Accepted paper:

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


Shireen Walton (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Paper 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.

Paper 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.

panel P25
Photography, new technologies and the predicament of the frame: theoretical and methodological reflections