Literature Review: The Representation of Black Women in American Film

From Minstrels to Mammies

By Abigail Emm (15th July 2021)
Cheryl Dunye (1996) The Watermelon Woman
“The negative depiction of black women as domineering matriarchs or exotic sexual objects was created, and still is perpetuated, by white (usually white male) social scientists, and even by a few black male social scientists trained by the … images of hyper-sexuality and overbearingness often merge to symbolize the black woman” (St. Jean & Feagin, 1998: 6)

From minstrel shows to mammies, black people, and more specifically, black women in film, have been portrayed in a damaging light. Caricatures that echo the dehumanisation of black people have been at large throughout the history of American film. With the Black Lives Matter movement sparking necessary conversation on issues surrounding systemic racism and white privilege, it’s essential that we turn our focus to the issues faced by black women. Often rejected from feminist spaces for being black, and from black spaces for being female (Crenshaw 1989: 140), black women’s voices need to be elevated more than ever. Throughout this Literature Review I will be exploring the existing material regarding black female representation in American film, looking at the history and contexts of certain stereotypes, and at how portrayals have progressed over the years.

Intersectionality: The Male and White Gazes

Due to belonging to two minority groups, black women’s struggle for representation, both on screen and behind it, is made all the more difficult. Even white women, whose experience of womanhood is made easier by their whiteness, have fought and continue to fight sexist portrayals. Most notable is Cindy Sherman’s photographic project Untitled Film Stills, (Figure 1) where she transformed herself into common tropes such as the femme fatale and the suburban housewife, playing with the concepts of the male gaze and voyeurism.

Figure 1: Cindy Sherman (1977) from Untitled Film Stills

The male gaze is a concept introduced by Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema and highlights the objectification and sexualisation of women for the purpose of the male scopic drive (the pleasure in looking). The woman’s role is to sustain the “fantasies and obsessions” of men, having no authority and taking a “passive” approach in looking, as opposed to the “active” view of the male (Mulvey 1989: 15-19). John Berger described this concept years prior, as “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” (Berger 1972: 47).

The white gaze, as explored in an article for The Guardian, “traps black people in white imaginations” (Grant 2015), limiting them to their expected roles and undermining their prerogative by forcing them to be a complicit aid for their white lead.

Statistics of Race and Gender Representation in Hollywood Film

The representation of race and gender in film has been well documented throughout the years. A study by US Cannenberg stated that out of the top 100 grossing films of 2019, one third didn’t include a speaking or named black female character, in contrast with the mere 7% of films that omitted their white counterpart (Smith et al. 2020). The UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report for the same year concluded that only “3 out of 10 lead actors in film are people of colour”, which shows the underrepresentation of racial minorities, especially when we consider that they make up more than “40% of the US population” (Hunt and Ramón 2020).

There is a statistical inequality between male and female black filmmakers, due to what Ed Guerrero describes as the “triple oppression” for black women: “independent vision, race and gender” (Guerrero 1993: 174). Due to both women and black people’s experiences being undermined in society, the lack of voice given to people belonging to both minorities is large.

The Bechdel, DuVurnay and Shukla Tests

In order to highlight the lack of representation of minorities in film, several ‘tests’ have been created to determine if films are being inclusive in both their casting and their portrayal.  The test that initiated these measures is the Bechdel test, the premise of which was initially introduced as a feminist joke in a comic book. Despite its unserious origins, it’s now used as a tool of evaluation.

Figure 2: Alison Bechdel (1985) Dykes to Watch Out For

To pass the Bechdel test, the following criteria must be met: at least two female characters must exist with speaking roles, as well as conversing with each other about something other than a man (Bechdel ca. 1985. The Rule – Dykes to Watch Out For). (Figure 2) Some interpretations also require the women to be named characters. Despite its popularity, it has been heavily critiqued due to its low standards for female dialogue – it’s argued that audiences should instead be analytical of how their dialogue is perceived by other characters (O’Meara 2016), and if they make choices that “drive their own stories” (Ellis 2016).

Figure 3: Ava DuVernay (2014) Selma

From the Bechdel test came the DuVurnay and Shukla tests, the former coined by a movie critic due to the lack of Oscar votes for Selma, a movie about civil rights created by a black female director. (Figure 3) It was named after the director herself, with its aim to highlight racial inequality, the premise being that African Americans should be depicted as having “fully realized [sic] lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories” (Dargis 2016). With an emphasis on giving people of colour conversations outside of their racial identity, the Shukla test requires “two ethnic minorities talk to each other for more than five minutes about something other than race” (Shukla 2013). Unlike the Bechdel test, the analysis of films that meet the criteria of the DuVurnay and Shukla tests has been mostly unexplored, with only The Guardian reporting that just three of 2016’s best picture Oscar nominees had passed the Shukla test (Latif and Latif 2016). However, the mere invention of these measures highlights the fact that racial minorities in film are not given the representation or portrayal that is necessary.

“The new stereotype played to White perceptions of Black personalities who, in the vernacular of the era, ‘knew their place’ in American society. Blacks now appeared in movies for the purpose of entertaining White audiences within the context of social limitations… When in movie character, Blacks were subservient to Whites as maids, mammies, domestics, and sidekicks” (Clint et al, 2013: 73)
Stereotypes of Black Women: The Mammy

To understand the contemporary portrayal, we must first look at the origins of the main stereotypes that has dominated films from the beginning: the mammy, the jezebel, and the sapphire. Characterised as being jolly, middle-aged, overweight, dark-skinned and pertaining to have or evoke no sexual desire, the mammy’s sole purpose is to care for the white family she is a servant for (Jewell 1993: 39-39; West 1995: 459; Harris-Perry 2011: 73). Stemming from the Southern states, this stereotype bases itself on black women who served during the antebellum era (McElya 2009: 4). However, this greatly contrasts with the reality of black servants at the time as the majority would have been young and slim, the latter being due to poor diets (ibid, Pilgrim 2000, Jones 2019). These attributes were created to present black women as being against the epitome of white womanhood (Jewell 1993: 39-40, Pilgrim 2000) creating a further division between black and white woman.

Figure 4: Victor Fleming (1939) Gone with the Wind

As discussed in From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond, and quoted in Sister Citizen, this portrayal was created as pro-slavery propaganda by presenting black slaves as being “happy and content with their duties” (Jewell 1993: 38), despite the fact that these women lived with the “constant threat of physical and sexual violence” (2011: 72).

The most notable depiction of this stereotype is seen in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, where the character Mammy is seen as protective and devoted towards the white family in which she serves (2009: 3). (Figure 4) This damaging stereotype can be seen in many movies, including The Help (2011) and the Big Momma anthology (2000-2011). However, in recent film this caricature has been subverted, creating a new narrative. The 2019 horror film Ma contorts this depiction of black women – initially starting out as a considerate motherly figure by inviting a group of young people into her home, the character Ma takes a sharp turn, becoming vengeful when they rebel against her rules (Jones 2019). (Figure 5)

Figure 5: Tate Taylor (2019) Ma

Ma’s “terror, cruelty and vengeful rage are reserved exclusively for white women and children” (ibid), greatly contrasting with Gone with the Wind’s Mammy, whose care is exclusive for her white family. Despite critics’ analysis of this depiction of a subverted stereotype, the white director Tate Taylor denies the correlation between Ma and the attributes of the mammy trope in his own film (White 2019), highlighting the ignorance often held by white people when it comes to stereotypes of minorities in film.

Black women, however, are all too familiar with their representation, with a 2003 study reporting that 97% of the black women interviewed were ‘‘aware of negative stereotypes of African American women”, with 80% stating they have been affected by “persistent racist and sexist assumptions” (Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, cited in Harris-Perry 2011: 35). Despite this, as Carolyn West discusses in Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and Their Homegirls, some black women find comfort in seeing the “warmth and resilience” of the mammy, including when placed on memorabilia (West 2008: 287). This opinion is not widespread however, as these depictions were used to “dehumanize [sic]” (Brown 2019) and are most often deemed entirely offensive.

Stereotypes of Black Women: The Sapphire & The Jezebel

Depicted as “the angry black woman” (Aljazeera 2020), the stereotype of the sapphire was based on the character of the same name in the mid 20th century show Amos ‘n’ Andy. “Hostile [and] nagging” (2008: 296), she is shown to emasculate the men around her, further reiterating the belief that black women aren’t as desirable as white women. (Figure 6) It was popular during the 1970s’ blaxploitation era of film, in which black people were depicted as being promiscuous, rebellious and criminal (Pilgrim 2002).

Figure 6: Sapphire (Ernestine Wade) with Kingfish (Tim Moore) in Amos ’n’ Andy (c.1955)
“The notion of the angry Black woman was a way — is a way — of trying to keep in place Black women who have stepped outside of their bounds, and who have refused to concede the legitimacy of being a docile being in the face of white power,” (Dyson in Ryzick et al, 2020)

In modern film, the sapphire transforms into the trope of the ‘sassy black friend’, often outspoken with unfiltered speech. She can be seen in Wanda Sykes character in the Bad Moms anthology (2016-2017), in which she acts as a humorously unprofessional therapist by insensitively giving relationship advice (Lucas and Moore 2016).

This trope is seemingly more prominent in comedy television shows than it is in movies, with these characters’ main contribution being one-liners to entertain the white protagonist, and having no story of their own, such as Donna Meagle from Parks and Recreation whose catchphrase ‘treat yo’ self’ has gained popularity (Mylrea 2017).

Hyper-sexual and possessing lighter skin and European features, jezebels adhere to the “sex objectification requirement of white womanhood”, greatly contrasting with the sexless attributes of the mammy, and the masculine aggressiveness of the sapphire (Jewell 1993: 46). The only power a jezebel holds is through her slim, attractive body, as this enables her to seduce men (Aljazeera 2020). Stemming from the rape and sexual assault of female slaves from male slaveowners, the jezebel has been used to cover-up these crimes by presenting black women as always having “desired sex”, infiltrating the belief that these sexual encounters were consensual (2008: 294), creating further ownership of white men over black female bodies.

The Objectification of Black and Female Bodies
Figure 7; John Lamprey (c.1870) Anthropometric Study

The objectification of black bodies is historically evidenced by anthropometric photography which initiated during the 1860s. (Figure 7) Black people were photographed against grids in order to calculate their “physical characteristics” (Cohen 2015: 61). It’s also important to note Martha Rosler’s video piece Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained on the dehumanisation of women’s bodies (Rosler 1997), linking to anthropometric studies by showing a woman being clinically measured. This reiterates the increased oppression faced by black women due to both their racial and gender identities being subjected to objectification.

The First High-Profile Black Superhero Movie: Black Panther

“A commentary on African lives with minimal interest in, or need for, the approval of the white gaze” (White 2018), 2018’s Black Panther is one of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time (Hughes 2018). (Figure 8) Having a predominantly black cast and a diverse set of roles and for female characters, Black Panther passes the Bechdel, DeVurnay and Shukla tests. In an interview with Variety, the actress Lupita Nyong’o stated that the director purposefully created roles that would show the “influence” of women, showing eagerness to represent them as diverse individuals (Variety 2018).

Figure 8: Ryan Coogler (2018) Black Panther

Women can be seen physically protecting the male protagonist along with dominating the technological field (ibid), showing strength and leadership in a positive light, and diverging from the emasculatory demeanour of the sapphire. This creation of well-rounded characters subverts the male gaze, whilst colonialist viewpoints are defied by showing African tribes as progressive. The authority is passed over to black women themselves, something rarely seen in American film.

Overall, it can be said that the roles available to black women are slowly becoming more diverse. Shunning stereotypes rooted in slavery propaganda and trading them for complex, influential characters, the American film industry is starting to give black women their own voice. However, lead roles for black women are still scarce, instead going to their male or white counterparts.

“We need to be more aware of the persistence of stereotypes affecting Black girls and women – and avoid repeating those mistakes when making writing, casting, and other content production decisions. While it is encouraging to see some positive trends, it’s clear that much more work needs to be done to ensure that women of all backgrounds have the same opportunities when it comes to being depicted on screen.” (Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2021)

The notable academic research on this topic was created during the 1980s to early 2000s, and has taken a small decline since then, with newspaper and magazine articles becoming more prominent than academic journals or studies, the latter not gaining as much attention as reports in earlier years. With the rise in the acceptance of the LGBT community, and the acknowledgement of the struggles faced by those with disabilities, there is surprisingly little research about the representation of black women who also identify with these labels. Seeing this lack of research, there is scope for an investigation into how these additional components to one’s identify affect people’s casting, perception, and representation in film.

Justin Simien (2017+) Dear White People
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  • CRENSHAW, Kimberle. 1989. ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1).
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The Problem With Superficial Journalism

Shock & Beauty / Compassion & ‘Truth’?:  What Works?

By Beth Donovan (6th July 2021)
“Without photography (or a video), it has been difficult to get people to respond; the urgency and relevance of an event, its importance, and sometimes even the fact of its occurrence might be called into question.” (Ritchin 2013: 8)
Jim Lo Scalzo (2021) A man carrying a Confederate flag stands outside the Senate chamber during the protest at the Capitol building on January 6 2021


This paper explores the subject of superficial journalism and how the media use it as an excuse to shield citizens’ eyes from the visual horrors of war and conflict. It focuses on the arguments between the use of shock tactics and beautification in images, our decline in feeling compassion towards images of this nature and a case study on the way in which the Western media failed to report authentically on the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. 

Drawing on the writing of Jean Baudrillard, Susan Sontag, Fred Ritchin and Susan Moeller; I shall also discuss a variety of conflicts such as Abu Ghraib, The Gulf War and the Algerian Massacre of 1997 and aim to conclude why the media censored such important images. Through the use of supportive material including critics such as Sean O’Hagan and  Andy Worthington; artistic examples from photographers such as Alfredo Jaar and John Moore, I compare which of these were successful and those that were not successful in illustrating the terror of conflict in photographs. 

By using a range of references, my paper argues the strategies we should be using to overcome the ever-expanding use of superficial journalism in the worldwide media. Additionally, how photojournalists such as Kenneth Jarecke and Gilles Peress are challenging the traditional media in the way in which current stories of conflict are presented.

Key Words: Shock Tactics, Compassion Fatigue, War, Photojournalism, Citizen Journalism


  • List of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Shock Tactics, Beauty & Symbolism?
  • Chapter 2: Tackling Compassion Fatigue
  • Chapter 3: The Rwandan Genocide: Did the Western Media Fail?
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Bibliography
Alfredo Jaar (1994) A Victim of Tribal Violence, Nyarubuye, Rwanda

List of Figures

  • Cover Page: JAAR, Alfredo. 1994. A Victim of Tribal Violence, Nyarubuye, Rwanda
  • Figure 1: ASSOCIATED PRESS. 2003. An unidentified Abu Ghraib detainee
  • Figure 2: NILUFER DEMIR / GETTY IMAGES. 2015. A Turkish police officer discovered the body of Alan Kurdi on Sept. 2, 2015, after a boat carrying refugees sank en route to the Greek island of Kos
  • Figure 3: GOOGLE IMAGES. 2019. Google image search “sunset with a camel and a tank gulf war”
  • Figure 4: MCCURRY, Steve. 1991. Camels, Gulf War, Kuwait
  • Figure 5: JARECKE, Kenneth. 1992. An Incinerated Soldier
  • Figure 6: MOSSE, Richard. 2013. from The Enclave
  • Figure 7: MOSSE, Richard. 2013. from The Enclave
  • Figure 8: MOSSE, Richard. 2013. from The Enclave
  • Figure 9: WILLIAMSON, Michael S. 1994. Untitled from Rwanda
  • Figure 10: ZAOURAR, Hocine. 1997. The Madonna of Bentalha
  • Figure 11: ARANDA, Samuel. 2011. Yemen, Fighting for Change
  • Figure 12: BUONARROTI, Michelangelo. 1498-1499. The Pieta (The Pity)
  • Figure 13: RHONEY, Ann. 1991. United Colours of Benetton, Pieta
  • Figure 14: FRARE, Therese. 1990. David Kirby’s Final Moments
  • Figure 15: VELAZQUEZ, Diego. 1632. Christ Crucified
  • Figure 16: THE ECONOMIST. 2004. Front Page
  • Figure 17: DAILY MAIL, DAILY MIRROR, THE TIMES. 2004. Front Covers
  • Figure 18: MOORE, John. 2007. The moment the bomb exploded
  • Figure 19: MOORE, John. 2007. A survivor grieves at the attack scene
  • Figure 20: CHADWICK, Alexander. 2007. Mobile phone image of people caught in the 7/7 bombings
  • Figure 21: BROOMBERG, Adam & CHANARIN, Oliver. 2008. The Day Nobody Died
  • Figure 22: PERESS, Gilles. 1994. From The Silence
  • Figure 23: PERESS, Gilles. 1994. From The Silence
  • Figure 24: PERESS, Gilles. 1994. From The Silence
  • Figure 25: SALGADO, Sebastiao. 1994. Rwandan refugees heading towards North Kivu and South Kivu, Zaire
  • Figure 26: JAAR, Alfredo. 2010. We Wish To Inform You That We Didn’t Know (Video Installation)
  • Figure 27: JAAR, Alfredo. 1996. Eyes of Gutete Emerita
  • Figure 28: JAAR, Alfredo. 2014. Eyes of Gutete Emerita Exhibition Layout
  • Figure 29: WILLIAMSON, Michael S. 1994. Untitled from Rwanda
  • Figure 31: WILLIAMSON, Michael S. 1994. Untitled from Rwanda
  • Figure 32: JAAR, Alfredo. 1994. Untitled (Newsweek) Exhibition View


“The increasingly malleable photograph – whether manipulated before or after the shutter’s release – is employed to fashion the world according to the intentions of the person making it, or of the institution for which it is being made.” (Ritchin 2013: 7) In my opinion, the problem with photojournalism today is that too many photographers are opting for the easy option of representing global conflicts; known as ‘superficial journalism’. Photographers are masquerading the real narrative behind their images and denying the public of the truth. Personally, I feel that if photographers are not going to reveal the blatant visuals to a wider audience when covering conflict, the use of images may as well be obsolete.

By using photographs or video when it comes to this nature of work, it can bear a beneficial effect upon society and in turn attempt to help stop the situation that is occurring. Speaking of the Abu Gharib photographs from 2004 (Figure 1) and the impact they had on society, Sontag comments: “It was the photographs that made all this ‘real’ to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.” (Sontag 2004)

Furthermore, the silence of action from authoritative figures is still relevant today in recent global events. For example, during the European refugee crisis of 2015, officials were aware of what was happening but simply did nothing until an image of a young boy from Syria who was deceased surfaced in the media. (Figure 2) Without this image, a wider audience would have been completely oblivious to the refugee crisis.

“Connotation drawn from knowledge is always a reassuring force – man likes signs and likes them clear.” (Barthes 1977: 29) If the incorrect settings are publicised that censor the true dialogue of the event, then the inevitable happens – citizens become ignorant to their surroundings and immune to feeling compassion towards the images. As Ritchin has said here, “Without photography (or a video), it has been difficult to get people to respond; the urgency and relevance of an event, its importance, and sometimes even the fact of its occurrence might be called into question.” (Ritchin 2013: 8)

For example, the media failed in my opinion, in truly representing the conflicts of Eastern Congo, The Gulf War, Yemen (2011), Algerian Massacre of 1997 to name a few. The question of whether the use of shock tactics frightens the mass media and that is the reason for its lack thereof in photojournalism, has caused much debate in photography over the years; I discuss this further in Chapter 1 and argue that it should be more present today, especially when photographing the degradation of human actions. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic has stated on this subject that “sanitised images of warfare make it easier to accept bloodless language.” (Friedersdorf 2014)

These are not narratives that should be reimagined lightly, one must feel that they were present in that terror to understand its impact; I argue that the strategy that achieves this is citizen journalism. In Chapter 2, I propose that members of society have become more immune to feeling any emotion towards photographs of conflict, due to their poor representation in the media and have fallen into a category known as compassion fatigue. Additionally, the way to combat this problem is to allow citizen journalism to have a prominent stand in media today. In Chapter Three I shall specifically discuss the Rwandan Genocide of 1994; how I feel that the Western media failed to represent the Genocide through their use of imagery. (Cover Image) Also, how American security officials instructed photojournalists to only release culturally appropriate images to the public, censoring any other images taken – thus resulting in superficial journalism.

Chapter 1: Shock Tactics, Beauty & Symbolism?

“Do the media neutralise meaning and produce unformed or informed masses, or is it the masses who victoriously resist the media by directing or absorbing all the messages that the media produce without responding to them?” (Baudrillard 1994: 84) I completely agree with Baudrillard here, it is unclear when it comes to the mass media whether it is them who is at fault for delivering images that are useless to the focus of its subject; or if it is us as an audience who are looking at all the correct photographs and information needed to put a foot forward, but yet we choose to ignore what is not on our own terrain.

During the Gulf War in Kuwait of 1991, the true visuals of the conflict were lost due to poor media coverage. Many photojournalists attended the scenes to capture the unfolding events of horror that were occurring – but only one photographer in my opinion, managed to successfully produce authentic images and that was Kenneth Jarecke.  “It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank.” (Jarecke 2014) As Jarecke has said above, the Gulf War was inconsistently covered by the media (Figure 3) and photojournalists were producing photographs that simply looked more like a theatrical film than a horrific conflict. This was due to the strict rules being enforced by the American government, that any shocking photographs captured must be censored from a wider audience; the government wanted the public to “rely on the ‘mind pictures’ suggested in correspondents reports.” (Burns 1991)

Figure 3: Google Images (2019) Google image search “sunset with a camel and a tank gulf war”

Photographer Steve McCurry also illustrated the Gulf War, but I feel that McCurry’s images were illustrated in a way that describes exactly what Jarecke meant from his comment about the array of sunset, camels and tank images that surfaced from the conflict. And unfortunately, these deceptive images were surfacing much quicker for members of the public to see; images that in my opinion offered no such visual importance of the aftereffects of war and were altogether superficial. As you can see in Figure 4, the image is exactly what the caption says it is – a roaring explosion of fire behind the silhouettes of camels. It is obvious that shock tactics were not considered when McCurry took this photograph, McCurry is only beautifying war and not showing the atrocities that coincide with devastating conflicts.

Figure 4: Steve McCurry (1991) Camels, Gulf War, Kuwait

In comparison to McCurry, Jarecke’s photographs were completely representative of the Gulf War and showed the inside eye of what the public were being denied of visually. (Figure 5). Jarecke’s images sparked controversy as being distasteful and dishonourable because he was specifically photographing the dead. However, Jarecke commented when being criticised that “if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mum will think war is what they see in movies.” (Jarecke 2014) I completely agree with Jarecke here, if photojournalists do not adhere to photographing exactly what is in front of them, then their images will result in looking like McCurry’s cinematic images from the war – aesthetically newsworthy but with the wrong intentions.

Figure 5: Kenneth. Jarecke (1992) An Incinerated Soldier

The subject of war and conflict amongst photography has often been a difficult topic to approach for photographers. They can either take two paths I feel, either they decide to represent conflict with raw visualities; however this can then lead to their audience becoming desensitised to the images, especially when there is a constant outpour of these types of images. In my opinion, this would be the obvious choice though if I were to document terrorisation of a community, it bears no dishonesty. On the other hand, some photographers such as Richard Mosse, choose to opt for stunning aesthetics and this is where I feel artists who try to mirror photojournalism in their own work are failing.

Mosses’ project The Enclave displayed several images from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what I can only describe as appearing like a fashion shoot. (Figures 6, 7 & 8) Mosse documented how 5.4 million people have died there since 1998 due to ongoing conflict; the conflicts are still happening presently as rebel groups operate to this day in Eastern Congo. He used discontinued infrared colour film that was originally used by the United States military during World War Two to highlight camouflage. Mosse’s reasoning for this was that he wanted to represent “the crisis of representation artists, photojournalists and filmmakers are confronted with when trying to depict brutality, suffering and destruction.” (Smaidment 2015)

Personally, it does not represent in my view the experience of victims who have died amongst the midst of the landscape shown. Using film that changes the colour of its surroundings in the image to bright pinks and reds, is not a valid depiction of the horror that citizens endured. The colour red may connotate the blood of the dead, but I feel the photographs do not emit anything other than visual beauty. “The first and greatest humanitarian trap is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable.” (Rieff 2013: 137) I agree with Rieff here, photographers such as Mosse and McCurry, continually produce work that allows the true narrative to hide behind a blanket of beauty in order for it to be deemed more acceptable for viewing.

Along with beautified images, I feel the media often uses biblical symbolism in their imagery or will refer to religion when broadcasting the news. (Figure 9) However, along with doing this, they have at times fabricated captions with images to make the story appear more dramatic – resulting in the truth of the news being pushed aside. An example of this can be found in Hocine Zaourar’s image, The Madonna of Bentalha. (Figure 10) Zaourar’s image depicted a woman crying out in despair just outside one of the hospitals within the town of Bentalha, Algeria. The Algerian Massacre of 1997 accumulated hundreds of deaths across the country, started by the Islamist guerrilla groups; they were opposing against the government and the cancellation of the elections that were due to start. The massacres had no organisation associated with them, the independent groups went from house to house, killing every man, woman, and child. Although the image had critical acclaim and benefited in the world knowing about the violence occurring in Algeria, the journalists changed the text accompanying the image and stated that the woman was a mother mourning the death of her eight children. The real story behind the photograph is that the woman was mourning over three of her relatives; changing the narrative behind the image inevitably gave it more power visually as McGonagle has said here: “positioning her as a mother mourning the loss of her eight children allowed commentators to draw parallels with notions of motherhood worldwide.” (McGonagle 2014: 80) Of course, any family member dying is devastating for a person, but society tend to feel more empathy towards a supposed mother and her incomparable grief over her own children in the centre of war.

Religious iconography is another factor that the media include in images of conflict, this is something that I feel can be a positive attribute. Such as with Samuel Aranda’s image (Figure 11), the photograph depicts a mother cradling her adult son after she found him to be alive during the devastating chain of events; the picture has been linked to Michelangelo’s Pieta. (Figure 12) In comparison to Michelangelo’s Pieta, advertising company Benetton released a controversial campaign in 1991 of the same name, exposing the reality of AIDS. (Figure 13) The photo depicted AIDS activist David Kirby as he laid on his deathbed in hospital, surrounded by his family. The original photograph was taken by Therese Frare (Figure 14) and Benetton’s art director Oliviero Toscani enlisted artist Ann Rhoney to colourise the image with oil paint to give it more shock value.

Although the campaign was received both negatively and positively for its Christian comparisons to Pieta, I feel that it is an authentic representation of human suffering, much like Aranda’s Yemen work because we know it has happened and is still happening globally today. Benetton’s advert and Aranda’s image, I feel, are successful examples of when Christian iconography is used properly. In relation to my view, Toscani has commented that “The Michelangelo’s Pieta during the Renaissance might be fake, Jesus Christ may never have existed. But we know this death happened. This is the real thing.” (Toscani 1991) Relating images of conflict and suffering to a biblical narrative such as Mary and Jesus, is an exceptional way of attracting the viewer’s attention. Audience’s usually feel more empathy towards imagery of a family circle in my opinion, their compassion becomes heightened due to them thinking about their own families and how they would feel personally in the same situation. As Coomes says here of Aranda’s image and I believe that it can also be connected to Benetton’s advert, “the Renaissance style of lighting elevates it from an illustrative news picture to something that has a heritage.” (Coomes 2012)

Balog argues, “I’ve tended to look for an engaging way, not always a beautiful way, to pull people into the subject and make them care about it. And then, at the same time…(to) deliver a message behind that beautiful picture that says, ‘Things aren’t what you wish they were; things aren’t what they could be.” (Balog 2013: 132) This comment I feel, can be connected to how people reacted when the Abu Ghraib images were released; they again present religious tendencies, but in their case at a much darker level. In particular, the image that circulated at a faster rate than any other from Abu Ghraib was that of The Hooded Man. (Figure 1) The way in which the man’s arms are outstretched like Jesus’s were during his crucifixion (Figure 15), his hands being attached to electrical wires, much like Jesus’s hands were pinned in with nails to the cross – the image mimics the brutality that Jesus endured before his death.

The Hooded Man was also chosen for many international and global newspapers/magazines covers (Figure 16), most likely because I feel journalists knew it would attract immediate attention due to its raw and intense visuals; additionally that religious symmetry favours the eyes of most.“These forms of savagery are neither mere images nor mere actions, but are designed to be both: they are propaganda of the spectacle and of the deed.” (Linfield 2010: 152) As Linfield says here, these types of images are not there to beautify conflict but to create a reaction among people and educate them on how humans can become the overall enemy of humanity itself. The Abu Ghraib images were not released to be easy to view or to understand the actions of the American military. They were shown to expose the brutal truth of conflict behind closed doors; not everything we read about is proof of its subject and the issue certainly attracted the media’s attention (Figure 17). As Cartier-Bresson says here: “Life isn’t made of stories that you cut into slices like an apple pie. There’s no standard way of approaching a story. We have to evoke a situation, a truth.” (Cartier Bresson 2013: 36)

In addition, images such as the ones that came from Abu Ghraib should be the types of images we all collectively see when it concerns the topic of conflict; we need to see the chaos of a situation to understand its origin so that eventually, conflicts are reduced gradually. Without these types of photographs, the narrative cannot and in my opinion should not be released into the world. “As a journalist, I’m obliged to concede that the broadcasting of the images was a succinct demonstration of the visceral power of photos over the written word.” (Worthington 2009) Overall, I feel that shock tactics used in a conflict image are always the worthier choice; the subject of conflict should not be approached with caution, especially when vital visual information is at stake of being disregarded. Although talking about Abu Ghraib, I feel that this comment can be applied to photographs of a similar nature and represents how I feel about shocking images of conflict: “These photographs expose the essential blindness that constitutes the act of seeing as such.” (Phelan 2012: 55)

Chapter 2: Tackling Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue and pleasing aesthetics create a vicious circle and, in some way, marry up to one another surprisingly. Without beautiful aesthetics, society becomes immune to the empathy they should be feeling when divulging conflict of war images; and when contradictive beauty takes its place within a photograph, people tend to only focus on that factor and not the narrative behind the colours. Whether or not this complication will ever be fixed is a question I cannot answer, but what I am certain of is that photographers should be focusing on what Ritchin says here – we must “incite discussion and attract attention.” (Ritchin 2013: 39)

A strategy that I believe combats compassion fatigue is that of citizen journalism; this type of imagery is raw and attracts the attention of people that abstract journalism cannot.For example, the assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto that was captured by photojournalist John Moore at the very moment it occurred. The images (Figures 18 & 19) are visually catastrophic in keeping with the tone of the event; although they are not necessarily clear to understand, the physical facial expressions of surrounding people and the blurriness of the scene are enough to comprehend how disastrous it would have been to be there. Moore is not a citizen journalist per say, but his illustration of the attack was unplanned and is not the initial reason that he was there in the first place. He was at that time, a citizen voluntarily photographing the event – images that would later be a representation of the brutality endured by the involved people. The reason that I feel Moore’s pictures can be related to that of citizen journalism, is that they are closely similar to the images taken at the scene of the 7/7 bombings in London. (Figure 20)

These types of images may not be perfectly constructed to fit the editorial choices of magazines and newspapers, but they are an honest outline of how events of conflict can happen without warning – we must continue to deliver these photographs to inform people within the area. We can relate more efficiently to citizen journalists and I support my argument with this statement from Ritchin: “Many viewers may empathize with the motivations of these ordinary citizens, which are possibly similar to their own.” (Ritchin 2013: 11)

In comparison, artists Broomberg and Chanarin have said in an interview discussing photojournalism and conceptual photography, that Moore’s image from Pakistan was the catalyst for them to create their project The Day Nobody Died. Their intention for this project was to “create in the mind of the viewer, a question. Which was; what do you expect to see, what do you want to see and how much would be enough evidence for you.” (Chanarin 2012) Broomberg and Chanarin wanted to question whether images of conflict should be as brash and visually raw as the images that come mostly from citizen journalism. They took a roll of film out to Afghanistan and each time a conflicting event would happen; they would expose the film for 20 seconds into the light. (Figure 21)

Figure 21: Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin (2008) The Day Nobody Died

This piece of work in my opinion, is not a valid alternative to citizen journalism and does not contain any valuable information at all regarding a scene of conflict. I agree with O’Hagan with his opinion on the project that, “they are in a warzone and their decking about with some conceptual joke, I think it’s patronising and arrogant.” (O’Hagan 2012)    However, I do agree with Broomberg when he argues that, “why in 2012, are we seeing images that are less analytical and critical than they were in 1960. Something’s gone wrong, we are being controlled, there’s a clear act of censorship going on.” (Broomberg 2012) Consistently, we are bombarded with images of conflict that are not representative of the narrative that has occurred and this I feel, is the reason for society’s demise in feeling any form of compassion towards the subject of visual warzones.

Chapter 3: The Rwandan Genocide: Did Western Media Fail?

The overstuffed nations watched CNN and shook their heads in silence.” (Gannett News Service 1999: 283) In my view, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 should have been an event that was publicised worldwide from start to finish; however, the Western media in their typical ‘late to the party’ fashion decided against releasing the images – that was until the death toll had soared to an unsustainable amount of 900,000 and help seemed to disappear into the abyss.“Only when the genocide turned into a refugee crisis, did either the public or government take any aggressive action.” (Moeller 1999: 284) As Moeller argues here, up until this point, nobody across the globe had an insight into what was happening in Rwanda. Yet the first images they were introduced to were of refugees fleeing the country (Figure 22) and not the cause of this action. It would not be for another four months that an international audience would be made privy to the true reason for the civilian escape. (Figure 23)

Only a select few of photographers such as Alfredo Jaar and Gilles Peress (Figure 24), succeeded in producing the right work that was representative of the horror during the Rwandan Genocide. Other photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado (Figure 25), simply masqueraded any importance from the genocide by providing the public with superficial journalism. Yet, these were the types of images that were chosen to be published first because the feelings of society were considered before the feelings of the victims. As Davies has argued here, “these are journalists who are no longer out gathering news but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.” (Davies 2010: 46) It took a considerable amount of imagery to be released before any hierarchal figure decided to take action and offer their services of aid, as Polman explains here, “Africans especially have to kick up a considerable fuss to be heard and seen by donors, since modern history sets a high threshold for attention to ‘yet another African war drama.’” (Polman 2010: 161)

In my opinion, the media had failed, as Moeller states here quoting from the 1996 report The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwandan Experience, “The Western media’s failure to report adequately on the genocide in Rwanda possibly contributed to international indifference and inaction, and hence the crime itself.” (Moeller 1999: 298) Ritchin argues that “one of the most contested and restricted purviews of professional photographers has been the coverage of war.” (Ritchin 2013: 16) During thier time in Rwanda, photographers Giles Peress and Alfredo Jaar (Figure 26) managed to achieve what I believe to be almost impossible amongst photojournalism nowadays. I argue that they successfully produced images that represented what Western society should have been exposed to from the beginning; where beauty was not the favoured inclusion in the photographs and people could finally see the horrors that had occurred among Rwanda through their use of shock tactics. Although, it was not an easy task to follow through on because “imagery of a larger societal significance has a much harder time surfacing, let alone demanding attention.” (Ritchin 2013: 9) I agree with Ritchin here, as we know that with Jarecke’s Incinerated Soldier (Figure 6), that all American magazines/newspapers refused to publish the image due to its shocking graphics.

Figure 26: Alfredo Jaar (2010) from We Wish To Inform You That We Didn’t Know (Video Installation)

Jaar approached the genocide of Rwanda through the eyes of the survivors and it has been noted that “The Rwanda Project can be regarded as a form of epos, an epic poem dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide.” (Gervat 2014) The Rwanda Project is extremely intense in my view and includes repetition of certain images of his, but I feel that this appearance is vital in truly representing the tone of the subject; how powerful figures worldwide were repeatedly shown images from the genocide and simply did nothing. It is displayed in various forms and follows an aesthetic style to explain how the world failed to respond to the genocide.

For example, a section entitled Eyes of Gutete Emerita (Figure 27) shows the eyes of a surviving mother; the text accompanying this image explains how Gutete was attending Sunday mass at her local church when the slaughters of 400 Tutsi men, women and children began right before her eyes; among those were also her husband and two sons. At times, the entirety of an image is not needed to fuel emotive narrative, and this is an example of how it can be achieved. Gutete’s eyes are harrowing to stare at, to imagine what she must have seen – the same images that Western society would have been shown during the massacre, yet they failed and still fail today to feel compassion towards distressing conflict images in the media. “What had happened during the coverage of the genocide was in hindsight less compassion fatigue, and more compassion avoidance.” (Moeller 1999: 306)

Figure 27: Alfredo Jaar (1996) The Eyes of Gutete Emerita

Personally, I cannot understand why aesthetically beautiful images are more successful in the public eye, especially if it is concerning terror among cultures. The people of Rwanda experienced an event that is incomprehensible to the human mind; it was a menacing attack of massacre – massacre is not picturesque, so why should the photographer’s images appear this way? Indeed, Jaar also exhibited the Rwanda Project in a way that exudes power upon any person that viewed it; Figure 28 shows a secondary way that the Eyes of Gutete Emerita were exhibited

Figure 28: Alfredo Jaar – (1996) The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (Installation View at Berlinsche Galerie)

Jaar exhibited Gutete’s eyes on a huge light box, consisting of one million slides along with magnifiers for visitors to use to investigate the images closer. In my opinion, this allowed the audience to inspect closely the haunting stare and focus of Gutete’s eyes onto theirs, reiterating that her eyes, are eyes of sorrow from a deadly massacre. The proportional amount of slides connects with the final count of corpses from the Rwandan Genocide; the way in which the slides pile above people walking around the table extenuates I feel, both the presentation of how the bodies were piled on top one another without care throughout the killings, and the amount of onlookers during the carnage.  Western onlookers who watched and waited for it to end so that their services would not be needed, regardless of the amount of graphic imagery they were shown through the media. Gervat has argued about the various ways in which Jaar exhibited his work, that “they are all poetic exercises in representation that are at once a dirge and exaltation, an effigy and an elegy, a promulgation and a denunciation of the Rwandan Genocide and the world’s failure to respond to it.” (Gervat 2014) I agree with Gervat here, Jaar is demonstrating to the public through presentation, the amount of fatalities and the experiences of survivors whose voices were ignored among the rubble of superficial journalism, courtesy of the Western media.

However, Jaar was sceptical about how he had produced work from the Rwanda Project commenting, “I feel that it wouldn’t make any difference to show these images because I feel people here have lost the capacity to see, they have lost their capacity to be affected.” (Jaar 2004: 62) But I disagree with Jaar here, he is proving how powerful cropped images can be, not always having to be explicitly graphic, but nevertheless pinning the audience in the same way. I do agree with Jaar however, that people – meaning the Western world – have lost their compassion to feel something when looking at an image of conflict or post conflict.

Williamson (1994) however, took a different direction when it came to publishing photographs from the genocide. In my opinion, the style in which Williamson chose was that of how photojournalism should be executed for news information purposes. Williamson arrived six days after the Rwandan president was assassinated, instantly hearing the cries of victims who were being hacked to death when he stood upon the bridge at night. Williamson’s image (Figure 29) of bodies floating in the Kigali river is shocking due to its graphic nature and shows no attempt to hide the true subject matter of murder. Yet, even with images such as this one where you can see bloodied, decomposing bodies floating in the remnants of other corpses, both the public and officials across the Western front did not intervene to offer help. “Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy.” (Sontag 2004: 7) I argue that Sontag’s comment relates to how Western society is continually falling into the deep depths of compassion fatigue; fuelled by the ignorance that it is simply not their business to interfere in another ‘helpless conflict’, regardless of the floods of horrific images that come from it. In addition, I feel that this fatigue is not helped when we as a community are informed first with images (Figures 22 & 25) that can only be labelled as superficial.

Figure 29: Michael S. Williamson (1994) from Rwanda

In comparison, I would argue that the majority of Williamson’s images were lacking the accessories that are vital in an image to evoke a sense of ‘stand up and act’ in people. Such as, this image here of a child in Rwanda suffering from a cold. (Figure 30) This photograph has clearly been constructed for beauty purposes only; when a genocide is raging within the walls around this image, these are not the visuals we should be seeing instead. On the poor construction of images, Baudrillard argues that “rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning.” (Baudrillard 1994: 80) Although the media is aware that an audience responds well to the face of another African child in the midst of conflict, this image is not representative of the true context behind it. This photograph in particular, should not have been printed to be a representation of the Rwandan Genocide; caption or no caption, it still does not show the massacre that was happening, resulting in deaths that were accumulating “at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust.” (Gourevitch 1999: 280)

Figure 30: Michael S. Williamson (1994) from Rwanda

On the other hand, Jaar’s work from the Rwanda Project is more illustrative of the Rwandan Genocide and the controversies behind it especially. I feel that Jaar was extremely clever in showing just how neglected the genocide was when it came to being included in the worldwide press. He exhibited this piece (Figure 31) entitled Newsweek, in which he exposed how it took a renowned American magazine like Newsweek, sixteen weeks before their front page was covered with the horrors of Rwanda. Yet, that the journalists of Newsweek were most definitely aware of the genocide; yet they simply ignored the conflict because they were ordered to do so by American security officials. Instead, they were told to fill their front covers with more ‘culturally appropriate’ stories for the people of America. When Rwanda’s time finally came to be in the spotlight, it was August 1st 1994, four months after the genocide had begun and an estimated 900,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered alone, as well as another 2 million people who had fled, eventually dying from cholera.

Figure 31: Alfredo Jaar (1994) Untitled (Newsweek) (Exhibition View)

In my opinion, what Jaar has shown here, is that anything that is covering our newspapers or magazine front pages, could be completely irrelevant compared to more important events happening that we are unaware of; the mass media “are the vehicles for the simulation internal to the system and the simulation that destroys the system: (Baudrillard 1994: 84) Additionally to this point, “as a result of the risks and costs, ‘a lot of the coverage has been superficial.’” (Jennings 1999: 293) Or in this case, non-existent for sixteen weeks while women, men and children were killed on their own territory for simply not having the right identification card.


Conclusively, I argue that without the use of shock tactics within conflict photographs, we can never truly understand the storyline of the event. These types of events are not meant to be reconstructed for our viewing pleasure, they are available to us in order to show the realism of everyday conflicts and the inhuman actions that take place. As Taylor has commented here: “What would it mean for knowledge if the images ceased to circulate, or were never seen in the first place? What would it mean for civility if representations of war crimes were always polite? If prurience is ugly, what then is discretion in the face of barbarism?” (Taylor 2014: 85)

If photojournalists can use their valuable access to warzones for the benefit of illustrating the authentic story to citizens around the world, this could result in us seeing illustrations that we do not see often, due to the control of censorship from hierarchal officials. Journalists must push against these ridiculous expectations from powerful figures; figures who are not in the centre of the conflict and in turn have no authority to dictate what should or should not be shown in the media.

Superficial journalism is unfortunately becoming more apparent presently in the media; this downward spiral of dishonesty must be dealt with before we no longer have an urge to witness any form of media, due to continually questioning what is and is not a true representation of conflict.


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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
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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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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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  • BERGER, Warren (2001) Advertising Today London: Phaidon.
  • BONELLO, Deborah (2005) Inside Design & Media: Art in Advertising: The dark art shows its colours: some say inside every copywriter is a frustrated novelist struggling to get out. But perhaps the difference between advertising and fine art is illusory, say Deborah Bonello in The Guardian, 14 March 2005
  • Fox, James. 2020. Age of the Image. Series 1: Episode 3: Seductive Dreams. [TV Broadcast] BBC Four, 16 March 2020.
  • FREBERG, Karen. GRAHAM, Kristin. McGAUGHEY, Karen. FREBERG, Laura, A. (2010) ‘Who are the social media influencers? A study of public perceptions of personality’ in Public Relations Review. 37(1), 90-92.
  • HAENLEIN, Anadol (2020) ‘Navigating the New Era of Influencer Marketing: How to Be Successful on Instagram, TikTok, & Co’. California management review 63(1), 5–25.
  • JHALLY, Sut (2017) Advertising At the Age of an Apocalypse.  [Film]
  • KHAMIS, S. ANG, L. AND WELLING, R. (2017) ‘Self-branding, ‘micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencers’ in Celebrity Studies, 8(2), 5.
  • KIETZMANN, Jan. H. SILVESTRE, Bruno, S. McCARTHY, Ian, P and PITT, Leyland, F. (2012) ‘Unpacking the social media phenomenon: towards a research agenda’ in Journal of Public Affairs 12(2), 115.
  • KL, Chung-Wha &, KIM, Youn-Kyung (20190 ‘The Mechanism by Which Social Media Influencers Persuade Consumers: The Role of Consumers’ Desire to Mimic’ in Psychology & Marketing 36(10), 905–22.
  • KRASHINSKY, S. (2010) ‘Happy Together: art and outdoor advertising’ in The Globe and Mail. [Online] Available at Accessed 17.11.20
  • MANOVICH, Lev. (2016) Instagram and The Contemporary Image in [Online] Available at [Accessed 25.11.20]
  • MESSARIS, Paul (1996) Visual Persuasion: The Role of images in Advertising. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • NEWBERRY, Christina and McLachlan, Stacey (2020) ‘Social Media Advertising 101: How to get the most out of your ad budget’ in HootSuite [Online] Available at Accessed 23.11.20
  • SCHROEDER, Jonathan (2013) ‘Snapshot aesthetics and the strategic imagination’ in Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture. 18. Available at [Accessed 25.11.20]
  • SWIFT, Rebecca (2015) ‘Advertising Photography’ in Oxford Art Online. Available at [accessed 12.11.20]
  • TUTEN, Tracy L. (2021) Social Media Marketing. 4th edition. London: Sage Publications.
  • VAN, DRIEL, L. and DUMITRICA, D. (2020) ‘Selling brands while staying “Authentic”: The professionalization of Instagram Influencers.’ in Convergence. P1
  • ZARRELLA, Dan (2010) The Social Media Marketing Book. California: O’Reilly Media.


The Materiality of Wolfgang Tillmans and Marlo Pascual

by Louis Stopforth (9th december 2019)

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes proposes that ‘the Photograph is flat’ (Barthes. 1993. p.106). However photographic materiality has come into question by artists, curators, and critics alike after much deliberation in regards to the medium, procuring that the photograph no longer was to be read as ‘flat’ but that it had a tangibility to it that could be felt and experienced. This exploration of the medium refuted that a photograph was merely an invisible vessel for information, but rather it could be an object of interest in its own right as well as having its materiality contribute to its place as a descriptor.

Figure 1: Photography into Sculpture Exhibition (1970) MoMA


The Photography into Sculpture held at MoMA in 1970 (Fig.1) was a seminal exhibition in allowing artists and photographers alike to begin the exploration of photographic materiality as the focal point of their work, superseading depiction. Peter Bunnell, the curator of this exhibition, one year previously wrote a short essay ‘in which he identified a body of work ‘calling attention to the photographic artifact’ (Batchen. 2002. p.110).



The importance of this exhibition was how ‘the primacy of the image was traded for the primacy of the object, where each work was not ‘’a picture of, but an object about something”’ (Statzer. 2014).

Since then numerous artists, works, exhibitions and essays have focused on the physicality of the photograph, and to more experimental and conceptually charged extents. Two artists I explore here are Marlo Pascual and Wolfgang Tillmans, who have both produced works discussing the materiality of photography but in quite dissimilar ways.

Figure 2. Marlo Pascual (2010) Untitled. Two C-print, photographs, mounted on plexiglass.

Marlo Pascual (b.1972) and her distorted, ruptured, torn, and intervened with photographs (Fig. 2) instantly defies unawareness to the photographs material presence; ‘the photographs two dimensionality is revealed as a fiction’ (Batchen. 2002. P.110). The recognition of photographic materiality is one that does not effortlessly come to our attention, like other art forms, hence Pascual’s contentious alteration of the photograph.

She states ‘I want it to be physically imposing’ (Pascual, 2012). Pascual’s work discusses materiality in the most extreme of ways, aggressively intervening with the photographic object.
Figure 3. Wolfgang Tillmans (2007.) Lighter 46. C-print photograph, in artist’s frame.

Wolfgang Tillmans (Fig. 3) on the other hand is an example of how photographic work can deal with materiality in both a physical way as well as a photographically representational way (a photograph in its ‘institutionalized’ sense). In contrast to Marlo Pascual, Tillmans work in regards to materiality speaks more intrinsically to photography itself as it does not use exterior materials to itself. For this to be appreciated one must observe two projects simultaneously: Lighter and paper drop.

Figure 4: Wolfgang Tillmans (2006) Lighter III. C-print, photograph, in artist’s fram

Tilllmans’ exhibiting of Lighter (2005 to present) consists of an ongoing series of prints that have been folded and bent, protruding into space (Fig. 4). They speak universally of both photographic process and photographic materiality due to there being no personal vision in the trace ‘image’ of the work. If there were clearly recognizable depictions on the surface of the image it would become misconstrued and associated with something rather than the photographic self. Instead the abstract coloring we are presented with is a comment on the process of making a photograph (the colours being the effects of variations in the conditions of light in the darkroom on the photographic paper). Whereas the folding and bending of the paper talks about all photographs material nature. ‘Lighter invite(s) us to think of photography not in terms of an image, but structurally’ (Eichler. 2015. P.11).

Alongside his more dimensional pieces, however, Tillmans uses photography in its more traditional sense of depictional representation (Fig. 5) as a way of personally investigating the broader notion of all things being dimensional.

Figure 5. Wolfgang Tillmans (1991) Still Life Talbot Road. C-print photograph

With his paper drop (Fig. 6) prints he uses photography typically how it is expected; creating a visible and recognisable trace of a moment. Despite this, these prints discuss materiality much the same as the Lighter works as when they are displayed alongside each other, and when we view the flat surfaced paper drop photographs the same as we would any other photograph, we observe that what is depicted is a physical photograph ‘folded back on itself forming a reclining tear-drop shape’ (Eichler. 2015. p.11).

The result of this is that Tillmans produces a ‘study of photography looking at itself’ (Eichler. 2015. p.11); displaying its physicality without manifesting itself into something with more form than itself.
Figure 6: Wolfgang Tillmans (2011) paper drop (green) II. C- print photograph

Therefore it is possible to be attentive to both reference and representation whilst the concept of the work is still dedicated to the physicality of the photographic self.

  • Barthes, Roland. (1993) Camera Lucida. Published by ‘Vintage Classics’ in 1993. Originally published in French in 1980.
  • Batchen, Geoffrey (2002)  Each Wild Idea. Published by ‘MIT Press’, London, in 2002. Paperback First Edition.
  • Eichler, Dominic (2015) Wolfgang Tillmans: Abstract Pictures. Published by ‘Hatje Cantz’, Ostfildern, Germany, in 2015.
  • Pascual, Marlo (2012) Marlo Pascual: Selected Works by Marlo Pascual.  Saatchi Gallery [WWW]
  • Statzer, Mary (2014) Mary Statzer on ‘Photography into Sculpture’, New York, 1970. Aperture [WWW]

National Geographic: Fact or Fiction?

‘And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin’

(T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1915)
‘A magazine can open peoples eyes at the same time it closes them’ (Mason in Goldberg, 2018, p.8)
National Geographic (April 2018)

In April 2018, National Geographic reflected on thier representations of race and indigenous / non-Western people. This session aims for participants to interrogate racial / objectifying / mythological stereotypes that the magazine / visual culture might project, and to take a more critically reflective approach to such representations. It is appropriate to be used as a more theoretical / case study presentation based session or could have an associated visual response regarding the nature of visual stereotyping as it ‘becomes’ fact.


‘The photographer is super tourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear’ (Sontag, 1977, p.42)

this session could be run in conjunction with:

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To investigate the ethics of the representation of racial difference in visual culture
  • To reflect on positive / negative / stereotypical representations and consider the impact of these
  • To consider the percieved ‘truth’ of such representations
  • Participant Outcome: Research and identify 2 positive / truthful representations and 2 negative / sterotypical representations of people of colour

1: Presentation Ideas: 19th century / 21st century?

‘Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate. These ideas are by no means shared by the people who inhabit that empire’ (Said, 2003)
Pierre Petit (1882) A Kalina woman and her child photographed in Paris
National Geographic (February 1986)
The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretive processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder’ (Wells, 2011, p.6)

Photographs are ubiquitous. We devour them daily and perhaps we do ignore the way they act as surrogates for our understanding and knowledge of the world. Since the first issue of National Geographic was published in 1888, it has provided a powerful yellow bordered window on a world beyond our reach. Yet, perhaps, it is more of a mirror, and at that, one which only reflects ourselves. The West. On the the 100th anniversary of the publication its editor positioned the magazine in an inherently (and uniquely) truthful context –  ‘These covers mark a century of holding up to the world our uniquely objective publishing mirror’ (Garrett, 1988, p.270). is it really unique? is it really objective? indeed, can any photograph claim such veracity? Despite the popularity of National Geographic, and the respect it still seems to attract, Grundberg (1988) and Mason (2018) take less optimistic views, that it doesn’t show us anything new.

Does it merely recycle and reproduce a colonial gaze – merely reflecting already known stereotypes of The Other. Does our Western gaze still remain rooted in 19th Century tradiion?


‘Besides presenting our culture’s attitudes and preconceptions as if they were universal, or even nonexistent, the photography of the National Geographic produces a pictorial iconography that tends to reduce experience to a simple, common denominator (Grundberg, 1988)

Preparation Work:

  • Ask partticipants to read Andy Grundberg (1988) ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’ in The New York Times (18th September 1988) available here
  • Ask participants to read Susan Goldberg (2018) ‘For Decades Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It ’ in National Geographic (April 2018) available here
  • Ask partticipants to read Kianaz Amaria (2018) ‘National Georgaphic’s November Cover Falls Back On Racist Cliches’ in Vox (18th November 2018) available here

2: Presentation Ideas: The survival of the stereotype?

‘If photography is perceived as reality, then modes of representations will themselves enhance that reality, in other words the photograph is perceived as ‘real’ and ‘true’ because that is what the viewer expects to see: this is how it should be, becomes this is how it is / was’ (Edwards, 1992, p.8)
National Geographic (July 1959)
National Geographic Traveller (September 2016)










‘From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work’ (Said, 1978, p.283)

In 1915, National Geographic’s official policy statement was threefold; (in Lutz & Collins, 1993, p.26)

  • ‘Absolute accuracy’
  • ‘Beautiful, informative and artistic illustrations’
  • ‘Nothing of a partisan or controversial character is printed’

There was no acknowledgement of a potential inconsistency between these aims – such as a tension between accuracy and aesthetics – an approach which is so easily recognised in contemporary photographic practice today – and often used very successfully to create contemplation / action in the viewer. Clearly not, in the case of National Geographic. In 2012, thier position had not changed: ‘Only what is of a kindly nature is printed about any country or people, everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided’ (Foster, 2012, p.2). In November 2018, only 6 months after thier public ‘apology’ in The Race Issue (April 2018) their cover / Instagram coverage maintained these colonial myths – in thier representation of The Cowboy / Native Americans – and this was even within thier own shores.

Is National Geographic still replicating a Western (or even white American) worldview? Think about Western ideas of Africa, North Korea, Columbia, Saudi Arabia. Does National Geographic merely reproduce what we already think we know?
‘The myth transforms history into nature’ (Barthes, 1972, p.154)

Preparation Work:

  • Ask partticipants to brainstorm some stereotypes of different countries and people
  • Find 2 visual examples which perpetuate these stereotypes (photographs, films, adverts, painting etc)
  • Find 2 examples which present a more truthful / positive view or less stereotypical viewpoint

3: Presentation Ideas: A (visually) superior simulation?

‘We are moving towards a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real’ (Turkle, 1996, p.23)
National Geographic (October 1978)
National Geographic (November 2018)










‘Animals are anthropomorphized shamelessly…National Geographic seems less involved in conveying information about its subject, than in being perceived pictorially’ (Grundberg, 1988)
‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth, it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true’ (Baudrillard, 1994, p.1)
National Geographic (May 1985)
National Geographic (August 1999)










‘The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. (Fanon, 1986, p.18)

It is clear that 19th Century images might reflect the stereotype that readers in the industrial world expected to see. It was separate from the personal experience of its viewers and could only be read within the context of other images of its time – in relation to images taken by soldiers, anthropologists, missionaries and diplomats – who all had an imperialist agenda of thier own. However, when non-Western lands and people are represented as developed by National Geographic, it is all to often, an iconic ‘semi-developed’ stereotype that is created, a clash between traditional and new, Western and non-Western that can be almost comic. Again, the visual clash is of exotic tradition, timelessness, lack of development and change, which reminds us of an idea of a lack of development without Western intervention.  In essence, in the National Geograpic view of the world, non -Western lands are more frequently pictured as unchanging and timeless, whereas images of the West seem to celebrate scientific and industrial achievement.

Today, does this position non-Western lands (and thier people) as backward / in need of Western / American intervention? Are non Western people simple aggregated into a similar category of Other – without any visual acknowledgement of individual customs and practices? Does a timeless mythical identity of Other, create an equally fabricated identity of a (so called) perfect and developed West?
‘A way of viewing the world as something fundamentally separated from the observer. Knowability in advance and sustainability were proofs of the power of one’s system of viewing, but they also include a destructive power over what is observed’ (Pinney, 2011, p.28)
‘Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, it’s age old habit, in mere images of the truth’ (Sontag, 1977, p.3)

National Geographic (April 2002)

suggested Session Outline:

  • Ask participants to critically evaluate any racial stereotypes they percieve in the IKEA (2018) Wonderful Everyday advert below.