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?

12 Replies to “Shaping Our World Through Digital Photos”

  1. Marshall’s article got me thinking a bit more about the additional caption info, likes, comments, etc. that comes along with the images getting posted to sites like Facebook and Instagram. Like you, I only considered those sites as a way to share the photos. In my previous life, before this whole grad school thing started, I worked as a photographer for a number of years. My only concern then was to save the original, untouched digital image, and the edited variations (whether it passed through an Instagram filter or had a cutline attached and was color corrected for print). Professionally, I only cared about the image. Personally, I have never been concerned about saving the image with the comments or likes on social media. So, I’m curious how others see this? With that in mind, I am wondering if our advice to users would depend on the user and what they value the most?

    1. As a photographer, did you feel that one version of the digital image was more important than another (i.e. the original vs. the edited)?

      As far as giving advice on how users value an item, I agree with your speculation 100%. How does the user in question actually use the material? I think we should base our answers on that. However, I do feel like we have a responsibility to release some sort of guidelines for personal archives. Those would have to be broad enough to include a multitude of users.

      1. As an information professional, I think that the comments and likes could be important information to the users of any collection that the digital images wind up in. There is a lot that can be studied and learned from the additional data about modern social behavior. But, I don’t think that it is data that any donor is going to think about when giving an archive their digital photos, unless the staff intervenes.

        1. I agree. I also don’t think it’s something maintaining their personal archive is going to necessarily care about. Because of that, I’m not sure that we as information professionals have to focus on that message when communicating about maintaining personal archives.

      2. I suppose I was always concerned about maintaining the original digital file. I always wanted to have that untouched, high resolution version to be able to go back to. But, the edited versions were equally important. I may have resized, retouched and done other work for print or online and it was easier to save the versions so that you didn’t have to repeat work. I find that I do that even with my cell phone photos – I keep the original, but also keep the Instagrammed version.

        It’s interesting, I can see where the artist in Marshall’s article would want to preserve the comments, and versions from the various websites – it makes sense professionally. I suppose I’ve always looked at my social media sites on a more personal level and separated them from work. And like Megan says below, no donor would probably think about that aspect. In reality, the work of any artist today is so intertwined with social media that it is a whole other aspect archivists will have to figure out.

  2. I could spend all day linking to commentaries on selfies and selfie culture. But I’ll just link to a couple that touch on my favorite aspects of the topic:

    I can’t for the life of me find the actual post on tumblr, due to its terrible navigation interface, and for some reason the post where I could find the image doesn’t link to tumblr at all, but it’s got the important parts. But basically this image is part of a series making a commentary on how selfies are seen as women’s vanity: take any classical work of art like this one, obviously designed with the male gaze in mind, and by photoshopping it into a selfie, the woman instantly moves from passive to vain. (I’ve asked twitter to help me find the link, and if they come through, I’ll update.)

    This photo series, also now hosted on tumblr, makes a similar point about reinterpreting classical portraiture as selfies, but it’s more light-hearted, and closer to touching on the idea that selfies are just the current portraiture trend (and, as I think the original tumblr thread points out, display no more or less vanity than spending the time and money to pose for an oil painting).

    This article on ‘gpoy’ also investigates the idea of selfies from a feminist angle, though I think it’s also missing one of the key functions that separates ‘gpoy’ (gratuitous picture of yourself) from selfies: gpoys don’t have to be selfies, they can be any image that represents you or your internal landscape. Or even text — I’m pretty sure half the things I’ve reblogged and tagged ‘gpoy’ are text-based.

    In terms of helping users to better archive their own material, again the performing arts field has a couple of articles on that topic. While only sampling a small population, I think the below article is quite useful. It acknowledges to some degree that as artists these people are slightly more aware than the average person of the importance of archiving their work, but I think that as more and more of peoples’ personal content is hosted by sources outside their control, that divide is lessening.

    Molloy, L. (2014). Digital curation skills in the performing arts – an investigation of practitioner awareness and knowledge of digital object management and preservation. International Journal of Performance Arts & Digital Media, 10(1), 7–20.
    -“This study examines the digital curation awareness and practice of a sample of practitioners from the UK performing arts community. Twelve performance arts practitioners from across the United Kingdom were interviewed to establish understanding of whether, why and how they create and manage digital objects in the course of their creative work. Detailed qualitative data from this series of oneto- one interviews about the actual and intended digital curation practices of these performance arts practitioners establish what they understand about sustainable management of digital objects, and also which digital curation activities they actually include in their working processes. This knowledge is supplemented with some preliminary exploration of the types of digital resources that are sought and used by performance arts practitioners, in order to understand whether there is a comparable appetite for the creation and for the reuse of digital objects in this field. Questions in the interview identify the sources used by practitioners when attempting to access digital objects created by others as part of research for their own creative work. This provides a ‘practitioner’s-eye view’ of performance collections; that is to say, the resources used by practitioners as collections for research, irrespective of the formal designation or intended purpose of such resources. Here, this enquiry is set into the broader context of digital curation and preservation. The approach to the interviewing is described, findings are discussed and the presence of possible skills and knowledge gaps is presented. Concluding remarks indicate the implications of these indicative findings for the representation of performance arts practice for current and future generations, and suggest useful future areas of enquiry.”

  3. Interesting article, I especially liked the part on how to preserve and protect you personal photos. It is not something most people think about but the reality is that digital photos are so much more vulnerable to being to destroyed then their analog counterparts. The general estimate for the survival of a large file like a photo is only about ten years or less. While we have come up with practices that should increase that time frame significantly. However, because the field of digital preservation is so young, we do not actually know if these methods will work or not.

    1. “It is not something most people think about but the reality is that digital photos are so much more vulnerable to being to destroyed then their analog counterparts.”

      Absolutely!! You typically hear folks worrying about acidic scrapbook paper or fire/water damage to their family photos. Rarely do you hear people discussing long term preservation of their digital family photos. The general public believes that because these images are not ‘tangible’ and are often easily accessed from multiple computers (when stored online anyways), they will exist in perpetuity. Even if someone thought about gradual deterioration of a file, I’m not sure how someone outside the field might go about addressing the issue. This gets to my larger point about our need to reach out as a field and work to educate the general public on preservation issues such as these. It would be a tragedy for both historians and families if large swaths of these personal photos were to be lost through time because of their digital nature.

  4. With respect to Losh’s article and our thinking on whether the interaction evolving around the image ought to be archived or not, the art exhibition of Richard Prince that called out the privacy setting of Instagram may be of our interest:

    I can imagine a case like this would call for the contextual documentations of different versions of an image (on Instagram & reproduction on the exhibition panel) published by different creators (selfie taker with her account name & Richard Prince and his signature works on copyright). Together with the dialogues, of course, that took place on Instagram and elsewhere.

    Losh’s approach might let us go further to study how this historical person featured in The Washington Post utilizes her Instagram account, her relationship to her account name @doedeere, and the likes. The scope of documentation, of course, depends on the immediate stakeholders. With the unexpected users, I hope we can still leave the trails of what we omitted, so that they can look for more as they see fit.

  5. Concerning the facial recognition, the work of Zach Blas on biometric data collection may be of our interest:

    He also did an art exhibition on what he calls “transCoder” project. His conceptual queer programming language was designed to challenge the binary and hierarchical structure of coding culture:

  6. Losh writes, “The alienated attachment of the female gaze to everyday autorepresentations made possible by mirrors, lenses, screens, and armatures could conceivably reconfigure the classic dynamic of men-look/women-appear from art history as different kinds of agency in image-making are explored” (p. 1650). Maybe, but is it empowering to take control of and/or perform oppressive, objectifying acts having previously been of the oppressed or objectified? I don’t know that this makes selfie culture one way or another, but who designed the phones, cameras, and filters? Can we really call it the female gaze if it’s mediated by all of these technologies built around the dominant paradigm of the male gaze?

    Slight tangent: I just finished reading this book called Pop-Up City, based on a blog of the same name. It’s meant to showcase the improvisational repurposing of urban spaces but ends up kind of celebrating corporate-sponsored events that “take over” city squares for a day and then disappear. Rather than spontaneity and temporary activities embedded in community needs, we’re looking at yet another disposable. Which is a roundabout way of wondering whether subversive or revolutionary acts are really possible under institutional imprimatur, within dominant values and systems.

    1. “Maybe, but is it empowering to take control of and/or perform oppressive, objectifying acts having previously been of the oppressed or objectified? I don’t know that this makes selfie culture one way or another, but who designed the phones, cameras, and filters? Can we really call it the female gaze if it’s mediated by all of these technologies built around the dominant paradigm of the male gaze?”

      That’s a really interesting question. As counter fodder, there are many examples throughout time of individuals/ethnicities/groups taking something that is historically oppressive and utilizing it for something positive. That is, coming to “own” what previously kept you in submission.

      A very benign example of this would be the reinterpretation of the slur “heeb” by the Jewish owners of the website/magazine now entitled “Heeb.” They intentionally chose to use a word that had been aimed at Jews for decades because, according to them, it was empowering to take control of the insult. There are myriad other examples of this kind of expropriation for the sake of empowerment.

      Ultimately, I don’t think it can be a blanket judgement. This is part of what the newest wave of feminism is about. Indeed, this is what many women railed against when Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem recently made statements implying that feminists wouldn’t vote for anyone other than the female candidate. Bottom line: women can choose to behave in any manner they see fit within the limitations of the law…masculine, feminine, conservative, liberal, sexualized, or abstinent…and it’s not for other feminists to judge. Should we foster a culture via social media that oversexualizes young girls under the legal age of consent? Probably not. But I have to shy away from Losh’s flirtation with the idea that women lack full agency in their participation in selfie culture. It’s somewhat of a slippery slope into judgement and the perpetuation of self loathing and deprecation.

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