Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Photography, new technologies and the predicament of the frame: theoretical and methodological reflections

Location Sackler B
Date and Start Time 31 May, 2014 at 09:00


Paolo S. H. Favero (University of Antwerp)  email
Luc Pauwels (University of Antwerp)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

To work with photography today entails to engage with social networking, augmented reality, new visualization technologies, etc. We are asked to integrate our knowledge about images with that of digital technologies. This panel explores the theoretical and methodological implications of this change.

Long Abstract

Recent developments in the field of digital technologies have redefined the horizons of photography. Through its entanglements with new digital technologies, photography is today increasingly merging with social networking; with applications for augmented reality, geolocative and geosocial media; with new visualization technologies allowing us to see the previously unseen.

To study (and to conduct research with) photography requires therefore today an increasing capacity to integrate the conventional knowledge offered by visual anthropology and visual culture with insights gathered from the study of digital culture and technologies. It symbolically entails a move beyond the frame and the field of vision.

This panel aims to explore this changing scenario from a twofold perspective. On one level it will explore the theoretical implications of this shift from within a variety of different empirical fields. On the other it aims at addressing the methodological possibilities for gathering as well as for visualizing data that have been made available to us through these technological innovations.

Discussant: Prof Marcus Banks

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Stretching the Frame: Analogue and Digital Panoramic Photography as an Anthropological Research Tool

Author: Luc Pauwels (University of Antwerp) email

Short Abstract

This presentation will address the unique research potential and limitations of different panoramic imaging technologies, with a special focus on using the dramatic image ratio in depicting or expressing visual aspects of culture. This will be done in a theoretical and methodological way, but also in visual manner through original images made with a flat back panoramic camera.

Long Abstract

The panoramic view enjoyed a special attraction through several moments in the history of photography and experiences a resurge in the digital age. In many ways the panoramic image provides an exemplary case for discussing the ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ of photographic representation, or in other words the complex interactions between technology and visual (social) practices. Panoramic photographs entertain complex relations with time and space through different technologies (flat back, swing lens, 360° rotating, digital stitching). These different technologies embody very different ontological relations with the depicted (varying from snapshots with almost continuous or uniform time and space relations through dramatic time/space discontinuities).

Anthropologists could benefit from further exploring and theorizing the typical effects, subject choices and practices of panoramic photography, and from scrutinizing its largely unrealized research potential both as a data source and a tool for anthropological research. They could pursue the question what particular representational value the panoramic view could bring to the visual exploration and documentation of culture, and interrogate in which ways distinct panoramic technologies interact with or enable/construct particular ways of looking. But researchers should also explore the new opportunities of these distinct technologies to express scientifically informed insights in novel ways.

This presentation will address each of these issues in a theoretical, methodological but also visual way through images made with a flat back panoramic camera which exemplify some of the unique potential and limitations of using a dramatic image ratio in depicting or expressing visual aspects of culture.

The impact of digital technology on stereo-photography

Author: Andrea Kuratli (Museum Rietberg Zurich/ University of Zurich) email

Short Abstract

The digital era brought a major change to the use of and the research on stereo-photography. Mechanical skills were replaced by computer skills and traditional archives became digital ones. The handling of delicate materials can be diminished while the possibilities to look at the images increased.

Long Abstract

Although stereo-photography is no new technology it has become popular once more through technological innovations, because it facilitates the handling. Whereas analogue stereo-photography required mechanical skills to mount the half-images the right way, these are no longer needed in digital photography but were replaced by computer skills. Concerning social media, the network is limited to people who either have a device to view the images or have learned to free-view stereoscopic images.

The digital era brought a major change not only to the use of modern stereo-photography but also to the research on and with old stereo-photographs. The shift from traditional photo-archives to digital ones opens up new possibilities. Fact is that without digitalisation a lot of photographs aren't accessible for researchers. Photographs often are very fragile and light sensitive and therefore not open to the public, whereas the digital copy of a photograph can be consulted without endangering the original. Especially online databases tremendously extend the accessibility of collections.

Even degraded images can be looked at and due to digital image processing details can be made visible you wouldn't be able to see by just looking at the original. To work on a screen simplifies and speeds up the work and in the case of stereo-photographs the effect of reality (3D) is augmented.

Furthermore, new methodological approaches are made possible. Quantitative research methods can now easily be combined with qualitative ones. My argument will be illustrated by my current research (PhD-project) on a large stereoscopic collection at Museum Rietberg Zurich.

Social Network Site Photography as technical semiotic self-mediation. Going beyond the frame with Gilbert Simondon

Author: Julius Erdmann (University of Potsdam) email

Short Abstract

The paper will show how Simondon's and Stiegler's notion of individual, collective and technical individuation could be used to study Social Network Photography beyond the limits of semiotic representation. Individuation becomes only visible as trace in visual and textual communication.

Long Abstract

The publishing, sharing and reception of photography on Social Network Sites is a process that could not be studied without taking into account the technical levels of those symbolic practices. In computer mediated environments as the Social Web, the analysis of interaction between human subject and technical device creating new techno-symbolic forms becomes crucial.

Gilbert Simondon (19893; 20132) and Bernard Stiegler (2003) are using the notion of technical and psycho-social individuation to illustrate the complex entanglement between the constant formation of human subjects, the creation and shaping of symbolic and technical objects, the formation of a collective and the socio-cultural or physical milieu. Following this framework the paper will extend the usual reflection of SNS photography to questions of technical code, socio-cultural conventions and constraints of images as symbolic technical objects.

It will subsequently demonstrate a visual and textual analysis of photographies from Tunisian SNS-users in order to show that the different of levels of psychological, collective (or cultural) and technical individuation are mostly inscribed as traces in the photographic sign and its contextual communication.

Multisensory and Interactive Photography: A New Form of Ethnographic Artefact

Author: Tom Jackson (University of Leeds) email

Short Abstract

Photography in ethnographic study could be enriched by digital technologies to become both multisensory and interactive. Fieldwork techniques are proposed that facilitate an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the multisensoriality of experience, the sentient body and cultural phenomena.

Long Abstract

This paper asserts that photography in ethnographic study could be enriched by digital technologies to become both multisensory and interactive. New fieldwork techniques are proposed that allow for the creation of vivid, emplaced and individualised sensory experiences. These ethnographic artefacts facilitate an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the multisensoriality of experience, the sentient body and cultural phenomena. The theoretical framework for this paper is based upon the synthesis of three disciplines; sensory ethnography, cross-modal perception and environmental psychology. The fieldwork techniques incorporate panoramic photography, interactive authoring and binaural audio recording.

Building upon the foundational work of Sarah Pink and appropriating James J. Gibson's belief that "The single, frozen field of view provides only impoverished information about the world" (1986), the resulting artefacts are navigable multisensory environments. These artefacts offer greater proximity to the subject of study (Schneider, 2008), "bring forth qualities of the material world that would otherwise be left behind in conventional forms of inscription" (Witmore, 2004) and create "a repeatable event for study purposes" (Schafer, 1973).

These new fieldwork techniques are currently being implemented in an ethnographic study of Temple Works, a Grade I listed building in the south of Leeds. Originally constructed as a flax mill and once featuring the largest single room in the world, the building is now a cultural venue supporting a diverse community of artists, performers and musicians.

The 'art' of capturing 'truth': digital photography as a technology of enchantment

Author: Shireen Walton (University College London) email

Short Abstract

This paper critically applies Alfred Gell’s theory of art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ to a discussion of contemporary digital photography. It explores how producers and viewers ascribe values such as ‘art’ and ‘truth’ to digital photographs in the context of Iranian online social networks.

Long Abstract

The global salience of digital photography today encompasses both conventional and contemporary notions of communication. In one sense, the everyday, popular lens of digital cameras and camera phones harks back to early uses of photography in anthropology, reflecting a perceived ability to scientifically capture 'truthful' visual information. At the same time, new technologies have developed popular visual methods of exploring society, establishing new domains of art practice.

This paper critically applies Alfred Gell's seminal theory of art as a 'technology of enchantment' (Gell 1992), to the contemporary study of digital photography seen in online social networks. It explores the ability of digital images to 'dazzle', like art works, as 'enchanted vessels of magical power' (Gell 1992), when connected to wider social or political agendas. The paper methodologically explores how the contemporary anthropologist can circumvent the truth - claims of digital images by placing them within social contexts of use. This approach reaffirms conventional knowledge of images as embedded objects of social enquiry. It also allows for an ethnographic understanding of visual 'truth' as a conscious or subconscious construct, within a given social order. The paper draws on digital - ethnographic insights concerning Iranian digital photography in online social networks. It concludes by reflecting upon the predicament of the digital frame in rendering photography a contemporary technology of enchantment.

Developer visions for wearable camera technology: A focus on the visual construction of the social field

Author: Asko Lehmuskallio (University of Tampere) email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that we need to consider the visual construction of the social field in order to understand changes brought by digital camera technologies. This is discussed by focusing on developer visions for wearable camera technology, as well as on how these visions get material form.

Long Abstract

The study of visual culture, from a social scientific perspective, tends to focus on the social construction of the visual field, but as Mitchell urges, we need to explore as well "the chiastic reversal of this proposition, the visual construction of the social field." (2012: 171) For digital photography, this chiastic reversal entails focusing also on the variety of artefacts, such as camera devices, software, algorithms, and visualization techniques that are used for organizing and exploring our social arrangements. They provide a nexus through which we relate to each other and to the environments we inhabit.

Digital camera technology, if used for conventional "film-like photography", or mainly as a sensor among others for measuring the environment, provides different stakeholders a variety of affordances that are activated in particular, meaningful ways. This paper discusses, with selected examples, visions that developers of wearable camera technology have for its uses. By paying attention to how particular visions get material form, we get a sense for this visual construction of the social field. Since camera technologies are used by humans, they can activate these constructions in possibly unforeseen ways.

“Look Away from Me!”: reflections on the intersection between the visual and the digital in the context of contemporary ethnographic practices

Author: Paolo S. H. Favero (University of Antwerp) email

Short Abstract

Offering examples from fields of contemporary image-making practices such as multilinear documentaries, contemporary art and commercial photographic and video applications for mobile phones this paper calls for a need today to rethink our conventional notions of images. In order to understand the meaning and role of images today we must integrate the instruments belonging to visual anthropology with those coming from the study of digital and material culture.

Long Abstract

Changing the way in which we produce, store and share images new technologies have modified our ways of relating to and addressing the field of vision. The importance of these changes resides not only in the increased speed and size of production and distribution of images around the world (much work has been conducted on this aspect) but rather on the practices that are emerging in parallel to this. Side by side with the spread of new technologies, the last decades have witnessed to the growth of new image-making practices (in a variety of different fields ranging from art to commerce, news, cinema, etc.), which are more attentive, to context, social relations and materiality, and hence to the world surrounding the frame.

Offering a rethinking of the meaning and role of images in the contemporary context the present paper will bring in dialogue with each other different fields of contemporary image-making practices. It will offer examples gathered from the world of interactive (or multilinear) documentaries, of contemporary art and of commercial photographic and video applications for mobile phones. Such examples will prove the need for us today to rethink our conventional ways of addressing images merging the instruments that characterize the study of visual culture with those belonging to the world and study of digital technologies and of material culture.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.