In Conversation With: Nathan Jurgenson

Nathan Jurgenson

Edited & Compiled by Tracey Paddison (5th January 2022)
Nathan Jurgenson (2020) The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media

TP: You don’t consider yourself a photographer, however you are bringing photography into the ‘real world’ where is where certainly it exists today – something you discuss as ‘digital dualism’. The tone of your book is wonderfully celebratory about photography, rather than being perhaps more pessimistic about living in a contemporary image world (to allude to Sontag’s writing in On Photography for example).

NJ: I think that ties in pretty close to the sort of positivity in the book relative to some other photobooks, as well. My background is not in photography; it’s in Social Theory and you can probably tell that from the people I’m citing throughout the book – so I’m a bit of a tourist in the photography world or the art world and so that’s been interesting how many book talks I’ve got to do at galleries and museums. A lot of my book is written as a critique of all the other books you can read on photography because so few of them could even touch on what’s happening with say, Instagram or Snapchat. So I thought there was a real gap there, and if you wanted to pick up a book on photography, really the only thing you could read about was art photography, professional photography, photojournalism, art or professional uses of photography. But of course, the vast majority of images being taken today have nothing to do with the rule of thirds, or what’s appropriate to run on the front page of an newspaper – so I wanted to write something that was taking on the vast majority of images being taken today.

So I do allude to this idea of a dichotomy, although it’s a somewhat loose one, between traditional photography and social photography. I offer a few different definitions throughout the book about the sort of ‘objectness’ of traditional photography, how it strives to convey information or make an artistic aim, but in any case it’s the ‘image object’ that’s really central – whereas in the ‘social object’ – the image object fades away because I define social photography as much more like speaking. It’s a discursive act much more than an informational or artistic act and in that way a social photo can disappear,

I mean on Snapchat literally, there could be a timer that self-deletes in the same way that when you’re talking to somebody you may not always record what you’re saying if you’re hanging out with your friend you’re probably not putting on a recorder and recording everything. That’s the perspective that I wanted to write about – all these images that people are taking who don’t consider themselves photographers – the vast majority of images taken today are not taken by someone who sees themselves as in the medium of photography ‘proper’ and so I think part of the positivity is because I think it’s really important to look at how people are talking today just the everyday-ness of taking images, how you communicate with your friends and family. To me as a sociologist, that’s extremely important. I think in the photo world a lot of the photo theorists, when you pick up books about photography in a book store, it’s not just everyday people talking to each other with pictures. Whereas, as a sociologist, that’s what you study, you study how people behave, so it gave me a different perspective – I think I’m inherently interested in how people are talking to each other, so therefore I’m inherently interested in the very mundane every day photos that people have on their phone cameras. I think that’s where the positivity comes from.

When I first started writing the book, there were a lot of discussions like, why are people taking pictures of their lunch, that’s such a boring and stupid photo and it’s not a great ‘art’ photograph, It didn’t’ obey all the rules that you might want in an ‘art’ photograph, but you may have sent it to your friend who because you both went to that same restaurant a year ago and you were reminiscing about that. It’s a social good, not an artistic good. The question is not ‘Did it obey the rule of thirds’? The questions are ‘Were you smart, were you funny, were you creative, did you respect the other persons privacy in the photos’?. It’s these social questions and those are things I try to look at in what I call the social photo.

Kodak ‘Brownie’ Advert (c.1900)

We can maybe have some fun thinking about how photography was more or less social in the past, surely the Kodak Brownie camera; shipping a photo album with the camera, that you would then want to fill up. That seemed more social a photographic act than it was before. Or the Polaroid camera in the 1970’s where the camera was like a toy and you could just pass it around – and you’re take a picture and just hand it to somebody – and sometimes those were kind of ephemeral. And of course, today people take images with digital cameras all the time. I’m trying to discuss the impulses behind taking and sharing those photos. Another thinker who is very important to me is Danah Boyd who writes a lot about social media, and I think she’s provided a very good model of how to be critical of these technologies yet still extend empathy to the everyday uses of it, into the users.

TP:  Do you think the ‘Kodak Moment’ helped photography become a truly democratic medium? What do you think really makes that difference between ‘art’ photography and ‘social’ photography, Is it context / subject matter, for example?

NJ: I’m rejecting the ‘art’ framework of it, I see photography as something that we’re learning to speak with, we’re learning to talk with images – but I think talking and speaking with images is merely something that is something for an elite few. The title of the book already assumes that and the reason for that is that once you connect a camera to the internet. I remember having a digital camera, but I wasn’t taking pictures all day with it, you wouldn’t take a picture of your Latte – you’d have no reason to even when you had a small digital camera. It could fit in your pocket; you could take as many pictures as you want basically for free – and you still didn’t take that picture. The key difference was once you had an audience, and once you make a picture of something you can communicate with very easily, suddenly that Latte changes.

Chompoo Baritone (2015+) from #Slowlife

Whereas before, I would have to figure out a very interesting picture of my Latte; I’m probably not going to think of one ‘properly’; it has no informational content at all. Nobody needs to know what my Latte looks like. It has very low information news quality to it – but once you add a internet connection to the camera, it turns the Latte into a symbol; it turns it into a linguistic element, where now it’s not just that particular latte, it’s what does the Latte symbolise for myself and the person that I’m sending that image to. I could send that picture to a friend who would know that what that’s means is that I’m tired, or that I’m at a café, it meant that I was working or it meant ‘maybe you should come by the café’ or it could mean if I’m having a relaxing morning. But essentially the Latte is now no longer a just a Latte – it’s a symbol.

You know, here in Los Angeles, we have lots of palm trees and I mention the palm tree in the book. It’s always the first example I think of, I will take a picture of that palm tree, but if I’m taking that picture a lot, I’ll use a palm tree emoji intead. It’s a symbol, what does that palm tree stand for, a ‘palm tree-ness’? I don’t want you to think what a great photo I took of that palm tree, I don’t want you to look at the exact detail of that palm tree, I want you to think what does that palm tree mean. It means ‘the weather is nice / I’m on vacation’ – they are symbolic messages and I believe that’s what is the very democratic everyday aspect of social photography. Namely, looking at the world through its symbolic potential and how  I can ‘speak’ with things in their visual form, almost like the social camera turns the whole world into emojis, and you can speak with them symbolically and so I think that’s the big difference.

Examples of Palm Tree emojis

TP: It almost sounds like you’re making a semiotic analysis at this point?

NJ: Yeah, I was very careful not to say that word. If you take a linguistics class, the linguistics people have very strict rules about what counts as a language, and there are very important distinctions between all of these things. But it’s absolutely right, it’s a semiotic, discursive analysis and so isn’t it weird that a lot of the photography books in the book store don’t tackle that in a social sense, they want to talk about ‘art’ or journalism and things like that and so it’s important to make these sorts of analyses about the vast majority of pictures taken today.

TP: You make a beautiful analogy in your (2019) talk at The Photographer’s Gallery – saying that if aliens came down from outer space that they might think that we had an extra eye that lived in our pocket (our mobile phones) – that we chose to bring out from time to time – and that we can look at the world through this eye. I wondered if you could expand on that a little bit?

NJ: I think that is one of my guiding ideas when I think about social photography. Let’s think – you’re at a concert and everyone’s got their phones up getting a picture or whatever. I was thinking about an alien anthropologist who lands on Earth from another world, what it would seem like is that we have a removable eye that lives in our pockets or in our hands and that we can speak with that eye. It’s an eye that talks, what it sees can be communicated to other people’s eyes. It really follows the embodied way I think of photography and really, all technology, as something that’s really these sort of fleshy appendages we have – they’re not these cold mechanical things that you can put away and you know you’re suddenly away from. Technology’s always a part of the way that we see the world and this changes with the technology we have. It’s always something that’s in us.

I never like to make too strict of a distinction between the human and the technological, it’s very much merged. That’s why I see smart cameras as these eyes that can talk, they’re part of how we see the world. I think an alien would assume that; they would assume that these things are just a sensory organ that we have – the important thing is that they act as if they were a sensory organ and they do change the way we see the world now that you can take a picture – and send that picture to somebody else. It changes the way you see the world, even when you have the camera put away, you still see the world through this idea of a potential photograph, you can see who you would probably send it to or if you’re thinking about Instagram you’re thinking ‘I know that this one would get a lot of likes’ and you have all of that intuition, it’s all part of how you see the world and that’s true of pre- digital technologies as well so it’s not like something that just came around.

TP: What’s your feeling on how people react to social media and if you think about Instagram as an example or Facebook for that matter, where people take great interest in the quantifiable number of likes the number of comments they get. In the UK, there have been quite a few articles in the media about how it affects people’s mental health, particularly amongst young people.

NJ: That’s one of the things about social media I’ve always disliked the most, and I think it’s something we could have easily gotten away from. Imagine you’re hanging out at the pub; you’re talking with your friend and everyone else there got to put a number on every single sentence you said with your friend and then everything was being scored. You would probably start to change the way you talk, I would. I bet you’re going to have a really crappy conversation with your friend, which is exactly why every conversation on Twitter also is really bad, right? because you gamified it. Anything with a score on it is a game right?

I think the thing about metrics when companies first put a metric on a thing, a score; the metric is not measuring how good the content is – so you have content and then the number comes around later and says the content is good or bad. What happens is people change the content they post to make the number big, so the number is actually preceding the content. The number isn’t a measure, it creates it and I think that very true within photography and social photography. We all know the style of Instagram, that is created by the metrics and by the numbers and scores and so I think that really just sort of flips the means and the ends; the metrics at best are just the means to get to something that you want to see but what ends up happening is the metrics become a end.

Ben Grosser (2017) Go Rando

When I was first writing about social media I was drawing on Georg Simmel, another social media theorist from a hundred years ago who wrote a similar same thing in the book The Philosophy of Money. He discussed how money went from being a means, ‘I want money so I can buy stuff’ to being its own end, where people want to accumulate money just for the sake of having money. It seemed to me this idea was a metaphor for what was happening on social media. So, 10 years ago when I was writing pieces arguing that we should get rid of metrics on social media, it’s only been within the last couple of years where I feel like finally, the companies are starting to see how much people don’t’ like using social media precisely because of the numbers and the metrics.

There’s an artist named Ben Grosser who has a Twitter demetricator and a Facebook demetricator (like an extension you can add on so you can’t see the metrics). I think all these platforms would be greatly improved by not having the metrics. It’s the same bad incentive – the reason Cable News in the United States is really bad, right? Because they’re chasing ratings – when you link quantified attention with the content you produce to get whatever ends you want, more followers, more money from advertisers, it creates really bad incentives. I think things would be much better if you could de-link those incentives and not have those metrics.

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images (2021) Protesters enter the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 06, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The Florida man seen in the now viral image carrying Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern through the halls of the U.S. Capitol building was arrested Friday night, according to jail records.

TP: I’m really interested in your thoughts about the FBI using photographs that people had taken of the storming of the Capitol building, what’s your take on that?

NY: I was very interested in the news stories that came out of the January 6th 2021 Capitol riot incident and I thought they were telling with how we talk about selfies in general. Obviously a lot of the people that went in there, were there with costumes, they’re inside the Capitol – of course they’re going to take selfies, that’s a part of pretty much anything people do today. But it was interesting how many news stories came out that I think made two big mistakes when they pointed out that people were taking selfies.

First, the word selfie, has this trivial connotative meaning – that they are they’re just there for the pictures and this is the mistake I think people make a lot when somebody takes a picture. The assumption is that they’re only there for the picture and that somehow their experience in reality is ‘less than’ ie that it’s completely performative, it’s completely staged. People take pictures of their food instead of eating it and it’s in such bad faith, I’ve taken pictures of my food all the time, it’s never once changed the flavour of the food ever.

So here’s the two mistakes that I saw with people talking about the selfies at the Capitol. One, is to trivialise it, to say that those people weren’t political, they didn’t have political aims – they were just there for the content and I think that was very untrue. They were real, with very bad regressive political aims and they were real, just because they took pictures doesn’t mean we can then dismiss them as not a political or non political actors. I think you still need to discuss their politics and critique them, in my opinion.

The second mistake was to say to downplay the violence that happened there. The same people who took selfies were also there, seemingly ready and willing to hurt other people and the idea of it wasn’t a big deal, they were just there to take pictures. I think is very wrong. You can both dress up in a funny costume, take selfies, and have strong regressive political politics and be willing to be violent and you know, people did get hurt and there was violence, there was intentions for even more violence than even happened.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP (2021) Trump supporters stormed the halls of the Capitol on January 6th

So let’s remember that just because someone takes a selfie doesn’t doesn’t mean they are political actors but then, just draw that back to just why is it the case that the word ‘selfie’ removes all the importance from an event or a person. Why do we use the word selfie to see somebody as a purely performative actor; as somebody who is not really experiencing the moment. Why do we use cameras and photography and selfies to really mean less than real, to mean less than important. That’s what a lot of the 2nd half of my book discusses. Why do we think that photography and technology is inherently less real or moves people from the real moment and things like that? I find those questions and those assumptions really fascinating,

TP: You talk in the book about social photos aren’t taken as a document that you’re going to put in the family album and go back to, it’s not a historical record, it’s about showing your life and having a conversation about your life now and something that’s looking forward. What are your thoughts on whether that perception of the social photo as not being a document that has any historical value, Is it just an ephemeral thing? Is that perception so ingrained that the people that were involved in the Capitol riots didn’t really consider those images that they were taking, didn’t consider them as documents or records that would be kept and then used to prove that they were committing crimes or whatever, They didn’t see them as artefacts that people might go back to – it was just a very ‘in the moment’ thing is that an example of or evidence that this kind of perception of what social photo is – that it’s just language that’s being used in the moment.

NJ: That’s a great question. I think there was probably lots of different motivations. There was lots of different kinds of photos taken that day by different people with different motivations, and there’s probably a nice spectrum there that I think you’re sort
of laying out. You could probably, the guy that is in the horns and he’s standing on the at the lectern, and he’s asking people, ‘hey, can you take a picture’? Can you take a picture? Find somebody with a really good camera, ok and you get my picture. He knows that this is this his moment, he wants this picture forever, this is one that’s probably going into an album.

As well, there were other people who were somewhat surprised that they were making their way into the Capitol and they have their phone up going like ‘look where I’m at, this is wacky’. You can almost take them, lay them out, and probably do an analysis on that. This reflects your point also on the FBI data collection, there’s a lot of data collected with each one of those images and you could basically trace all these people. You know these people have phones in their pockets that are connect with SIM cards, every one of their movements was easily traceable – so I kind of make a point in the book that when I talk about social photography being more about the expression than the information. I think what you bring up is a really good corrective reminder from the perspective of the users, you switch the perspective to that of the law agency and the whole thesis ends up flipping, which is another book that could easily be written and it’s something that you know is a shortcoming of my book is that’s really not my focus and somebody else could completely focus on that would be a very good book.

TP: It seems to me that it’s social media, as you’ve pointed out, that’s the catalyst as to what’s changed. If you look at it purely from a photographic perspective, it doesn’t occur to me that there’s anything really that distinctly different about photographs before social media and after social media in general terms. People took family photos on their vacations, not meant for serious or ‘artistic’ purposes, they were just memento’s. Do you see that sort of evolution from this explosion of image world and lots of different perspectives through social media and where is it going?

NJ: That’s a good question and I like the historical analysis of thinking about like image saturated culture. What is interesting is you go through history is that at every single stage in history, people made the point that this is an image saturated culture. The world is speeding up, there’s too much information and images are taking over and so people were arguing that in the 1890’s, in the 1920’s, in the 1950’s, and the 1970’s. It almost comes in waves. As we get older, we see the pace of the world as too fast but when you look at the world from before we were born – it was too slow. It’s hard for me to really think about  images saturating the world more, or the world speeding up more because the acceleration is so even and steady that it’s when everything is accelerating all the time. I was thinking about one of the critiques of social photography is that, photography has lost its relationship to the truth. We don’t see pictures as true anymore and people talk about deep fakes and all these things. What are these new technologies and image making and deep fakes gets a lot of time and this is true. It’s very easy to fake photos today. One of the big differences is augmented reality; when I take a picture of my face I could do lots of things with that, I could have puppy ears. We augment photos a lot more and I think that’s going to be a very important change in the way that photography looks; a sort of everyday manipulation of the images but I don’t necessarily see that as photography losing its relationship to the truth.

‘I’m here live, I’m not a cat’ Lawyer stuck on Zoom kitten filter during court case

If I take a self portrait (which I see as different from a selfie), I really want to focus on what my face looks like in all of its nooks and crannies. It’s an informational object, an artistic object. Selfies are usually more, ‘this is how I’m feeling / what I’m doing’ and I think sometimes adding the augmented reality to your photo as you perform yourself, can actually can be more true. Like, this is how I’m feeling, this is how I express myself, this is how I want to perform’ – as you see a lot on TikTok, a lot of times those performances reveal who I really am, a lot more than like a really good portrait that says this is exactly what my skin looks like. I’m not just my skin. I’m also the performance of myself. I think a lot of what we do with editing photos with augmented reality lies in the performance,

I think that is a lot to do with conveying different kinds of truths of who you are more than just perfect visual depiction and to make one more point on that, just in general, is get away from the selfie to news photographs. You know, we had a really bad shooting in the United States, we have a lot of them, one of the worst ones, what happened in Las Vegas a few years ago, where there was a man who was at the top of a hotel and there’s a concert below and he just started shooting into the crowd. There was many images taken as people were running, people were taking photos and videos and uploading those and so basically what you had was an event that you saw from hundreds of different perspectives, all at once. No one doubted that event happened, but right now there’s a conspiracy for everything. People have conspiracies of who that guy was and what his motives were. Nobody doubts that event happened because it would be almost impossible to get every single one of those people to fake their photograph in the same way, right?

NASA / PA (1969) Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the Moon

That would be just having the very technology that makes it very easy to manipulate one image or one video, also makes it almost impossible to fake an event like that, because that same digital technology meant that everybody had a camera in their pocket and many people were taking videos and photos and so we actually had images and video that was more believable than, let’s say, the Zapruder film when John F Kennedy was shot, or people make lots of people debate about the moon landing, people debate about lots of photos and videos from the past and events can happen today where people actually debate the existence of it less. Now sometimes they debate even more, so I’m not saying , photography is now all true but I certainly don’t think photography has lost its bearing on truth. Which is I know is a far tangent from your original question, it’s just kind of the thing that it made me want to talk about, but just to sum up, I think augmented reality and photo image manipulation is just looking an act differently today than we did before.

TP: I’ll just go back to your comments regarding counting followers and counting people who would like your post – isn’t that really what the social photograph is about, isn’t that what social media is about because without the followers, without the kudos if you like, then there’s no point in putting it on there really, that’s really what people are looking for. For instance on Twitter there’s a guy called Piers Morgan, I don’t know if you know him, I think he was over your way for a while. He browbeats followers who disagree with him by saying ‘hang on I’ve got 7,000,000 followers, you’ve got 357, my argument is better than yours’. When Donald Trump was banned from Twitter their share price dropped. You know it’s why these companies exist in the first place. Another thing I’d like to point out is I think young people perhaps they are leaving social media, or are finding new social media platforms. So it’s becoming an older persons place and young people are moving on to the likes of TikTok, Clubhouse, things like that. So I just wonder what your opinion on that was as well. Sorry I rambled a bit.

NJ: No, I think you’re 100% correct. We have to use these words precisely when we use the term ‘social media’. Think of messaging apps and Clubhouse, Discord, even something like the game Fortnite – is this social media to the degree that people are playing it together and hanging out with each other and talking to each other? I don’t want to let Facebook and Twitter own the word ‘social’, as a sociologist that would be very scary A lot of my criticism (and I agree with you) is towards the kind of ‘public posting’ mentality, aspect, especially early social media, where you post to public / in public to everybody and you try to rack up as many points as possible. That was very popular and it also was very destructive. It still is very destructive in a lot of ways and a lot of people don’t like it, people don’t enjoy using those sort of competition style apps. Often times they are gamifying, sociality gamifying talking to your friends, gamifying having opinions, all those things can be fun it could also be really destructive.

But by far the vast majority (when I’m talking about social photography) the vast majority is happening through messaging. Some of it gets posted, you know Facebook, Twitter, kind of style, but the vast majority is, you take it and you send it to one person or a small group. I think that small, kind of more private, sociality is more what I’m thinking of usually then sort of just I’m posting in public Instagram hoping for likes.

Fortnite (2017+) Epic Games

TP: What are your observations of the role of social media during the pandemic, and a rise of online connectivity?

NJ: I mean obviously, I have some of the very boring and normal thoughts of this. This conversation probably wouldn’t happen outside of video conferencing at the same time I
am tired of and dislike video conferencing as much as everybody else. I think it, you know, sort of feels like email. It’s kind of a necessary evil, and maybe you’re not supposed to like it. Through the pandemic I typically work from home and so I’ve been able to stay home and I’m very fortunate in that sense. This answer would be completely different if we were talking about workers who were still out and about working but I think a lot of how I talk about technology in the book is that it really enables face-to-face conversation. I don’t see those things that separate. If you’re a more social person, you have more friends and you hang out and you do more things; you probably also talk to them using your screen as well, right? I think at best social media does that. It allows us to spend more time with people away from social media and again when I talk about social media, I don’t mean just Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I also mean sort of all the messaging and smaller group activities that are more popular that people use their phones for.

During the pandemic that really shifted, that we are doing a lot more with our computers as a replacement for meeting in person and which is essential like it was, it’s a lifesaver. I’m imagining you know the 1918 pandemic and how lonely and isolated that would have felt without the Internet and so it’s great that it did that. I think that we’re used to social media, today it’s being used to replace offline hang out. I think social media is going to go back to being something that facilitates in person meetings rather than replaces it.

TP: What predictions you would have for things like the future of the social photo, how we behave as social photographers, how you see social media developing?

NJ: Unfortunately, sociologists are very hesitant to make predictions about the future, just in general we’re not the best futurists out there. I think you know technologists love to pontificate about the future and usually be wrong. I always think about Marshall McLuhan, he always said that the closest you’ll ever get to that is understanding the present. Even the best artist, the best futurist – all they’re really doing is understanding the present because everyone’s always living in the past and the best futurist is one who can actually understand what’s happening today, I tend to kind of follow that philosophy, so I think it’s really hard to make predictions about the future. But I think there’s a lot of things that people are doing today that are under scrutinised or under appreciated and I think that the main things that I think about are certainly augmented reality in the sense of anything in the world being something that you manipulate, that computation being applied to pretty much anything in the world, anything in the world becoming a symbol, anything in the world being something you can communicate with and I think that’s going to end up being very interesting in lots of ways that I can totally predict but that’s sort of where my mind is.

I really think the rise of game engines for things, especially at things that aren’t just gaming. I think it’s really important, I think I look at Fortnite or Roblox or something like that and and I really see those as social media, more than games. You know, sometimes the game is like the billiard table in the pub, you might go there to play but you’re mostly there to hang out with your friends. I think that is what we see a lot with gaming as well as how the sort of game engines are being applied to the everyday world, again that facilitate adding computation to everything. I know that’s really abstract and I don’t have a lot of really great examples of how that will play out but I think 3D modelling and game engines as they are applied to the world, as they become social spaces as the world, is sort of made computable as computation is played on to it.

TP: We’ve skimmed the capitalist elements of social media and social photography because obviously there are a lot of companies out there making lots of money from this as we well know. So surely, if we accept that social media influences individual behaviour as much as vice versa then presumably there must be a fair number of companies out there making predictions about how they would like to see people’s behaviour change over the next decade.

NJ: I think that’s absolutely right and you know, for people to behave in ways that are monetisable. Yes, that’s certainly a big part of it and it’s something my book doesn’t spend a lot of time on; the political economy of the image. If somebody writes that book, I’d almost recommend they read that book first and read mine later. I think is really important and that also brings up another another kind of futurism, maybe it’s utopianism, but would be through regulation of social media, enforcing better behaviours and practices. Europe is better at that than in the United States but can we envision social media products that don’t have a profit motive and something in the public domain that could be used by everybody that doesn’t have bad incentives. I don’t have a great answer for that, there’s certainly people who are working on that, trying to make platform cooperatives rather than companies, so to me, that would be a really fun answer to your question. Maybe it’s something where the value that’s being produced by all these images or is something that is distributed to everybody as opposed to being locked into very few silos.

TP: When I was reading your book, I guess on a personal note, I was thinking particularly things you were writing about relationships actually and how, the camera phone, the role of that place in contemporary relationships, basically and it made me think about presence quite a lot and I guess this pandemic has forced us to be present basically in that way. It  isn’t ideal for a lot of people, whether it’s your relatives, your mother, or your partners and  it made me think particularly about the role that the smartphone has unfortunately had to play within medical settings now, for example, hearing how people have been saying goodbye to their loved ones through that device. I just wonder how particularly Covid has  changed your way of thinking really in relation to the social photo which is not a small question but if there’s any pearls of insights, I’d love to hear them.

NJ: That’s a great question. One of the dangers in writing a book about current technologies is it’s going to be out of date, just absolutely immediately, which I figured would be because more due to technological advancements than a global pandemic. However, I think the first thing that comes to mind is a point I already had made about the one of the big ways that we’re using social media differently during the pandemic – as a replacement for everyday offline experience rather than something that facilitates offline experience and so I think that is that’s a very different usage we were sort of thrown into.

For example, the tragic situations of having to say goodbye to a family member via phone. My thinking is what comes next more than it is how we’re using this stuff during a pandemic. What really excites me is how people use their phones together, while they’re traveling, so many of the things that are interesting to me just aren’t really applicable when everyone is home all the time. Though I think one thing I’ve definitely noticed is that I think people are really playing with augmented reality more right now than I had seen before. When you’re home, and you’ve already taken all the photographs, but when you add augmented reality when you can manipulate things – you could add things to the image.

You can take a million photos from your chair, right? You could take a different photo everyday from home. So I found that interesting. Certainly, I don’t know how much I’ll always tie the rise of TikTok with the pandemic, probably in my head, even though I think it probably, you know, was coming about obviously before the pandemic and I’m not sure how much it changed but certainly the domestic nature of a lot of TikToks, I think is trying to convey your personality or putting on different personalities is a big part of the content of TikTok that I hadn’t seen so much before. How much that is because your home or because you’re alone, I don’t know, I’ve been linking all these things together but it could be totally, doing that falsely, it just might have been coincidence but that personality as a medium, personality as an art is something that I’ve been seeing. That kind of answers the other question, what do you see coming up next in social media, I think that’s also a trend around personality that I think is really interesting but I don’t know if that answers your question totally.

Julia Fullerton Batten (2019) Alice, Lockdown Day 76 from Looking Out From Within

TP: A few quick-fire questions, what’s your view on Instagram / Instagram influencers as a form of social marketing?

NJ: I’m not an expert in advertising and marketing, really anything to do with professional photography is not what I know. Certainly, I would imagine the marketers are more interested in having the everyday person take a picture of their product than they are of putting their product on a billboard anymore and getting the micro influencers or getting the everyday person to post about their product is probably central. Why would you want to pay for an expensive photographer when you get much more reach getting people to take a picture of the product on thier own. The professional photographer, what can they do, they can create a really interesting and compelling photograph but what really compels buyers is probably that their friend took a picture of it, just that a can of soda is in my friends hand is probably going to make me want to get that soda more than the best billboard campaign. So again, I’m speaking completely outside of my expertise, so maybe somebody in marketing or sales could totally tell me I’m wrong there. That’s just my assumption.

TP: In terms of social media and social photography, do you not think that it has advanced in the area of tourism and that it has actually played a big part in tourism because people always have their mobile phones so it’s helped economically?

NJ: I love reading tourism studies, books on tourism. There was a really great book that
came out last year by Monica Cure called Picturing the Postcard and it’s a history of the postcard and it’s told through the lens of a media crisis. Postcards have always been looked down upon and in tourism studies there’s always talk about travel versus tourism. Travel is when you really go to a place and you experience the real culture and tourism is just for when you want to go see the the main attractions; the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben and of course that distinction is completely class based. It’s basically wealthy people do one and poor people to the other and it’s a distinction I think is very problematic and so the the postcard and the selfie get have been talked about very similarly throughout history. In that, ‘oh, look at these people, they’re just here to take a selfie’. You know, they traveled to this place, they went to the greatest view, got the selfie, got out, they were probably on their phone the whole time, they didn’t actually experience it. So I love the conversations around, travel, and image taking and there’s some sections in the book about how taking pictures makes you feel like you spent your time wisely traveling to a place and or even sometimes today that you take so many pictures, that you may choose not to take photos on this vacation. I think those things are really, really interesting but I definitely caution against the idea that taking pictures inherently removes you from your vacation or takes you out of the moment but it kind of depends on how you do it. I think you can take pictures. You can let the camera get away, get in front of your vacation, or get in the way of your vacation big time. That can happen and I definitely see that a lot. That definitely does happen a lot but I think that’s a really, really good topic and if you’re interested in that the book Picturing the Postcard is one I’d really recommend.

Cure, Monica (2018) Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

TP: What do you think the responsibilities social media companies have towards the mental health of thier users, things like facial dysmorphia now is on the rise because of augmentations with filters and things like that and just the mental health implications?

NJ: That’s a great question. I remember five or ten years ago it was very difficult to get people to even think about this stuff or talk about this stuff and now I think it’s really part of everyday conversation which is really good that this is even being brought up and being brought up routinely. I think it’s forced the companies to respond and to think about these sorts of things, so for instance, like dysmorphia and the filters. I think filters are really fun and exciting when they allow you to play, when they allow you to express yourself in different ways, but then when those filters instead push people towards conventional or normalise standards of beauty, of facial shape, of skin lightening all these various things….  This gets back to the metrics – that people like people will use filters that make them seem skinnier or make thier eyes bigger. Things that convey youthfulness, and whiteness and all these vary, normalised ethnocentric versions of beauty or standardness acceptableness.  All these various things are very popular and but at the same time make people feel really bad, right?  They make people feel bad when you are constantly confronted with having to alter the way you look in order to fit a kind of standard. It’s also difficult around older people in general taking selfies and using camera based apps because culture has told them that their face isn’t photogenic, which is terrible. I think that is it’s a difficult thing to ask tech companies to solve, obviously, these things go well beyond just technology, social media and cameras, but at the same time it should be very easy to ask technology companies not to exacerbate these problems and to be aware of them and do you want to penalise users when you know that your filters are pushing people towards normalisation rather than through like expression….? Then, I think that’s something that should be regulated absolutely.

TP: Post pandemic – do you think we’re going to see a retreat almost as a detox from some of these social media outlets?

NJ: I have a hard time answering that outside of my own opinion. Personally, I cannot wait to spend way less time on Zoom and way more time going to shows but in general, it’s obviously changed the way that workplaces are thinking about how thier offices look and operate. Here in the United States, in the big cities offices are very expensive and then people would much rather be dispersed and save some money. Workplaces are going to be organised differently, schools are going to be organised differently. Some of this stuff is going to linger and it’ll be interesting to see what does and what doesn’t. But as far as I think, people are will be very ready to not use social media as a replacement for in person experience. I know there’s some people that think that once we get a taste of all this stuff, that will probably never want to leave our house again. I run a conference called, Theorising the Web and we usually pack rooms full of people. When am I going to be able to do that again? Will I even be able to do that next year? What’s the appetite for people to go and get really crowded into a conference room, into a club, into a pub. That’s a really good question. I don’t have a great answer for that, it’s going to be really interesting and we’re all going to probably navigate that differently.

TP: I’m just wondering if Susan Sontag were alive today would you consider her a disconnectionist? How do you think she would be talking about social media? Would she take the same view as Sherry Turkle perhaps?

NJ: That’s a great question. Certainly one I would only be guessing at, I’ve thought about that before, if social media was around what her sort of usage of it might be. I mean, just in her own time she engaged in current events very little. She engaged in part of the television formats that were emerging in her lifetime, very little. She wasn’t a big fan of what was happening today. It just wasn’t what she was into. She liked writing books and reading, she like reading and writing. So if I had to guess, I think Susan Sontag would never use social media but not be completely against it. I think that’s where she would land. I think she would be pretty uninterested in the whole endeavour, though.

TP: What’s the first social media app that you go to every day and why?

NJ: It’s usually Snapchat, that’s where my family is at and so I haven’t gone to see my family a whole lot in the last year. I don’t want to look at social media, really at all, my habit usually is wake up and I like to read. If I look at Twitter first thing in the morning, I feel like my brain is broken, I’m not going to get anything interesting done that day, I’m just gonna start looking at news and I’ll open up a bunch of tabs of a bunch of people typing out their opinions.

TP: Nathan, that’s a really optimistic finish!

NJ: Thank you for having me and for reading the book and also wonderful conversation.

*This is an edited version of an ‘in conversation’ between Nathan Jurgenson and BA Photography and MA Photography at Falmouth University (2021)

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Routledge Award Winner: Winter 2022



Burbridge, Ben & Pollen, Annebella (2019) Photography Reframed: New Visions in Contemporary Photographic Culture

Ben Burbridge & Annebella Pollen (2019) Photography Reframed: New Visions in Contemporary Photographic Culture

Book Description

At a critical point in the development of photography, this book offers an engaging, detailed and far-reaching examination of the key issues that are defining contemporary photographic culture. Photography Reframed addresses the impact of radical technological, social and political change across a diverse set of photographic territories: the ontology of photography; the impact of mass photographic practice; the public display of intimate life; the current state of documentary, and the political possibilities of photographic culture. These lively, accessible essays by some of the best writers in photography together go deep into the most up-to-date frameworks for analysing and understanding photographic culture and shedding light on its histories. Photography Reframed is a vital road map for anyone interested in what photography has been, what it has become, and where it is going.

Table of Contents

Photography Reframed: Always, Already, Again: Ben Burbridge & Annebella Pollen
Section I. New Ontologies: Photography between the Archive and the Network
  • Technology and Interaction: Penelope Umbrico’s TVs from Craigslist: Duncan Wooldridge
  • Post-representational Photography, or the Grin of Schrödinger’s Cat: Daniel Rubinstein
  • Archival Measures: Photography Collections in a New Media Age: Tina Di Carlo
  • The Grain of Ephemera / Event: Thinking Digital Archive through Photography: Sen Uesaki & Jelena Stojkovic
  • Tomorrow’s Headlines Are Today’s Fish and Chip Papers: Some Thoughts on ‘Response-ability’: David Campany interviewed by Duncan Wooldridge
Section II. Mass Culture and the Politics of Distinction
  • Popular Photographic Cultures in Photography Studies: Gil Pasternak
  • The Photographer as Reader: The Aspirational Amateur in the Photo-Magazines: Peter Buse
  • Mrs Wagner’s Aspirations: The Album as Monument: Martha Langford
  • When is a Cliché not a Cliché?: Reconsidering Mass-produced Sunsets: Annebella Pollen
Section III. (Networked) Society and the Spectacle: Photography and Exhibitionism
  • The Shirt Off His Back: Male Torsos on Display in Contemporary Visual Culture: Marvin Heiferman
  • The Politics of Amateurism in Online Pornography: Feona Attwood
  • What a Body Can Do: From the Frenzy of the Communicative to the Visual Bond: Francis Summers
  • Hating Habermas: On Exhibitionism, Shame and Life on the Actually Existing Internet: Theresa M. Senft
  • Paradise Lost: Exhibitionism and the Work of Nan Goldin: Ben Burbridge
Section IV. Documentary Photography and Global Crisis
  • The Déjà Vu of September 11: An Essay on Inter-iconicity: Clément Chéroux
  • Facing War: Photography and Humanism: Iain Boal & Julian Stallabrass
  • War Primers: David Evans
  • Immigration Photography in Italy: Andrea Pogliano
  • Landscape Photography’s ‘New Humanism’: Chad Elias
Section V. Citizens? Photography, Resistance and Control
  • Dead End Streets: Photography, Protest and Social Control: David Hoffman
  • Escaping the Panopticon: Pauline Hadaway
  • You Don’t Even Represent Us’: Picturing the Moscow Protests: Aglaya Glebova
  • Occupy the Image: Liam Devlin
  • The Becoming-Photographer in Technoculture: Sarah Kember
Closing Reflections: Ronnie Close, Catherine Grant, Sarah E. James and Sandra Plummer
Afterword: Charlotte Cotton

About the Authors

Ben Burbridge is Senior Lecturer in Art History and Co-Director of the Centre for Photography and Visual Culture at the University of Sussex. He is widely published in the field of photography, art and politics. Curatorial projects include the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial, Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space and Revelations: Experiments in Photography (Science Museum, London and National Media Museum, Bradford, 2015).

Annebella Pollen is Principal Lecturer and Academic Programme Leader in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton. She is widely published in the field of visual and material culture. She is the author of The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians (2015), Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life (I.B.Tauris, 2016) and co-editor of Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice (2015).

How Has The Gaze Evolved In Contemporary Society?

Can It Be Challenged by New Technologies?

By Maddy Baron Clark (1st October 2021)
‘To gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’ (Schroeder, 1998, p.208)
Figure 1: Helmut Newton (1976) Saddle I for Vogue Hommes

In Visual and Other Pleasures (Mulvey 1989:19) Mulvey proposes the idea of the male gaze, describing woman as playing a ‘traditional exhibitionistic role’ in which ‘male spectators… can project their fantasies onto’ (1989:19) in cinema. The male gaze is established as a common occurrence in historical and contemporary media. Helmut Newton employed the male gaze in most of his work, often depicting women in the ‘exhibitionistic role’ (1989:19) that Mulvey describes (Figure 1). Moreover, Peter Schjeldahl employs the concept of the male gaze with reegard to Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits (Figure 2), describing them as ‘fiercely erotic’ (cited Meagher 2002:21). In these examples the male gaze appears well established.

Figure 2: Cindy Sherman (1978) from Untitled Film Stills

In contemporary contexts however it can be argued the gaze is shifting and that Mulvey’s theory is outdated. Susan Bordo described Mulveys concepts ‘in the year 2015… seem[ing] obsolete’ (Bordo 2015). In the context of western contemporary society, objectifying bodies for profit is standard. Bordo points out that Mulvey ignores the consumerist culture we live in, and how the ‘eroticisation of the male body became big business thanks to the genius of Calvin Klein and other designers’ (Bordo 2015) (Figure 3). Thomas and Ahmed reinforce this: ’the displayed male bodies since the 80s… [are] offered to the gaze of women and heterosexual men in the new men’s magazines and fashion magazines’ (cited Whiteway 2017). In all instances the objectification of the body is used to target consumers, but equally allows for the rise of other forms of the gaze.

Figure 3: Herb Ritts (1992) for Calvin Klein

Similarly, culturally, there are female artists which create work using the gaze (Figure 4). The exhibition Women Looking at Men (Cheim 2016) features thirty-two women artists, specifically objectifying the male body and giving rise to the female gaze against Mulvey’s purely male gaze

Figure 4: Chaim & Read (2016) The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men

Mulvey also ignores pornography catered to the LGBT+ community which can objectify all genders. The Chronicle’s essay states ‘the notion of the lesbian gaze has gained currency’ and argues ‘even the neat division of people into male and female seems, to many people, archaic.’ (The Male Gaze in Retrospect 2015). This idea of division being archaic is brought up in Legacy Russel’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Russel aims to strike back at existing ‘in a binary system’ using the rise of the internet and online presence (Russel 2020:7) focusing on being ‘anti-body, resisting the body as a coercive social and cultural architecture’ (2020:91) and thus resisting all forms of the gaze. Russel uses non-binary artist Victoria Sin as an example: ‘Their body shatters the shallow illusion as to any harmony or balance that might be offered up within the suggestive binary of male/female’ while ‘celebrating their queer body as necessarily visible… a calculated confrontation.’ (2020:59) (Figure 5).

Mulvey’s 1989 theory is far from incorrect: there are still many instances where the male gaze is employed. Nonetheless, Mulvey fails to recognise the expansion and evolutions of these alternative gazes and those who confront them in a contemporary context

Figure 5: Victoria Sin (2018) from A View from Elsewhere

Case Study: Miquela Sousa (@LilMiquela)

‘There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at’ (Mulvey (1975) in Hall & Evans, 2003, p.381)

Miquela Sousa, otherwise known as @LilMiquela on Instagram, is a CGI virtual influencer created by startup Brud (Jackson 2018) with over three million followers on Instagram. Lil Miquela posts frequently, promoting brands and ‘spends her time taking selfies and hanging out with her equally-cool, but actually real friends’ (Cadogan 2018) her behaviour mimics a celebrity social media influencer (Figure 6)

Figure 6: @LilMiquela on Instagram 1st March 2021

Lil Miquela’s creators, Brud, claim she is ‘a champion of so many vital causes, namely Black Lives Matter and the absolutely essential fight for LGBTQIA+ rights in this country’ (cited in Russel 2020:93). Russel notes that Lil Miquela is an example of the ‘anti-body’ (2020:93) in her manifesto. Lil Miquela only exists as an online avatar and is seen promoting social change online (Figure 7) where she has #BlackLivesMatter in her bio and supports social causes on her instagram stories (Figure 8), backing Russel’s concept.

Figure 7: @LilMiquela on Instagram 12th April 2021
Figure 8: @LilMiquela on Instagram Stories 2020

However, her presentation and marketing makes this hard to believe. Lil Miquela’s CGI body often poses in a way that caters Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in a ‘traditional exhibitionistic role’ (Mulvey 1989:19). Objectification is common for instagram influencers, ‘She attracts the same fetishised gaze as anyone else selling her own image’ reflected in her comments section- ‘“so beautiful” one guy wrote on a post where a bit of cleavage can be detected, adding a drooling emoji’ (Petrarca 2018). We also have to question Lil Miquela’s agency. She is owned by a company whom chooses her appearance and posing and is treated like the ‘object’ Mulvey describes by being placed in ways which appeal to her audience (Figure 9).

Lil Miquela is used as a model to make money though Instagram promotions- she sits between being an advocate for change or a performative activist for profit. Russel questions ‘can a corporate avatar- in essence, a privatised body, symbolic in form- be an authentic advocate… towards social change?’ (Russel 2021:93).

In conclusion, Lil Miquela is the ideal ‘anti-body’ (2020:93) to challenge the gaze, but her lack of agency and use as a feminine object for commercial purposes stunts this. Even so, the rise of virtual influencers may open opportunities for feminist discussion for other creators, further pushing the idea of Russel’s ‘anti-body’ (2020:93).

Figure 8: @LilMiquela on Instagram 6th January 2021

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).
  • DARGIS, Manohla. 2016. ‘Sundance Fights Tide With Films Like ‘The Birth of a Nation”. New York Times (Online). Available at: [accessed November 2020].
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Through the Looking Glass

Crossing The Boundary Between The Surveyed and The Seen

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


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

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


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

List of Figures

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


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

Figure 1: Hikvision (2016) Hikvision Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3: Skeen (1880) Group of Veddahs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: Edward Hopper: The Voyeuristic Painter

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

Figure 20: Edward Hopper (1938) Compartment C Car

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 24: Edward Hopper (1942) Nighthawks

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

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

Figure 28: Karin Jurick (2006) Hopper from ArtistZ

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

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


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

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

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


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In Conversation With: Dinu Li

Dinu Li

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinu Li (2019) from The Anatomy of Place

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

Rachel Whiteread (1988) Shallow Breath

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

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

Nation Family Trailer from Dinu Li on Vimeo.

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

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

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

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

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

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

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

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Through (White Washed) Eyes?

…And On Whiter Walls?

By Lizzy Tollemache (8th January 2020)
The White Gaze: it is a phrase that resonates in black American literature… The White Gaze: it traps black people in white imaginations (Grant, 2015)

Edward Said (1978) discussed this in Orientalism, a concept later referred to by Elizabeth Kaplan (1997) as the ‘Imperial Gaze’. Essentially: do we still view and construct the world through a white (eyed) perspective?

Is this white gaze still alive and well today? And, more specifically, is it the same in visual culture? Or, indeed, in exhibition culture?

Let us first consider the Family Of Man exhibition (MoMA 1955) as a point of reference, we should still consider, if, when and how contemporary exhibitions might maintain unequal power relations within the white walls of the gallery. Are these are entitled to the same critique as acts of ‘aesthetic colonialism’? (Sekula, 1981, p.15), even of ‘universalising’ [racial] expereinces (Barthes, 2009, p.121). Do these minority voices remain ‘silenced’ by the imposed narrative of the curator? (Phillips, 1982, p.62).

Ezra Stoller/MoMA (1955) The Family of Man

Like Phillips (1982), I view Steichen as an egocentric puppeteer; his decontexulisation of the artist’s works gave him the power to choose how photographers voices were silenced, and particularly how People of Colour (PoC) were represented, that ultimately served as this ‘instrument of cultural colonialism.’ (Sekula, 1981. p.15)  Theophilus Neokonkwo (1995 in Sandeen, p.155) also furthers this point, that non-western people, were depicted as ‘social inferiors, half clothed’ as well as victims of poverty and despair – and (as such, he argues) were exploited. He goes on to discuss the way that Western peoples were presented in ‘dignified cultural states’. Sound familar? Think National Geographic.

Nat Farbman.(1955) ‘Botswana / Bechuanaland’ from The Family Of Man.
The ignominious lack of inclusivity, out of 256 works exhibited only 12 were from non-westerners (Tīfentāle, 2018)

So thus, viewing essentially becomes voyeuristic. In ‘Regarding The Pain of Others’ Susan Sontag voices photography’s inability to accurately capture experiences not lived by the participant, in short, we have ‘no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power’ (Sontag, 2004, p.73). Unequal treatment and visibility amongst the marginalised remains a prevaelent issue today. Whilst we might legitimately point the finger of blame at Western media, another might be a continuing (but shifting) exclusivity rooted deep in museum culture. Ali Meghji (2018) states cultural institutions are dominated by white consumers, that a discourse of ‘inclusion’ is promoted simply to avoid charges of racism, therefore PoC’s artwork is segregated and mainly only exhibited annually as a form of tokenism (Meghji, 2018)

‘Curatorial control has remained in the hands of white westerners.Third world writers and artists have had little say in the ways in which they were represented in these exhibitions and have only been able to react’ (Obguibe, 1999. p.158)

For example, the three winning photographs of 2018’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize depicted PoC, yet the images were captured by white photographers. Though, Khairani Barokka is interested in National Geographic – how far can we take this? Do we see again here a suggesstion that their ‘lives [are] classifiable, capturable, translatable only through the white gaze’? (Barokka, 2019). Are subjects are maintained in a position of objects of curious observation and consumption, victims of a gaze fixated on their ‘essentialist difference or desirable otherness’ (Ramirez in Ferguson et al, 1996. p.32)

Alice Mann (2018) from Taylor Wessing Prize
Enda Bowe (2018) from Taylor Wessing Prize
Max Barstow (2018) from Taylor Wessing Prize
‘What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artefact’ (Fanon, 1994. p.11)

Carol Duncan (1995) situates art museums as ‘species of ritual space’ to which  provide a sanctuary for the contemplation of artworks (Duncan, 1995, p.5). Yet, I would argue that this sanctuary is unfairly monopolised by white practice, while this ‘ritual’ is confined to ensuring that the ‘comfort of white people, whether participants or observers, [is] paramount to anyone else’s’ (Burge, 2019). Meanwhile, Duncan goes on to suggest that a multiracial ‘dichotomy has provided a rationale for putting westerns and non western societies on a hierarchical scale’ (Duncan, 1996. p.5).

Next time you visit a group exhibition at a major gallery, count the number of minority practitoners included. It may open a whitewashed eye.

Does this so-called White Gaze really help service the views of PoC? Or, is it merely tokenism or a portrayal of ‘Otherness’ and as still fantasised objects, silencing artistic milestones and capacity to represent oneself.

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Re-visualising Mental Health

‘Seeing’ the Stigma?

By Tove Hellesvik (4th january 2020)
Defining mental health will continue to be dynamic and fluid and will grow and change as context and cultural influences change (Goldie, 2010 p.36)
Daniel Regan (2015) from Fragmentary
‘Seeing these observations of myself from an outsider’s viewpoint prompted me to revisit those times in my life through my own visual archive. I have always turned to photography to express the feelings of a fragmented identity, of my mind splitting apart and into something destructive, something unknown. Working with self-portraits taken on or close to the date of the medical record I have disrupted the image by digitally inserting those texts that are too personal for the public into the photographic image. The result is a corrupted portrait of the broken self, a metaphor for the shattered identity’ (Daniel Regan, 2015)

Defining mental health will continue to be dynamic and fluid and will grow and change as context and cultural influences change. These statements interact directly with the line of thought and questioning here. They provide an opening and understanding to the ideas of what mental health is, to explore the means by which photographers might capture the essence of that in photographs.

Daniel Regan (2015) from Fragmentary
Dmitri Gerasimov (2011) Head in the Package
Edward Honaker (2015) from Book II








One thing is immediately apparent in much of this practice. A sense of invisibility, or of retreating from the world; both visually and physically.

Rather than acting as portraits, they are transformed into metaphors. One can easily feel the sense of suffocation, of panic, anxiety and claustrophobia providing our first look at photographs bringing attention to the daily struggles of people with mental illness. Similarly, Michal Macků developed his own artistic technique to best tell stories through his photography. Calling it ‘gellage’ he moves the gelatinous emulsion around on film negatives and alters their appearance in dramatic ways. In these images, the subject seemingly rips himself apart, not unlike the feelings that depression and anxiety can bring.

Michal Macků (1990) from Gellage
However, with panic, anxiety and claustrophobia also comes despair, depression and the feeling of being alone.

The darkness which surrounds Alex Bland’s man in a box in Fragile (2015) shows an abyss that one can be pushed into and feared, or, find a sense of comfort for escape. As Goldie (2010, p.36) points out, we are essentially social beings and mental health can be socially created and socially destroyed. In which case, the push into an abyss can be confirmed as a social behaviour or result thereof. It is important to note, that mental illnesses can easily stem from forced social hardships, behaviours, abuse which we should all be mindful of when interacting with other people. A similarly metaphorical approach is to be found Liz Osban‘s practice, a photographer who went through depression and used her images to show this. She secluded herself into unfamiliarity and deserted spaces that were blue and gloomy. She beautifully shows mental illness in her works which evoke a sense of empathy from an audience, immediately relating back to creating an understanding space for the normalization of mental illness in public.

Gabriel Isak (2015) The Farewell Prelude
‘The dormant bodies create a sense of melancholy serenity, matched by scenery that is fixed, purgatorial. Wind-swept hair, paper planes, birds in flight and floating balloons act as an unsettling precedent for figurative journeys: the animation, it would seem, is projected outwards by the thoughts, fears and hopes of the individual, left unresolved and trapped within their sedentary vignettes’ (Aesthetica, 2015)

Goffman argues that the stigma of mental illness, is usually considered to be an undesirable attribute in terms of social normality. But what is social normality when it comes to mental illness? It is understanding that mental illness is an invisible threat that surrounds us all and to be more accepting when it comes to opening up about the struggles of life. Liz Osbert‘s project Dualities goes a long way in terms of normalising this by exploring people in their homes living their ordinary lives. She shows the different moods associated with daily routines. It provides insight on ways that mental illness can have different effects in different ways. It is not always a continuous moment or feeling, but rather a series of good and bad days. The everyday aspect of ordinary people helps normalize societies views of mental illness.

Liz Osbert (2014-2018) from Dualities
‘It opens the door for more artists to make work about their personal experiences and share it with a wider audience. Since photography is a relatively democratic and accessible medium, now it means that there are greater opportunities for people to explore photography as a medium to process, document, and conceptualise inner states in a therapeutic manner’ (Regan in Campbell, 2019)

Society can be a cruel place for mental illnesses and healthy lifestyles. Sean Mundy‘s Nescience illustrates a dead body amidst hurrying strangers. No one taking a glance or slightly curious with the scene before them. Everyone is so caught up in their own path that they forget to notice when someone is in dire need of help. The stigma and discrimination faced by people with a mental illness is widespread and offers a key public health challenge to stereotypical society views. (Goldie, 2010, p.215). Photography offers us an important gateway to challenge and change these stigmas.

Further Resources
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‘Real’ Beauty or Picture Perfect?

Human Bodies not Human Beings

By Abigail Emm (22nd December 2019)
‘A society where feminine beauty is defined not by the human self on genuine intellectual and sentimental grounds, but by a computer software on the grounds of economic interest, is more dead than alive. It is a society of human bodies, not human beings’ (Naskar, 2017)
Harper’s Bazaar (November, 2013)
Vogue (August, 2019)










When we really consider the all too ubiquitous digital retouching / altering of models’ appearances, such as the removal of blemishes and changing of body shapes, we must also think about whether this is merely to aid the sale of an item, or promote a beauty ‘standard’. Or both? In our image world, these types of images are more easy to come across than ever, with a combination of social media, magazines, billboards and advertisements, the exposure to these types of representations of ‘woman’ are nearly inescapable.

Does this create unattainable expectations for bodies / create a market for products and services that could aid an individual to get closer to a so called feminine ‘ideal’. What is the morality of retouching models? How does it effect those who view these images? Is this ‘ideal’ a myth in itself?

A study by Kleemans et al (2016) on the impact of manipulated / perfected Instagram images on young women, concluded that indeed, manipulated images were more favourably viewed than their un-manipulated counterparts. Interestingly, the participants in the study also struggled to detect when the model’s body had been slimmed down. This causes concern, as this lack of awareness might suggest that there is a culture of doctored images as ‘reality’, and that young women may start comparing their body to these fictitious myths.

from Kleemans et al (2016)
‘Exposure to manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image’ (Kleemans et al, 2016)

Bingham (2015) writing in The Telegraph reported that 90% of teenage girls ‘digitally enhance’ photographs of themselves before posting them online (Bingham, 2015). I believe this statistic wouldn’t be as high if this ubiquitous (but all to often hidden) use of retouching was lessened. In allowing young women to see other women with thier true blemishes and larger stomachs and thighs, a healthier body image will be developed, as the pull to change their bodies to resemble the (published) ‘myth’ of the model is made more realistic.

‘Retouching or otherwise altering pictures, to make them appear thinner, for example, has become the “new normal” for young people’
(Bingham, 2015)

This is clearly a dangerous game, particularly if young woman perceive these doctored images as ‘reality’, and as a result start comparing their body to fictitious ones, which can lead to the development of poor self-esteem and eating disorders. As Sarah Marsh (2019) proposes, ‘There has been a dramatic rise in hospital admissions for potentially life-threatening eating disorders in the last year, prompting concern from experts about a growing crisis of young people experiencing anorexia and bulimia’ (Marsh, 2019).

Is this directly related to a ‘myth’ of an ‘ideal’ woman / an ‘ideal’ body?
Dove (2006) Evolution

In 2006, Dove created an advert that depicted a woman preparing for a photoshoot, and subsequently being heavily photoshopped; with her neck lengthened and her eyes enlarged. Whilst this advertisement was praised for highlighting how drastically retouching can change appearances, it was also condemned, due to the company using it as a marketing tool. Dove were also selling ‘Intensive Firming Cream’ at the time (Traister, 2005) which aimed to improve the appearance of cellulite. This created a contradiction in what the company were saying vs thier simultaneous financiaal gain, which, when it came down to it, was still profiting from telling women that they needed to change their bodies.

Companies are slowly starting to alter their models less, which is shown through multiple fashion retailers such as H&M and Missguided halting their use of this practice. This encourages people who are concerned about the ethics of retouching to shop at these stores also. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, more companies need to join these retailers on their body-positive advertisements to make a larger impact

Missguided (2017) Make Your Mark
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Doug Rickard’s ‘Pictures’?

America according to doug Rickard 

By Emily Jane Scott (13th December 2019)
‘(Photography) promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are logged’ (Elkins, 2011, p.17)
Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture

Doug Rickard produced his series A New American Picture, by utilising the vast visual archive of Google Street View. He iimportantly reminds us to challenge preconceptions about what photography, or ‘photographies’ can be, especially when it comes to digital imagery. Rickard spent an extensive amount of time (2009-2011) exploring stereotypically ‘subordinate’ urban neighbourhoods and rural areas across the USA, from the comfort of his own computer desk. He would then photograph the composition on his computer screen with a digital SLR. Whilst many photographers aim for the most transparent process possible, Rickard includes blurred faces, pixelated distortion and warped perspective which reveal the digital origin of his photographs.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
Perhaps Rickard’s process reflects the beginning of an age where human beings are reduced to data, constantly being observed, being monitored?

Yet, paradoxically, Rickard returns humanity to this data by picking out individual stories and adding them to the overarching and ongoing narrative of the American working class. The sense of distance provided by Rickard’s multi-layered technique adds weight to the images- reminding us of how distant we might be from these people and places; both on a geographical, cultural and socio-economic level. And so, Rickard is no more of a visual appropriator than any more ‘traditional’ photographer: he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside. The images included in A New American Picture only became photographs (dare we say ‘art’?) once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised and published by Rickard.

‘Doug Rickard… is interested in the American content and its haunting, visceral power. “I was interested in photographing America in the same context, with the same poetry and power, that has been done in the past” (in Appleyard, 2011)
Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
Rickard’s work blurs the lines between technology and reality, the image and the world around us. His practice challenges our view of what photography is, and could be in this new, digital age.

Although Rickard is drawing from a collection of images which have already been ‘taken’, His practice, to me, cannot be considered to be a ‘pure’ form of artistic appropriation (despite appropriation being a completely valid way of producing powerful work, which can eloquently distil a cultural mood). The original mages within Google Street View are not, in my opinion, photographs. They were objectively, methodically collected by a vehicle-mounted camera driven down every street; they have no nature of subjective selection.

Rickard is no more a visual hunter-gatherer than any photographer. he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside which is, itself, layered with constructed imagery.

Szarkowski’s (1966) discussion of photography focuses on the idea of selection. A photographer chooses what to include within a frame, and what to leave out. It is impossible for the ‘photographer’ to be truly objective, as a truly objective image is not a photograph, it is only visual data. so where does that leave Rickard, or indeed, his source material? A New American Picture only became subjective photographs once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised. One might even liken his work to that of a ‘readymade’ sculptor; he turns something completely banal and utilitarian into a different practice merely through recontextualization. But yet paradoxically, despite its source material, we should still frame this practice in the tradition of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Paul Graham – or even Edward Hopper, as an equally visual / critical and subjective commentary on the state of thier own America.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
‘Any doubts as to the artistic – rather than ethical or conceptual – merits of this new way of working were definitively settled by Rickard’s pictures. It was William Eggleston who coined the phrase “photographing democratically” but Rickard has used Google’s indiscriminate omniscience to radically extend this enterprise – technologically, politically and aesthetically’ (Dyer, 2012)

The idea of photography as an accurate representation of the real world is mythological. Whether it be an artist’s concept, a news story, a memory, an advertisement, an illustration or investigation, all photographs feed into a false narrative of some kind. Yet, Rickards photographs are aesthetically pleasing, insightful, emotive and harrowing. The sense of distance provided by his multi-layered technique adds weight to the images, reminding one of how distant we really might be from these people and places, on geographical, cultural and socio-economic levels.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
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