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On image and it’s meaning in the age of ‘Snapchatting’.

Photography and the idea of still image has been around for a long time. The idea of a pinhole camera has been described as early as Aristotle and Euclid 5th-4th centuries BCE. However, first documented chemical black and white photography was carried out in 1820s (first colour photography came in late 1860s). In comparison, the photography back then and now differ greatly, starting with the simple fact of extremely long exposure, which would make taking picture a terribly long and complicated process. We entered the digital camera age only in 1981 when Sony unveiled Sony Mavica which technically was not fully digital, but it did save image on the disc eliminating the use of film. It’s been a long way till we got to where we are now and the possibilities of capturing image are still evolving by days.

Some say images have no space in traditional social sciences and that they are the disciplines of words. However, image, picture, visual plays a great role in society and the way people perceive things. In some parts of the world an image is believed to keep ones soul alive after death or the belief that taking photos is a bad omen and ones image should never be captured in a still image.

“Anthropology has had no lack of interest in the visual; its problem has always been what to do with it.” [MacDougal, 1997:276]

The Yoruba, an ethnic group in West Africa, have even incorporated photography in their contemporary and traditional culture such as rituals (see Sprague, S.F.: 2002, ch.11). A possibility of capturing the moment has always been as tempting as that big red button to push.

The meaning and value of the image

An image (from Latin: imago) is an artifact that depicts or records visual perception, for example a two-dimensional picture, that has a similar appearance to some subject – usually a physical object or a person, thus providing a depiction of it.

What an image means to every one of us depends on how we value it. Our images are memories, friendships and moments stopped and saved for later. Every image has its own story and its own value accordingly, from a casual snap on the train to a long planned family reunion portrait. It might be just me, but I feel like with the evolution of apps and social networks, the value of an image has fallen greatly. And that is where Snapchat comes in. But I’ll return to that later.

To be completely honest, I am a ‘sucker’ for pictures which is probably why this post was hanging about my drafts for so long in the first place. I like taking them, not a great fan of being in them, but as it happens I do have a massive amount of pictures online and offline. The hell with it, I even decorated my white room into a kind of ‘a gallery of good times’.

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People have a great aesthetic addiction to objects, other people, emotions. During my visual anthropology course we talked about the perceiving of image as a part of the culture and tradition. As a medium for documenting the culture, capturing lives in the exact form and moment. In my head it is completely different than the pictures we take at the events or so called ‘selfies’ at home. Don’t get me wrong, we still do document the moment, the people, the objects but it is not the same. Hans Belting is talking about image linked with our mental images. A body is understood as “a living medium that produces, perceives, or remembers images that are different from the images we encounter through handmade or technical pictures”, therefore, image would be just a still portrayal of the emotions, memory, a part of this living medium but at the same time not. Belting completely turns away from the understanding of photography as just a type of art. However, I still believe that the practice of photography itself  is a type of art. And it probably should be treated like one.

Photography in a digital age could be compared to a selective memory – we can take millions of pictures and afterwards decide which ‘memories’ to keep and which just erase with a push of a button. With all the technological wonders our progress has given us, almost anyone can do it which, much like with economy, means the value of image is decreasing. To add to this, image has the power of capturing the real and the staged you. With the digital photography age and knowledge of photo editing softwares, it has become a less relevant question, as you can look at the picture and decide to re-take or retouch it, whereas, back in the day of film photography, image was something permanent, something that had to work from the beginning, something that captures the moment without a chance of changing the memories.

“As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are therefore coincides, with their production.” [Marx, Engels: 1974]

Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, sharing online and the conclusions.

I have talked a lot about social media, sharing, communication etc. I personally am one of the people that does a lot of sharing like pictures on Flickr, I do have both WhatsApp and Snapchat, I do share on Facebook, Twitter and on here. However, as an anthropologist, I would say that with all this ‘cloud’ type of sharing we have lost the main idea behind a valuable image.

When I am looking for an example, I love to get other people involved in an opinionated discussion before writing every post and so I did this time. I started with a question on photography and social media apps, just the general opinion. Apparently, with social media like Facebook and applications like WhatsApp there is ‘still some hope’ as some of my friends told me (mainly because you know your audience and the reaction to photos that can be shared, viewed, reviewed, copied, saved etc). Instagram was rated as an app where you share only what is really important, something that would matter to you (again keeping in mind your audience), something that would describe you with addition of cool effects and countless hashtags. Finally, Snapchat was nominated as the most obnoxious and maybe a little bit creepy app that would be the complete opposite of meaningful or even important memories. In fact, I was told that the pictures there are mostly meaningless (!!!) and it is only great for sharing “a shitty day/looks/nudes with your friends without worrying they will use it against you sometime as it will be gone in matter of seconds”.

This raised my attention. How can a photo be meaningless? The whole idea since the photography evolved from the very first attempts was to capture the memories in still images, nice and easy. I guess I could say that by the development of technology we are going back to a point where photograph is not a permanent, physical object. Another thing that worries me on this is the loss of fear of consequences. With photos being taken we are taking responsibility for what is portrayed on them. With Snapchat? No worries, just put it on for 1 second and puff they’re gone – no questions asked.. or will they?

“Snapchat is the fastest way to share a moment with friends. You control how long your friends can view your message—simply set the timer up to ten seconds and send. They’ll have that long to view your message and then it disappears forever. We’ll let you know if they take a screenshot! Build relationships, collect points, and view your best friends. Snapchat is instantly fun and insanely playful. Show your friends how clever you can be and enjoy the lightness of being!”

This was the first description of Snapchat on iTunes when it just came out… This is the second one:

“Experience a totally new way to share today. Snap a photo or a video, add a caption, and send it to a friend (or maybe a few). They’ll view it, laugh, and then the snap disappears from the screen – unless they take a screenshot! If you want to share a Snap with all of your friends, add it to your Snapchat Story, where each Snap lives for 24 hours until it disappears, making room for the new.”

So at this point what has changed is the idea of telling you when someone decides to keep your 10 second moment for later. As I said before, people do have aesthetic addiction to objects and there is a great need for that physical proof of existence no matter how digital we are.

At the end of the day, it is no-one’s business what we decide to share and for how long. But I can definitely say that the release of Snapchat has marked a new age in photography. The one where it is no more about the image, it’s quality or the memory it keeps. It has marked the age of photograph as a means of conversation, a casual chat with no consequences, no long lasting memories and no promises. I just hope that with this new type of communication we won’t forget that the photograph can also be linked to our mental images, be used to keep important memories and value the moments captured through the lens.

Suggested readings:

  1. Belting, H. An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (2011), available for purchase here
  2. UCL SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES & SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH PROJECT
  3. Phelan, P. Francesca Woodman’s Photography: Death and the Image One More Time in Signs, (Summer 2002) available here
  4. Collier, J. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967)
  5. Sprague, S. F. Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba see themselves in Askew, K. and Wilk, R. The anthropology of media: A reader (2002)
  6. Banks, M. Visual methods in social research (2001)