Shaping Our World Through Digital Photos

I took my five year old twins to the park the other day, and we had a blast.  As Lennon climbed atop the playset (cast and all), she shouted down to me, “Take my picture, mommy!”  Each time I rounded a corner, camera in hand, my other twin, Carys would stop and strike a dramatic pose.  My children have been trained by the digital camera.



Then again, I suppose I have been too.  Within moments of snapping my girls’ photos, I slap a few Instagram filters on them and upload to Facebook.  Accordingly, the photos receive another 35 ‘likes’ in a matter of minutes.  It’s my way (and much of society’s way) of saying ‘look how adorable/great/smart/special my kids are!’  Facebook and other forms of social media have become the new wallet from which we pull our kids’ photos to brag.  As Elizabeth Losh explains in “Feminism Reads Big Data: “Social Physics,” Atomism, and Selfiecity,” digital photos and social media have allowed us to continue the analog scrapbooking tradition into a new digital era.


Digital Photos in Society

The ways in which society interacts with and participates in digital photo culture extend beyond mere scrapbooking, however.  J. Good’s article “How many photos have ever been taken?” indicated that by 2011, humans had taken over 3.5 trillion photos.  The number of photos has risen exponentially since the evolution of inexpensive and easily accessible digital cameras.  Digital photos have become an integral part of our social experience in the 21st century.


Silly Girls


Losh examined the phenomena of selfies through the Selfiecity project which aggregated approximately 3,200 images and compared them for similarities and emotional connections.  While Losh had some criticisms of the project especially when it came to gender considerations and time limitations of the study, Selfiecity allows for a provocative conversation on the culture of selfies and its ubiquity in society.  Can you estimate how many selfies you’ve taken or been apart of?  I know I can’t.  Just as taking pictures of my little ones on my cellphone is a natural part of my routine, I don’t often think about snapping a selfie (or more likely an “us-ie”).  It’s part of our common cultural expression.  And it’s not just Millennials creating and propagating this culture.  Losh also points to the use of selfie expressions across popular culture, even permeating into the political sphere.  Not only do these examples grant some sort of legitimacy to the practice of taking selfies, they cement the notion that this form of self expression isn’t going anywhere.  


So why is the digital self portrait so undeniable?  Just as my five year olds love cheesing it up for the camera, the human race loves to have our story captured.  We also love to be able to portray our story in a manner we control and shape.  Selfies grant us the ability to literally frame our stories just as we want them.  We choose what we want the world to see.  We choose what the message is when we snap the selfie and say “I was here!”    


Digital Photos as Artwork

Perhaps the most important part of our obsession with the digital image is the idea that we can manipulate the image to make it uniquely ours.  Digital photography, editing, and sharing is a participatory act which makes the image malleable.  Analog photography always allowed for manipulation of a photo in the editing room.  However, editing tools such as Photoshop and MS Paint have permanently changed the way we interact with the image.  L. Manioch in “Inside Photoshop and the artists in Is Photoshop Remixing the World?  Argue that Photoshop is the evolution of the paint brush.  An image can be transformed and recreated again and again, giving birth to new worlds out of previously static images rooted in reality.  


The artists and designers in The Rise of Webcomics harness both the idea of digital image creation along with interactivity, pulling in users for their contributions as well.  One of the most profound points in the video is the idea that these webcomics are given life and released in a digital ecosystem that has no gatekeeper.  Because of this, the webcomics and artwork are intensely unique and personal, just as the flood of selfies we take are.  This intimacy between the artist, their work, and the users allow for the formations of communities around oddball, cult favorites that might not have found an outlet in traditional print (POLANDBALL!).    




Digital Photos, Authenticity, and Copies…so many copies…

Until I read Catherine C. Marshall’s “Digital Copies and a Distributed Notion of Reference in Personal Archives,” I don’t believe that I gave the replication of my selfies and children’s photos much thought.  I didn’t question which copy was the authentic version because the main purpose for the exercise is to create and share the photos as quickly as possible.  What do I personally rely on to back up my reference copy?  I back everything up in the cloud, of course.  Yet, Marshall reminded us that we shouldn’t be so confident in the integrity and infallibility of the Cloud.  What happens when these files are corrupted or lost altogether?  What version of the photo do we then consider to be the authentic or even the most valuable?  Thanks to digital photo editing, our images can be tweaked and transformed countless times each time it’s replicated.  As alluded to in Is Photoshop Remixing the World?, there is no true authenticity when it comes to digital art and photos (wouldn’t Lowood be delighted?).  Marshall concurs in that we should focus on what version of the file we’d like to reference and perhaps save in perpetuity rather than the idea that the original file carries some sort of mystical quality.  It isn’t necessarily true in the brand new digital world.  Instead, we continue to mold and shape our vision of the world from the moment we click the camera to the editing decisions made through every iteration of the file.


So, here are some questions as we move forward:

Losh discussed women in relation to selfie culture.  Is it empowering for women, or is it another culture based around exploitation?  

Based on Marshall’s article, what can/should digital preservation professionals do to guide users on making sound decisions when it comes to their personal archives?  Is this a responsibility that we owe as a field to the greater community?