Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Comparative studies in social media photography

Location Stevenson Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 31 May, 2014 at 09:00


Daniel Miller (University College, London)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel will explore the use of photography within Social Networking Sites using a comparative approach based on fieldsites in ten countries. It will argue for a convergence between this material and anthropology's traditional understanding of persons as in effect `social networking sites'.

Long Abstract

The advent of social media sites such as Facebook, QQ and Instagram have revolutionised the experience of photography for vast populations across the world. Within a few years they have become the single most important and common experience of photography for most people. Furthermore being `social networking sites' they shift photography firmly towards the traditional core of anthropological interest. One possible definition of anthropology is the discipline that treats people, not as individuals, but as `social networking sites.' We therefore need to understand this convergence between visual expression, communication and networking, and see how the integration of photography into the act of social networking facilitates a specifically anthropological approach to photography.

In this panel we are using another core trait of anthropology, that is comparative analysis. We will be looking at photography within Social Networking Sites as used in ethnographic fieldsites across 10 different countries: Brazil, Chile, China (2), India, Italy, Japan, Mongolia, Trinidad, Turkey and the UK. The presenters will previously have spent six months exchanging information with each other as to the respective findings from all the other sites. This means we are in a unique position to consider what usages and traits relate to specific populations, or segments of those populations and which seem to emerge from the particular platforms that have emerged as the leading Social Networking Sites.

Discussant: Dr Haidy Geismar

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Little Treasures: a 'wealth' of baby photos on social media in rural China

Author: Tom McDonald (The University of Hong Kong) email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the prevalence of baby-related photos on Chinese social media, arguing that the images possess a 'magical efficacy' where parents intentionally seek to place their child within an illusory world, experimenting with different imaginations of what their offspring may become.

Long Abstract

This paper emerges from research into the use of social media in a small rural town in north China. As part of this research, a visual analysis of research participants' QZone posts showed the most popular genre to be issues surrounding childbearing and the first few months of a child's life.

Firstly, the most prolific producers of posts relating to a new baby come from the child's mother, particularly during the traditional month-long period of mother-and-baby confinement at home immediately following the birth. QZone appears to have become a particularly important way in which housebound new mothers maintain contact with their friends, helping to mitigate the effects of this isolation.

Secondly, QZone also becomes an important means by which parents in the town share the growth of their child with others. The most notable example of this is the 'baby 100-day photograph', where the baby attends a photo-session at a local photo studio. The tradition of the 'baby 100-day photograph' has always been aimed at producing an album of edited photographs kept in the home. In recent years, QZone has also become an important secondary destination for these images. Furthermore, these photos have become ever more fantastical in nature, employing increasingly fanciful and psychedelic effects. These decorations contribute to potential for Chinese baby photos produced in photo studios to have a 'magical efficacy', in which parents intentionally seek to place their child within an illusory world and experiment with different imaginations of what the child may become.

'Where there are children, there are many photographs' - An Ethnography of Photography in Contemporary Japan.

Author: Inge Maria Daniels (University of Oxford) email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the use of photographs of children in contemporary Japan, questioning the relationship between family photography, idealised sameness and oppressive normality, the impact of commercial and technological innovations on social reproduction, and shifting notions of privacy online.

Long Abstract

Based on an ethnography of amateur photographic practices in the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara), this paper examines the use and circulation of photographs of children in contemporary Japan in order to explore how Japanese individuals see and imagine themselves seen as social actors both within and beyond their immediate family. In Japan, like in most industrialised societies, the arrival of a (first) child leads to the production of large quantities of photographs. Although these images tended to be primarily shared with family and friends, the availability of mobile phones with camera functions and the increased use of the Internet in the past five years has resulted in the increased circulation of the creative photographic documentation of everyday life of children online. Blogs that document the everyday activities of newborns in minute detail are particularly interesting in this respect, but uploading photos of children on social networking sites, especially those accessible to strangers, seems far less acceptable. I will raise questions about these changing notions of privacy and child-protection online, but I will also pay attention to the positive impact of ongoing commercial innovations and technological developments on the reproduction of social life. An example is the proliferation of online services that offer people the opportunity to order a huge variety of child-related photo-objects ranging from "Half Birthday" photo-shoots for six months old babies to design kits for creating New Years cards depicting children, still circulated on mass through the post.

Photographic Expressions of Work on Facebook in a Peri Urban Indian Environment

Authors: Shriram Venkatraman (Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIIT-D)) email
Nimmi Rangaswamy (Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad) email

Short Abstract

This study examines the photographic expressions of work on Facebook in a fast transitioning peri urban environment in South India. It explores the dimensions of status and identity associated with work through photographs posted in the online profiles of research participants.

Long Abstract

Anthropology tends to view work as more of a continuum with the rest of life, compared to the common perception of work as an entirely differentiated sphere of life, though the degree of overlap will clearly be culture specific (Wallman, 1979; Ortiz, 2003). A major advantage of using photographs on social media, as with ethnography more generally is that they locate work within a much more holistic sense of a person's daily life, rather than isolating it. The evidence presented in this study suggests that social networking sites are an important space where this integration of work is visible.

The field site for this study is a peri urban area in South India, which originally comprised of agricultural lands and is now transforming rapidly catalyzed by the influx of global IT businesses. This has led to a confluence of traditional and modern, formal and informal work settings. This can very well be seen through the pictures that people post of themselves on their social networking site profiles. These pictures are often related to broader concepts such as status or identity which in turn maybe complicated by contextual issues of gender, caste and class. The pictures by nature may be genuine, touched up or even fake. So the analysis of this material is a useful research endeavor for facilitating the more general task of anthropology in contextualizing work within the broader parameters of people's lives.

A possible digital world - Chinese rural migrants' visual expressions on social media

Author: Xinyuan Wang (University College London) email

Short Abstract

Based on a contextualized visual analysis of the photos on Chinese rural migrants’ social media profiles, this study explores the relationship between the appropriation of social media and people’s living experience in diaspora as well as the social consequences of digital-mediated social connections.

Long Abstract

This paper takes as its premise that people's daily engagements with social media and their perceptions of social connections and personal lives are authentically objectified in photos on their social media profiles. The online photos, in this specific research, opened a window to look into the inner worlds of Chinese rural migrants in a small factory town where the researcher conducted long-term fieldwork. This paper focuses upon visual expressions on online profiles (QQ and Wechat) as the point of entry to look into the living experience of Chinese rural migrants and the negotiation and collusion between one's online and offline life.

During the fieldwork it was noted that online visual expression was significantly more popular than text-based expression among my participants. Besides a discussion of reasons for the popularity of visual expression, a detailed analysis of people's social media photos in this paper describes the dynamic of people's daily engagement with photo-taking and photo-sharing via social media. The differences and similarities on different social media platforms further suggest a 'polymedia' strategy in dealing with social relationships. Case studies in this paper illustrate that photos on social media not only allow people to craft a new digital personhood, but also facilitate the dissemination of ideas among rural migrants and between them and their fellow villagers in rural areas of origin. Rather than taking a technological-deterministic point of view, this paper argues that social media provide an alternative/additional digital world for Chinese rural migrants with lower social capital in their real-life world.

Can Social Media Photography Constitute an Ethnography?

Authors: Daniel Miller (University College, London) email
Jolynna Sinanan (University of Sydney) email

Short Abstract

The contrast between genres of social media photography in Trinidad and England strengthen the argument for the integrity of this material as the basis for ethnography.

Long Abstract

Social media has provided a huge point of entry for ethnographers into a welter of communication that was not originally intended for ethnographic inspection. This gives it considerable authenticity as participant observation. So can we use this material in a manner corresponding to traditional offline ethnography?

We have begun research on what we hope will be a book called `What They Post` contrasting postings on social media in England and Trinidad. For which purpose we developed a technique using Evernote that makes this analysis more systematic.

If we compare Sinanan's work on current social media photographs in Trinidad with Miller's previous ethnography of Trinidad we find that to a surprising degree this corresponds to the previous analysis with its dualism of `transience' and `transcendence', though with some significant changes in the intervening period. Similarly the English material is remarkably useful in illustrating core English values that emerge from Miller's wider study of his village fieldsite and an associated hospice which form part of a larger anthropology of `Englishness'.

The claim to ethnography is strengthened by the contrast between these sites. While there are common genres such as celebrations and baby photos, Trinidadian postings are dominated by topics such as religion and moral homilies on the one hand, and an almost aggressive sexuality on the other. Neither are found in the English postings which are dominated by characteristics such as self-deprecation, which would be equally rare in Trinidad.

Instaterremoto: Tracing Disaster through Instagram Photography

Author: Nell Haynes (Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile) email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the Instagram photography of young Northern Chileans after a recent catastrophic earthquake, and the ways they represented their daily lives in the aftermath.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the ways young Northern Chileans used Instagram photography after a recent 8.2 magnitude earthquake in the region. Not surprisingly, after this disaster, both content and form of photography changed. Yet, if we look more deeply at the themes that emerged, this shift may indicate a broader understanding of the ways social media photography can be and is used under certain circumstances.

Under normal circumstances, most Instagram photography in Northern Chile presents very mundane subjects of daily life, aimed at viewing by friends, family, and acquaintances. After the earthquake, however, the posted photos took on a more journalistic quality, presenting destroyed buildings, displaced residents, and struggles of daily life without power or running water. As these photos were noticed by those living outside the area, their journalistic qualities were heightened, as photographers responded to audience reception. And as the region recovered from the earthquake, photos slowly returned to their earlier subjects and forms.

During these shifts, Instagram photos became less about displaying an individual life, and more about witnessing the plight of a location-based community. This instance reveals one way that social media, often considered to be individualising and narcissistic, may be used opportunistically as a form of community building and representation of a particular group to outsiders.

The Troubling Silence of Photography - The impact sharing images online has in power relations and social mobility in Brazil

Author: Juliano Spyer (University College London) email

Short Abstract

This paper presents a case study about how low-income Brazilians living in a dormitory village in the Northeastern coast of Bahia use digital photography associated with social media as tools of political empowerment.

Long Abstract

In the past 20 years, nearly one fourth of Brazil's population crossed the poverty line to become what some have called the "new middle class". This is a paper about how photography and social media mediate diverging political interests in a low-income dormitory village in the Northeastern coast of Bahia.

I will compare two batches of photographs shared online during the presentation: the first batch shows street protests happening in large cities as a consequence of corruption accusations associated with for this year's World Cup in Brazil; the second are photos taken and shared to address the consequences of a crime that happened recently in the community where I currently live. My intention is to see if digital technology is a tool of empowerment not just to the educated middle class, but also to the large contingent of undereducated emerging working class that represent today more than 50% of the country's population.

Honour and Facebook photography in south-east Turkey

Author: Elisabetta Costa (University of Groningen) email

Short Abstract

In this paper I will analyse the photographic material people display on Facebook to understand the way honour and shame are shaped and organised in my field-town in south-east Turkey. I consider Facebook photography as a public display through which men and women compete for social recognition.

Long Abstract

In this paper I will analyse the photographic material people display on Facebook to understand the way honour and shame are shaped and organised in my field-town in south-east Turkey, inhabited by a majority of Kurdish and Arab population. I consider Facebook photography as a public display through which men and women compete for social recognition, and at the same time constantly attempt to defend their individual and family honour. Drawing from Abu-Lughod (1985) and Bourdieu (1979) I argue that honour code structures non-intimate and public interactions and practices, and it is observed in front of other people to protect a certain self-image intended for others. Honour and shame are constantly invocated and mentioned by my informants, and the Facebook wall is one of the places where they compete to create and propose specific self-representations. From the visual analysis of the research participants' Facebook photos and from the results of the 12 months ethnography I show what is considered honourable and shameful in my field-site: for example traditional values of female modesty, shyness and deferential attitude overlaps with values of female beauty and female allurement. The dominant cultural ideal of femininity includes modesty and attitude towards family members, beauty and attractiveness. Values of male independence and power go along with values of economic and professional success. The dominant ideal of masculinity includes in particular success in professional activities and career achievement.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.