique of using social media influencers (compared with celebrities) is more relatable to consumers, as the advertising content is being produced in the ‘context of SMI’s personal lives’ and is more ‘accessible and credible’. (Kl & Kim, 2019: 905).This links back to Fenske’s argument that advertising is at its best when it’s relatable to the everyday consumer.

Figure 8: Omega (2019)
Figure 9: Heineken (2020)

Many social influencers use the platform ‘Instagram’ to showcase their personal lives, as well as advertisements for brands. According to Manovich (2015) Instagram ‘allows you to capture, edit and publish photos, view photos of your friends, discover other photos through search, interact with them…all through a single device.’ (Manovich, 2015: 11) Manovich also discusses how Instagram was used to document ordinary moments in people’s lives, that they like to show friends and family, meaning snapshot style images are the basis of Instagram posts. This leads onto Schroder’s (2013) observations regarding the snapshot aesthetic. He explores how snapshot type imagery is also used strategically for advertising. (Figure 10)

Figure 10: Larry Sultan (2002) Kate Spade

‘A key aspect of the snapshot style is an appearance of authenticity; snapshot like images often appear beyond the artificially constructed world of typical corporate communication.’ (Schroder, 2013) An emphasis on the fact that snapshot style images promote authenticity is clear within the text, and how snapshot images can show how a product can fit in with the consumers everyday life. This mirrors Kl and Kim’s (2019) arguments; namely that consumers can therefore relate to social media influencers, due to the snapshot aesthetic that their content is (often) styled around. (Figure 11)

Figure 11: Ryan McGinley (2017) Levi’s

Despite this, in Kl and Kim’s (2019) research, proposes that the ‘attractiveness’ of the Instagram photo means whether the consumer believes that the ‘social media influencers content to be visually or aesthetically appealing.’ (Kl & Kim, 2019: 909). Therefore, suggesting that if a consumer finds an influencers’ content appealing, they’re more likely to think that they have good taste, therefore are more inclined to buy the promoted product. The whole idea of social influencing through images on Instagram, links back to what Fenske stated about how adverts are successful if they relate to the everyday, which is what the snapshot type images demonstrate, as they relate to consumers even more so than high budget advertising shots. Yet, creating an appealing image, requires thought and potential editing to make it attractive, which defeats the idea of images being ‘snapshot’ like, so whether influencer ads are really in the style of the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic is debatable, due to the thought and processing that is required to make an image visually appealing. (Figure 12)

Figure 12: Calvin Klein (1995)

Moving on from this, Instagram has the ability to deceive consumers, as false realities are being exposed. In Driel and Dumitrica’s (2020) study on Instagram influencers, the topic of highly edited and overly curated images is explored: one example being that influencers may over-prepare images; they may include props that aren’t realistic in an everyday setting. In addition, the study looked into how influencers now ‘invest in improving the quality of their photos by migrating toward professional equipment.’ (Driel and Dumitrica, 2020: 12) With this being said, the study also went onto say how Instagram content is moving towards looking like an advertisement, rather than a regular upload to Instagram – thus removing the sense of authenticity, and that influencers are starting to make their own higher budget advertisements to make the images attractive. This may have an effect on consumer engagement, because consumers like to see relatable content, but on the other hand, relatable content might not necessarily be as attractive as higher quality content that is produced with higher quality equipment/budgets. As we’ve seen above in Kl and Kim’s (2019) text, attractiveness of an image is important when wanting consumer engagement and purchasing.

Figure 13: Flat Tummy (2018)

With regard to to posts being unrealistic, this may come down to how brands work with the influencers themselves. Haenlein’s (2020), study investigated how to be successful on Instagram, and discussed how brands can become too involved when working with influencers in terms of how they promote the product. It concludes that brands shouldn’t get too involved with the creative content side of the arrangement, because it may result in multiple influencers producing the same content, which consumers would not percieve as authentic. Additionally, approval of content was discussed, because brands don’t want influencers to promote false information, for example Kim Kardashian’s advert with brand ‘Flat Tummy’; (Figure 13) she promoted a product which claimed to cleanse your body and lessen bloating. This is important when producing content for an audience, as false advertisement can discourage consumers from trusting and purchasing from the brand.


The material explored here seems to suggest that when social influencing is carried out in a truthful and reliable manner, it can be successful for brands, however it did identify that Instagram influencing is becoming more and more commercial, due to taking steps that aren’t as relatable to consumers – moving away from the authenticity and snapshot aesthetic that influencing initially started out with. This then suggests that influencers are more advertising creators (who also create other relatable content), rather than people who create relatable content as well as a few adverts sporadically. This relates to what Berger (2001) was discussing, especially regarding being an ‘artist’; are social influencers creators, or are they simply just another form of advert for brands to use? When exploring the literature, it was significant that there was a lack of research regarding the extent to which influencer created images affect consumers / what consumers think of influencer content – in terms of thinking visually rather than statistically, with Driel and Dumitrica’s (2020) work being one of the key studies in this area.

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