How Photography has Changed its Nature, From a Form of Art to a Global Mass
Language, Due to the Convergence Between Camera Phones, the Internet, and
Social Media Platforms.
UoB Number: 14024720
MA Media Studies
Media Dissertation (PG)
Introduction Page 3
Chapter One Page 5
Photography as a form of art
Chapter Two Page 13
The advent of digital and the following convergence between camera
phones, the omnipresence of the internet, and social media platforms
Conclusions Page 29
Bibliography Page 31
The aim of this dissertation is to describe the change in photography from a form of
art to a global mass language through the advent of digital in society, and in
particular the influence of technology, that has determined a sociological change in
communication on a global scale.
First of all, it is important to contextualise what is intended by ‘art’, and how
photography can be identified with its meaning: for this purpose the Institutionalist
Pragmatism theory of Howard S. Becker is important, because his contribute to the
collective activity and conventions is helpful for understanding of what is meant
with art world from a sociological point of view; secondly, the contribute which has
been particularly helpful is from Niklas Luhmann, because he focuses his research on
the concept of world of art as a social system, and the importance of the activity of
psychic systems on human beings through the capacity of observation, a
fundamental factor in photography.
So the two theorists mentioned above are the most suitable to describe art, and
how photography is associated with it, explaining its influence both on sociology and
psychology. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the “symbolic interaction
approach used by Becker can be considered a predecessor of Luhmann’s thinking”
(Van Maanen 2009), based on the concept of social system which “do not consist of
relations between people, but between communications” (Van Maanen 2009).
Subsequently, the second part of the discourse is related to the advent of digital
which has revolutionised the entire society, causing a drastic change in photography
from a technological point of view.
In turn since the beginning of the new millennium technology has affected the
speed of change with two paramount convergences. The first one has been the
convergence between computing devices and cameras, thus giving an instrumental
adherence between two kinds of tools that until then were separated: in fact
“before phone camera there was a physical difference between the device that took
the photos and the medium that communicated it” (Larsen and Sandbye 2014).
The second convergence, that has been more significant from a sociological point of
view, was the one between the three key factors, the camera phone devices, the
ubiquity of the internet in public and private spaces, and the presence of social
media, that have provided a platform for sharing photographic material with other
users: in this way “the camera phone attached to a communication network,
enables the effortless communication of photos over distances without delays”
(Larsen and Sandbye 2014), creating “a new model of understanding photos as a
language” (Moschovi, McKay and Plouviez 2013).
Considering these aspects, the influence of technology operated by people has
defined the decisive change on the nature of photography, from an artistic
expression to a form of instantaneous communication, suitable to be practised
globally due to the uselessness of any verbal translation. In effect, the second
convergence has created “a whole different culture of producing and consuming
photos, allowing users to express themselves in new ways to a range of potential
audiences on a global scale” (Moschovi, McKay and Plouviez 2013).
Furthermore, this dissertation explores some important phenomena that have
played huge roles in this contemporary revolution, such as the fusion between
private and public spheres within society, the merging of real and virtual, the
interplay that occurs through the concepts of presence and absence and their
relationships with time and space, all aspects essential to understand the essence of
Photography as a form of art
The contribute of Howard S. Becker is important for the purpose of this dissertation
because it investigates on the meaning of art, focusing on the sociological impact of
art world, which helps to understand its connection with photography, and thus the
modern concept of it in social media.
The core question in this chapter is what is intended with art, what is the nature of
its meaning, and especially “who can confer to something the status of candidate for
appreciation, and thus ratify it as art?” (Van Maanen 2009).
By the Becker’s point of view there is a fundamental factor that gets the answer to
the question, which is the act of connection between participants that describe art
world as a cooperative activity.
With the term ‘participants’, it has to be intended the group of people which
comprehends both artists and audience, where the cooperation takes place
between artistic production and its reception by the public, which constitutes the
‘answer’, the reaction of who consumes the artwork.
In this frame, it must be considered the aspect of consensus, decisive for the
acceptation of a certain artwork as a form of art.
Besides the audience, the consensus is generally an act of approval which is
generated by an institutional apparatus: in this way, Becker assumes that “there is
no fixed number of person to be involved or amount of equipment to be used” (Van
Maanen 2009), because “any artistic connectivity can be done by one person, who
performs all the necessary activities” (Becker 1982).
Nowadays, in social media environment, Becker’s statements made more than thirty
years ago sounds very actual, because reflecting about photographic production,
there is a huge amount of material that circulates on the internet made by users,
and there is no need of a particular equipment for taking shots: camera phones
incorporate all that is necessary, and the artistic connectivity can be executed
immediately through the support of the ubiquity of the internet and social media
Considering the influence of these factors on society, the chance of giving to
everyone the possibility to easily produce photographs, determines the construction
of a system of acceptation of the artistic value of an image, based on users
The network of users, in this case, is organised in a worldwide macro group of
professional photographers, basic photographers or amateurs, who judge through
the participation, constituted for example by the liking activity, elevating a picture to
an artwork level or not.
By the way, it is interesting to notice here that the term ‘user’ should be substituted
by the new term “prosumer” (Toffler 1980), a fusion between ‘user’ and ‘consumer’,
where individuals participate in “an online communication platform that combines
features of e-mail, instant messaging, photo-sharing, and blogging programs, as well
as a way to monitor one’s friends’ online social activity” (Cohen 2008): in this way, a
person in the social media environment is both judged when posting a picture and a
judger when he observes and gives an opinion on a picture of another individual.
Then, Becker affirms the necessity of “organising de novo an art world which will
ratify as art what one produces” (Becker 1982), and in this direction the concept of
social media can be reputed a place where art world is finding new space; following
the words of George Dickie, for which “a new subsystem would be added within a
system” (Becker 1982), it can be assumed the internet is constituting the new frame
which has not only influenced, but also changed the existing system where art world
Participants, or “prosumers”, of this new order in fact “engage in a form of collective
activity and thus constitute an art world” (Becker 1982), confirming that
participation between artists and audience actually is the most important link that
makes the new art world possible.
By the way, the nature of “prosumers” reflects the character of new technologies
such as camera phones and tablets, which are instruments through which people
use and produce information within the network: so, human being and technology
adhere, as confirmation of the fact that computing devices have become human
Following Becker’s theories, for which relationship between institutions and
participants have to be developed, the social media revolution has constricted
institutions to adapt themselves to the new dynamics, in which, like for the artists,
they have to extend their relationships with participants.
This is the case of the National Geographic Society, which has developed the
National Geographic Your Shot internet site, a social media that allows
photographers of all categories to share their pictures with other people.
Also here the boost that animates the initiative is participation, through the
opportunity given to contributors to like, comment, and potentially share the
photographs taken, not only within the community, but also on a global scale: so, it
is possible to understand how a pivotal organisation in photography, has established
a connection with its supporters, making possible for them to be an active part in
With art world Becker intends “the network of people whose cooperative activity,
organised via their joined knowledge of conventional means of doing things,
produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for” (Becker 1982): again,
here it is possible to recognise that social media activity is a cooperative activity of
individuals, that continuously produce photographs, released in circulation on the
internet, that in turn acts as a network.
Becker’s statement shows two main characteristics, on one side the collective
activity, and on the other side the conventions.
In reference to what concerns the collective activity, Becker has developed an ideal
list of seven steps in making art: when recognizing these conventions it will be clear,
the photographic activity that can be perfectly associated with them.
The first one is to develop of an idea about a certain “kind of work and its form”
(Van Maanen 2009), for instance, in photographic terms that can be the choice of a
subject. The idea will be the incarnation of an artwork, which in this case is
represented by a photograph.
The second step is how the idea must be executed: with a smartphone device it only
needs a screen touch.
The third stage is the necessity to obtain materials and equipment in order to
accomplish the execution of the idea. Tools “such as paints, cameras or musical
instruments” (Van Maanen 2009) have to be manufactured.
Then, the fourth and the fifth stage consist in the distribution and the support of the
idea, in order to reach the audience: if once money was needed for that, now a
photograph posted on a social media can potentially arrive to millions of people in a
short time length, without any expense: so especially at this point it can be noticed
how the internet has changed the distribution phase, by creating the platforms
where an artwork can be shared.
Finally, the last two activities certificate the effective existence of an artwork, the
response and appreciation by the audience, which in social media context is
represented by the activity of “prosumers” in producing and consuming.
This assumption implies that the nature of artwork is contained in its consumption,
and this is in agreement with Marx’s theory, for which “in contrast with the merely
natural object, the product affirms itself as a product only in the consumption of it,
becomes only a product in this act. By decomposing the product, it is the
consumption that gives the product its finishing touch” (Marx 1973 ).
Finally, the last activity consists in creating and maintaining the rationale which
means that an artwork must remain intact in its cogency, a sort of coherence with
its meaning: so, the idea that has been executed through a certain equipment, in the
act of distribution and support obtains a response from the audience, keeping safe
its rationality in all these passages.
Along this path, it can be observed that some kind of practical activities, like the
execution of an artwork that request physical actions, are mixed with some others
tied with human thoughts, such as response and appreciation, where psychology is
involved, that in turn confers a more abstract character to the whole dynamic.
This context, where both material and abstract principles work together, brings the
discourse to the conventions role within Becker’s thought: in fact he said that they
impose the materials to be employed and “the abstractions to be used to convey
particular ideas or experiences” (Becker 1982), but especially “the forms in which
materials and abstractions will be combined” (Becker 1982).
It is clear that this combination is the same that influences the modern concept of
photography, because it can be noticed that camera phones are physical tools that
allow people to take pictures, that on the contrary are pure abstract software files.
If once the production institutions used to be those who assimilate what artists do
and what audiences appreciate, now it is no longer the case.
In fact, “non-standard distribution channels” (Becker 1982) are globally replacing
the traditional concept of production, distribution, and consumption of
photographs, where artists have the opportunity to produce shots using camera
phone devices, and immediately distribute their material to social media thanks to
the omnipresence of the internet.
In this way, production and distribution are individually conducted, while
consumption is developed in a collective act of response by the audience: what has
been really altered is that these actions are identified in the circuit based on the
technological convergence, where real and virtual spheres are fused together.
Nonetheless, Becker claimed that “self-support and patronage can set the artist free
from existing distribution systems in a financial sense, but not from distribution as
such, at least if he wants to be an artist” (Van Maanen 2009): the internet and social
media structures like Instagram have let free distribution of artworks from any need
of patronage, becoming mediators between producers and consumers of artworks.
Moreover, looking at the revolution that has changed the links between art
production and art reception, Becker has pointed out that “breaking with existing
conventions and their manifestations (...) increases artists’ trouble and decreases
the circulation of their work, but at the same time increases their freedom to choose
unconventional alternatives and to depart substantially from customary practise”
(Becker 1982). Internet has produced the unconventional alternatives mentioned by
Becker, clearly identifiable in the abundance of social media, but paradoxically the
potential possibility given to people to produce art material has generated an
inverse situation in which the number of art works has drastically increased
changing the artists’ trouble: on one side he can easily share material, but on the
other there is a huge competition, due to the huge number of art works produced
and shared every day.
This aspect has also changed the view in which the intermediaries who run the
distribution systems “want to rationalise the relatively unstable and erratic
production of ‘creative work, because they are the business” (Becker 1982):
photographic production is not “unstable and erratic” anymore, on the contrary, it
has become a massive and continuous flux through social media.
Victor Nee has discovered that institutions conceived as systems of rules “constrain
or encourage innovative individual action” (Brinton and Nee 1998) and “a change of
paradigms in the institutional environment (often launched on a governmental
level) makes new organisational forms possible” (Ingram and Nee 1998): the
internet dynamics has determined a radical change, where the audience of mass
media has evolved in “prosumers” who consume and produce information at the
same time, and as a consequence, traditional mass media are no longer the unique
In this way, the amount of data has drastically increased, generating a flux of
information that is organised in a huge network in which everybody can be a
potential news producer.
For such reason “prosumers” have become the centre of the attention of social
media organisations, because they need their “labour” as Nicole Cohen (2008)
explained, saying that “such activity does not produce material goods nor is defined
by terms of a wage-labour relationship, but is a source of value for Web 2.0
companies. The business models of Web 2.0 ventures depend on the performance
of free labour without it there would be no content and therefore no profit” (Cohen
However, “the extent to which immaterial labour is a dominant force in
contemporary capitalism (and if, in fact, it is a useful category at all) has been
contested, it is a useful way of understanding the work involved in social networking
sites: members add value to commodities via the production of a cultural or
affective component of the commodity, which are online social relations” (Cohen
2008), highlighting where the real value of the networked communicative flux is
This is the context where social media have become platforms where great amounts
of connections have taken place: this is how they have established a new
organisational form of communication, thus changing the paradigms within the
institutional environment, as theorised by Nee.
So, it is possible to comprehend that “networks are seen as sets of relationships
directly connected to exchange or transactional activities, whereas institutions
function in relation to these networks as sets of guiding and controlling principles,
norms and patterns of acting, operating around the network, as well as inside it and
internalized by actors in the network” (Van Maanen 2009): it is all right, but the
factor that has changed is that the social media impact has positioned them at the
centre of attention, making them independent from institutions.
Indeed, in this way they have obtained the status of institution that regulates the
network, and thus overturned the previous power balance.
If Becker talks about “art world as a network of people who cooperate” (Van
Maanen 2009), bringing a sociological contribute, Niklas Luhmann moves the focus
on social systems, not intending them “as relation between people, but between
communications” (Van Maanen 2009), where psychology assumes the core position
in the discourse.
Luhmann recognises four types of social systems, machines, organisms, social
systems and psychic systems, where “the latter two and the relationship between
them” (Van Maanen 2009) are of interest for this dissertation, because they help us
understanding the “world of art as a social system” (Van Maanen 2009).
So, art is communication in an absolute sense, and the mechanism through which
individuals’ participation takes place is based on the production of artworks, a type
of communication between observation and interpretation where the psychic
system acts, and the consequent reception by other people is another
Regarding photography, the artistic communication has its foundation in the
relationship between an artist and the viewers, where the image is the linking
connection between the two sides: in this view, the objective is the understanding
of the reactions of human beings to art, and photography in particular.
Hens Laermans has explained Luhmann’s theory that connects social systems and
psychic systems, where “psychic systems run the operations of consciousness, and
their outcomes are feelings, thoughts, imaginations and perceptions, but they can
only run on the basis of operations in the nervous system, which receives stimuli
from outside and makes perception possible. In contrast, communications, which
are observations in a material form, are based on perceptions and are, in turn,
perceived by others” (Van Maanen 2009).
So, as a matter of fact photography is strongly influenced by the principle of
observation, which “is motivated by recursive interconnections - partly by prior
observations, hence memory, and partly through connectivity, that is by anticipating
what one can do with the distinction” (Laermans 2000).
In this situation, art is the vehicle through which “perception is available for
communication” (Laermans 2000): the two phenomena do not interact until art
connects them, and in this view “artworks as communications are ‘sensuously
perceptible objects’ used by the psychic system to generate ‘intensities of
experience’ (that, by the way, remain themselves incommunicable)” (Van Maanen
Therefore, if “nervous systems produce physical stimuli for the brain and psychic
systems produce perceptive observations, feelings or thoughts, different social
systems (e.g. the science system or the art system) produce their own types of
communication (for example, scientific publications and reaction to them; artworks
and reaction to them)” (Van Maanen 2009).
Following and associating this line of reasoning with photography, it can be deduced
that psychic systems, producing psychological reactions like perceptions and
observations, put into action the same mechanism characterised by the
interconnection between memory and connectivity, which in turn produces an
emotional reaction of an individual placed in front of an image.
As a result, it is clear that “communications make use of psychic observations and
the other way round, just as psychic systems use stimuli of the nervous system to
produce perceptions” (Van Maanen 2009).
But what about artistic communication?
Looking at Luhmann’s theories, one of his main focus is the fact that every kind of
communication can generate an infinite series of possible communications, thus
“the possibilities not chosen remain present as the unmarked part of the realized
communication” (Van Maanen 2009): so, “it is extremely complex for participants in
the system to select adequate communicative reactions” (Van Maanen 2009).
In the art context, communications need a reduction of complexity, in which two
main factors play a fundamental role: expectation and meaning.
On one side, the concept of ‘meaning’, intended as “a system of concepts shared by
participants in a social system” (Van Maanen 2009) can facilitate the communication
through a certain number of “possible and meaningful observing choices” (Van
Maanen 2009), in which the psychic system develop this process through a
“structure of expectations” (Luhmann 1984).
In turn, ‘expectations’ are intended as “structural orientations” which “retail
selectively the horizon of meaning fully linked to communications” (Laermans 2000).
In Luhmann’s view “only aesthetic utterances can be understood as the
communications of an art system, because they speak the same language, one that
differs from other languages in its capacity to produce perceptions in a material
shape and consequently to focus on form” (Van Maanen 2009): in the same way,
aesthetic is the communicational medium that characterises the understanding of
photography without the necessity of any translation between individuals.
Moreover, art is founded on a merging between “a real world and an imaginary
world” (Luhmann 2000): in this frame, it can be recognised that photography is
fundamentally composed by the same interplay, because on the one hand reality is
depicted through the lens, and in particular the subject of the image, while on the
other hand the power of imagination gives the viewer the key to the interpretation
of a picture.
The three major types of communication present in the art system are identified in
“works of art, communications about art and, as a part of the latter group,
utterances about the experience a work of art has produced” (Van Maanen 2009):
so, it is a process of cause and effect, where “artistic communications generate
intensities of experience in the psychic system of people” (Van Maanen 2009).
At this point, it is important to understand how this artistic experience related to the
psychic system of an individual, can be expanded to the “system of everyday-life
communications” (Van Maanen 2009): when a “prosumer” shares a picture
depicting his living experience of a certain moment, he can immediately find in
social media the platform where the so-called everyday-life communication is
practised among society.
If once the interaction systems allowed people to be only “physically present in a
certain situation, like a dinner, a party, in the street or at the marketplace” (Van
Maanen 2009), nowadays, with social media photography, a new communication
system has been constructed, where individuals can interact simultaneously from
many different places, replacing the physical absence in space with an immediate
possibility to display, and thus to share an instant of time with its happening
through an image.
In this sense, vernacular photography is “a performative practise connected to
‘presence’, as opposed to the storing of ‘precious’ memories for eternity, which is
how it has hitherto been conceptualized” (Larsen 2014).
After the observations of the theories of Becker and Luhmann, it can be observed
that “communications concerning works of art and the experiences they brought
about can, conversely, do their work in interaction systems of another social system
(especially in the social system of social communication), since these interaction
systems have the same lack of differentiation” (Van Maanen 2009): in this way the
influence of social media photography has transformed a form of art in an
In fact, as a confirmation we find that “a communication based on artistic
perception that acquires a place in such a chain of communications (in other words,
becoming a real communication) will influence the original psychic outcome, and its
place in the communicator’s mental system as a whole, in a kind of feedback loop to
the psychic system” (Van Maanen 2009).
The advent of digital and the following convergence between camera phones, the
internet, and social media platforms.
With the flow of time, technology has always given its contribute to the evolution of
photography, changing the use of the medium and consequently the production of
images and their consumption by people.
With the advent of digital during the nineties, photography has drastically changed
its nature, which until that moment was identified with analogue: William Mitchell
baptised it as a “post-photographic era”, in which photography has been “radically
and permanently displaced by the new breed of digital imaging” (Mitchell 1992).
In particular, the revolution that took place, has involved the passage from
photography as a physical cellulose body to a hybrid and mutable nature, which is
the characteristic of digital image.
As stated by Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis in their article A Life More
Photographic, “the photographic darkroom and the photo lab were replaced by
Photoshop and a colour printer” (Rubinstein and Sluis 2008), and consequently “the
ability to make prints without the need for a home darkroom, and the ease with
which old, faded prints could be improved or restored convinced many
photographers to swap the photo lab for domestic digital set-up” (Rubinstein and
Sluis 2008): this shift has signified in particular an increase of photographic practice
among amateurs, which has been stimulated by the possibility to produce and
elaborate images in complete autonomy.
Since then, photography has been transformed in a practice rigorously tied with
computer technology in which pictures consists of files stored inside databases
ready to be processed and consumed through screen displays: as Fred Ritchin said
“the fidelity of the mechanical age was being replaced by the fluidity of the digital”
The materiality of analogue needed physical space where to allocate pictures, while
the immateriality of the digital has provided a new idea of storage based on
Hence, if once photographs used to be subject to wear and tear, now their digital
file feature assures the conservation with a higher longevity perspective.
Moreover, an important aspect that has arose from the passage to digital, is the
extension of the photographic process to a post-production stage.
In fact, practicing photography with films required specific competency in order to
capture the best possible shot considering features like light availability, reflections
and, in general, the circumstances that characterise the environment where the
picture was taken.
Nowadays post-production has expanded the field of photography production
through computer programs, giving the possibility to correct errors, or to emphasise
certain factors like brightness, contrast, saturation, and colour adjustment.
It must be clarified that digital has not simplified the practice of photography:
despite the improvement of image conservation, in order to avoid the loss of quality
in the storage of large loads of pictures, the whole photographic process has
become more complex to meet the standards of information technology knowledge
applied in digital cameras and post-production computer programs.
In this context, it is interesting to read what Andy Grunberg said about the
development of photography more than twenty years ago, affirming that “if
photography survives into the next century, it will be as something more overtly
fabricated, manipulative, artifactual, and self-conscious than the photography we
have come to know” (Grunberg 1990).
Here it can be noticed how the meaning of photography has changed, especially if
we consider what usually happens before and after the shot: Barthes, in his book
Camera Lucida, called punctum the detail which catches the sensitivity of the
photographer (or Operator), and studium the observations process, in which there is
“an application to a thing” (Barthes 1980) and “a kind of general, enthusiastic
commitment” (Barthes 1980) for the photographic outcome.
But unlike Barthes’ thought for which both punctum and studium are moments
relevant to a photograph already taken, it should be rather considered that punctum
represents the spark which turns on the attention of the photographer who
subsequently will take the shot, while studium can be identified as the post-
production activity, in which the image is analysed and adjusted.
According to the author’s view, punctum and studium are the ingredients of an
adventure, which consists in an “internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor
too, the pressure of the unspeakable which wants to be spoken” (Barthes 1980),
where photography is the manifestation of a human experience involving the
irrationality of emotions and surpassing the use of words.
This form of attraction, which conjugates human sensitivity and psychology, is the
key point for understanding the revolution that is occurring in photography,
characterised by the convergence of the spread use of camera phones, the
omnipresence of the internet and social media platforms.
A sociological change has occurred, in which technology has “introduced a whole
different culture of producing and consuming photos, allowing users to express
themselves in new ways to a range of potential audiences on a global scale”
(Moschovi, McKay, and Plouviez 2013), determining a new form of global mass
In social media environment, the punctum of an image can be identified with the
unbridgeable distance in space that separates the sender and the receiver, where
the latter could feel a desire sensation for what the other is doing in the same
moment, for example the fact of looking at a picture of a friend in an exotic place
while the viewer is working in an office on a rainy day: the omnipresence of camera
phone devices allows people to “cover the unexpected moments of the mundane
life” (Villi 2010), thus increasing the chances for a viewer to be captured by the
punctum of a shot which apparently could be labelled as one among many others.
Nowadays, in social media photography, it is evident that the feeling of punctum,
the impulse that drives a human being to immortalise a certain moment, is really
widespread among people, considering the huge amount of photographic material
produced and consumed everyday; the studium as well has been intensified and
become more detailed, due to the indispensable knowledge of photo editing
In an article appeared on The New Yorker online edition, Om Malik talks about the
new “one-hundred-and-forty-nine-dollar” (Malik et al. 2016) photo-editing software
made by Google in collaboration with Adobe, thus realising how the studium
recognised in the post production seems to be a practice ever more included in the
photographic process. Then, the author continues talking about the specifics of the
program, saying that it “can mimic old film stock, add analog photo effects, or turn
color shots into black-and-white photos” (Malik et al. 2016) and transform modestly
good photos into magical ones” (Malik et al. 2016): it seems that the concept of
photography is becoming an absolute research of beauty of the image, something
related to narcissism as well as to aesthetics.
So, the reproduction of reality is rather giving way to the alteration of it, in which
the representation is modified in order to perform what an individual wants to show
about himself, in a sort of personal showroom.
The use of camera phones has deeply changed photography because they have
become “bodily extension, whereby we ‘touch’ the world, and the assessment of
the photograph immediately following the shooting situation is part of a social act”
(Sandbye 2016), where the internet not only has made possible a global connection,
but it also represents the sociological network through which images are distributed
Therefore, it can be deduced that digital images “implies media convergence and
new performance of sociality, reflecting broader shifts towards real-time,
collaborative, networked ‘sociality at distance’” (Larsen and Sandbye 2014).
This unprecedented use of the medium has established that “the performative
aspects of photography are obvious not only when people take photographs, staging
and posing, but also when editing their photographs, putting them in frames and
albums, on blogs, and on websites” (Sandbye 2016).
Such sociological revolution has also involved a change of view in the balance
between private and public: if once, with analogue, pictures used to be conserved in
photo albums, as family relics, now social media have overturned the approach to
images, by transforming them in fragments of time ready to be shared with the
In this way, photography has expanded the representation of emotions, feelings,
memories, from an intimate character to a social sphere.
As Steven Rosenbaum said in an article appeared on Forbes online, “in just a few
short years our mobile phones driven world has turned a world of camera-shy and
often appropriately modest friends and neighbours into a digitally connected world
of on-camera performers... creating visual autobiographies in real-time”
(Rosenbaum et al. 2015): in this way, people’s photographs have become a constant
testament of human lives, where social media have replaced albums.
If once albums were used for looking at the pictures shielded inside to hold the
memories of the past, now the social media photographic purpose has become a
channel showing the present, the immediacy of individuals’ everyday events.
The social media connectivity links people in a circuit that, in turn, comprehends
cultural interaction and public engagement, where the reality of relationships is
fused with a virtual idea of ‘contact’ mediated by machines: this unknown frame can
be identified as a “realtual” togetherness.
Barthes’ phenomenological theory claimed that an image represents what “has-
been-there” (Barthes 1980), an event, a subject, something happened in the past,
but that cannot be replicated. Even this principle seems to have changed, because
now people use social media photography to show “what-is-going on” (Sandbye
2016), thanks to the synchrony caused by the photographic connection between
sender and receiver through the technological convergence.
In this dynamic, since the human mind cannot globally encompass the concept of a
fleeting time photography has become the vehicle that allows people to capture
fragments of this immense reality: as Susan Sontag pointed out that images are
“small units of an apparently infinite number - as the number of photographs that
could be taken is unlimited” (Sontag 1977).
Considering the date when the book was written, the statement of Sontag in which
“today everything exists to end in a photograph” (Sontag 1977) sounds quite
prophetic and more than ever actual.
In fact, with social media photography, the sensation is that users feel the urge to
capture their everyday life as much as possible so they can enjoy it with other
individuals and, in doing so, images acquire the same ephemeral character of time,
giving to photography a colloquial appearance through “photographs intended to be
enjoyed only in the moment, but not necessarily in the distant future” (Villi 2010).
In this frame, there is “an interplay between presence and absence” (Larsen and
Sandbye 2014), where the physical distance is filled by a presence in time: not by
chance, the instantaneousness of a connection in time, given by the internet, finds a
perfect cohesion with photography’s peculiarity of expressing emotions, feelings,
sensations, more deeply and directly that any other form of communication.
It is not a coincidence that these dynamics find validation within a society that has
extended its dimension to a worldwide scale, where the earth has become what
Marshall McLuhan called a “global village” (McLuhan 1962): in this context, the
speed of communication has been increased by the internet, and the opportunity to
produce information has given users the medium which tears down almost all the
barriers represented by geographical and political borders.
Once again it can be noticed that physical and virtual have been hybridised, and the
first has been revolutionised by the latter, through an “extension of consciousness”
(McLuhan 1962), in which photography plays the role of messenger among the
The huge amount of images taken by individuals have quickly become patterns of
information more detailed than words, and the ‘depiction’ of data that human
beings must elaborate in the social media communication system, involves the use
of sensibility, so that the intrinsic message represented can be understood.
Photographs disclose to people the access to a certain scenario, a sort of window
through which one can enter and see what another person is experiencing, where
imagination becomes the fuel for this kind of rapture.
So, if on one hand social media photography connects people in real time, on the
other hand it also conserves the peculiarity of a time machine, because cameras are
instruments capable of creating a magical interaction between the photographer’s
mind, which is behind the lens, and the subject located in front of it.
An image is an interface capable to create a daydream activity when captured by the
sight, and Barthes affirms that in photography the “referent is not the same as the
referent of other systems of representation” (Barthes 1980) because a
“photographic referent is not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign
refers, but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without
which there would be no photograph” (Barthes 1980), also implying that
imagination assumes a key role behind the meaning of a picture.
The force of visual representation is incarnated in “its capacity to move us: the best
images take us from one emotional state (e.g. passive, curious, bored) and carry us
into another (e.g. shocked, sad, amused)” (Lisle 2016).
This transcendental trait of photography, determined by the interplay between
human mind and the visual representation, is strengthened by the idea that
“camera phone practices provide new ways of mapping places beyond just the
geographic: they partake in adding social, emotional, psychological and aesthetic
dimensions to a sense of place” (Hjort and Pink et al. 2014).
The elaboration of an image inside the human mind could be understood as a
process in which the 2D visual representation acquires a 3D imaginative feature of
it: photographs stimulate emotions, which on their turn release the fuel necessary
to perceive the represented experience.
Social media photography has also determined a phenomenon of ‘visual’
appropriation of spaces that users have discovered through their shots: as a matter
of fact “in-between places like trains, buses or the walk between one building to
another are no longer contexts for just ‘killing time’. These wayfarer spaces, as an
embedded part of everyday life, have now become key moments where new forms
of visuality (Ingold 2007) and sociality are generated, through camera phone
photography and the digital co-presence associated with locative media” (Hjort and
Pink et al. 2014).
This environments recall at the principle theorised by Marc Augé, a French
anthropologist, who called non-places (Augé 1995) all those areas which are
separated by the identity, the relation, and the history of the country where they
are located, comprehending the structures necessary for the ceaseless movement of
persons and goods like highways, interchanges, stations, airports, subways and all
other means of transport, large shopping centres, outlets, waiting rooms, elevators
and so on.
The peculiarity of non-places is that people cross each others’ path without entering
in contact, everyone driven by a frantic consumer’s desire or aimed at speeding up
routine activities, places where individuals just go through without truly living them,
appearing as a sort of ephemeral presences.
Social media photography has stimulated people to build and to share visual
relationships with non-places through an activity of depiction, and in doing so,
images have become opportunities for viewers to linger on the nature of these
spaces, documenting environments usually disregarded by human attention
because of today’s frenzied life pace.
Considering such endless flow the sensation that emerges is the creative feature of
new media photography building “an ongoing moment without beginning and end”
(Sandbye 2016), where “the database logic of new media” (Manovich 2001) has
become the structure according to which human being is living this experience.
Moreover, Manovich specifies that all the material “is digitally stored and composed
with an archival, repetitive, circular, or ‘flat’ logic, rather than structured by a
traditional, progressive narrative”, and if we look at Instagram, the photographic
social media by antonomasia, it can be noticed that shots are just posted by users in
a random pattern as an immense visual mosaic which does not depict a continuous
dynamic story, but thousands of personal everyday life fragmented slices, which are
more similar to a post-it note system of images.
So, the photographic narration is conceptualised in the single pictures portraying a
single moment in which the viewer can empathise with the emotions, the vibrations,
the inspirations of others.
Even if the photograph is a fragment of a certain situation “the world of flux out of
which the image is extracted includes the image itself, and in that sense, an image
can never be isolated from the world it is derived from” (Lisle 2016).
In the age of networked images, vernacular photography has been enhanced by the
broad use of camera phones, which have allowed people to express their ordinary
life through self-representation and self-expression.
The social media frame has stimulated people “to participate, to post-produce
something captured in order to later return it to the Internet, modified in some way
and made available to others” (Rodriguez-Ferrandiz 2016): the digital photographic
process of production and post-production has been de facto enriched of a third
phase, which is constituted by the act of sharing the images captured across the
Another aspect that has influenced the individuals’ familiarity with technology, and
consequentially camera phone photography, is the sense of touch, that has revived
a typical child’s attitude in which the human being is fascinated by the physical
contact: the same desire felt by babies to touch everything in their surrounding
environment can be observed in the attraction that a smartphone touchscreen
exerts on adults.
The touch is obviously related to the body, which “is the place where the intellect
and the senses come together and constitute meaningful thinking” (Elo 2016).
Therefore, not just the view is involved in the photographic process, because
“image, body and thinking relate to each other in a circular way: both body and
thinking make use of images, both images and bodies think, and both thinking and
images involve a body” (Elo 2016).
From such deduction, it can be intended how in photography, view and touch are
interconnected in a continuous interplay characterised by “physical body,
phenomenological body and libidinal body” (Elo 2016): the first is constituted by the
physique, the second are the facts, what happens around the physical presence, and
all the things through which human being comes in contact, while the third is the
excitement, the attraction that arises, involving a human reaction.
In the contemporary world, technology has changed photography through
introducing new horizons, providing new instruments such as camera phones, and
the possibility to connect in time a huge number of individuals: with this revolution,
one of the major impact has been the advent of technology in the daily life of
As stated by Margaret Olin there is an intertwining between sight and touch, where
“the two activities seem to alternate like a blinding eye, as though we cannot do
both at the same time” (Olin 2012), because “a photograph is touching when it
provokes speech by being mute, and when it opens up a space for thinking by a
gesture of closing itself off, by being individually separate and distinct” (Elo 2016).
In this frame is contained the potential core of an image, the capacity to give a voice
understandable just by the senses, that consists in the production of imaginaries
where time and space are reconstructed by photography to eternalise moments.
So, the senses’ interplay takes shots in the human mind before than the camera,
and “photograph’s entry to the realm of representations is mediated besides vision
also by a distant touch - not unlike an eye contact that seizes the gaze only as
absent” (Elo 2016): it can be understood that the coexistence between virtual and
real has already existed before the advent of new technologies and digital media,
because the intellect takes thousands of images every day, and the camera is the
medium which allows people to concretise such pictures, in order to make them
forms of communication.
Camera phones have opened the possibility to share all the pictures that the human
mind conceives, in a continuous activity of visual interaction, such as existence’s
proofs through which it seems paramount to communicate as much as possible
what is happening around: in the hyper connected world of nowadays, the 1968
Andy Warhol’s sentence by which “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for
15 minutes”, sounds as a prophecy, because, as a matter of fact, the internet is
potentially able to provide a global scale visibility for anybody, through blogs, sites,
social media, and the prevision for which “hierarchy of subjects worthy to be
represented will someday be abolished” (Buchloch 2001) has become a reality.
Thus, senses acquire a key role, where “the implicit aim is to functionalize touch and
to integrate it into a system of digital mediations in order to increase the sense of
instantaneity and realism. In these settings, touch tends to become represented as a
sense that works in synchrony with vision offering a support for optical intuitionism”
The sense of touch is generally related to the pathos, the Greek term that
represents the irrationality through which a person lives its emotions: the punctum
of an image theorised by Barthes consists exactly in a “pathic moment” (Waldenfels
2002), which “refers to exposedness that is implicated in all forms of touching” (Elo
The human approach to images consists in an interaction experience, and a sort of
“haptic realism” (Elo 2016) takes place, where it seems that the human being has
the urge to maintain a physical contact dimension, in face of the virtual pressure on
For such reason, it follows that “the difference between ‘haptic realism’ in film-
based and in digitally mediated photography (...) would thus lie in their different
ways of enhancing hapto-visual appropriation” (Elo 2016): in the social media frame,
photography consists not only in capturing an act of time, but also in the personal
adaptation of it depending on the affection of a person for a certain moment or
So it can be deduced that “in their technological environment photographs engage
the viewers, or perhaps more precisely the users, more and more often by being
hotspots” (Elo 2016) and consequentially “the tensional relation between vision and
touch (...) implies that it is the affective link between the user’s body and digital
information that tends to motivate the visual appearance of media contents in
digital culture” (Elo 2016).
It is particularly interesting to notice through the numbers how the dramatic
increase of social media use among the society has conferred to photography the
most powerful vehicle of communication.
A comprehension of digital, social and mobile usage around the world is needed: a
report conducted by We Are Social, a communication agency that works especially
through social media, has analysed a sample of thirty countries of all continents,
illustrating that in 2016 the amount of active social media users is 2,31 billions of
people, 31% of the global population, while the total number of mobile users is 1,97
billions, tantamount to 27% of all kinds of devices used.
In this frame, the social network that mostly represents the new use of photography
as a language is Instagram, which counts 400 millions active users who produce and
release around 80 millions of photo per day, generating a dense traffic of visual
contents around the world.
Instagram, now owned by Facebook, is spreading its influence across the web
through different sectors of the society, such as the fashion world, where “designers
and brands are responding to a desire to storytelling, inviting their Instagram
followers into a previous closed world. Show lighting and set design is planned with
Instagram in mind and it’s now the place where trends become reality and model’s
careers are made” (Jenkins et al. 2015).
Even if many professional photographers use Instagram, there has been a protest
involving a group of remarkable photography organisations, based in the US and in
Europe, such as The American Society of Media Photographers, The Digital Media
Licensing Association, Coordination of European Picture Agencies Stock and others,
to users” (Laurent et al. 2013). In fact, as they support, just “few of the users who
share images on the site understand the rights they are giving away” (Laurent et al.
photos and video as well as the nearly unlimited right to license the images to any
and all third parties” (Laurent et al. 2013).
favour of Instagram, where “users also relinquish the right to terminate the
agreement. Once uploaded, they cannot remove their work and their identity from
Instagram. Additionally, in the event of litigation regarding a photo or video, it is the
account holder who is responsible for attorney and other fees, not Instagram”
(Laurent et al. 2013).
But a few weeks later such denouncing campaign held by the above mentioned
photography organisations, Kevin Systrom, the Instagram founder, affirmed that the
site “has changed the way people see the world” (Laurent et al. 2013), becoming “a
common element of life” (Laurent et al. 2013) in society, where individuals can
shoot their life everywhere, demonstrating how the opportunity to have a personal
“showroom” has become a strong appeal for people who want to expand their
experiences to an amazing amount of recipients, in exchange for their privacy.
An interesting fact is that until then, Systrom used to say that “if Instagram were full
of commerce and there were ‘buy now’ links everywhere and that is all you ever
had, I don’t think it would get to the true spirit of communication that I was talking
about before” (Laurent et al. 2013): apparently in 2015 things have changed when
“Instagram opened its platform to most advertisers across the globe” (Abutaleb et
al. 2015), reaching more than 200 countries and millions of users.
One of the most influential activity in social media photography is travelling, where
storytellers use camera phones to document their trips through the sharing of
pictures, and for this purpose “Instagram is broadening our horizons as we seek ever
more photogenic locations” (Jenkins et al. 2015).
The world of art has also been influenced by the advent of Instagram, that has
contributed “to open the former to a wider audience too” (Jenkins et al. 2015), in
which photographers, painters, sculptors and so on, are using the medium to
preview or promote their art works: Rafaël Rozendaal, a Dutch-Brazilian visual artist
says that “it opens up the artistic process to a broader audience; it demystifies the
life of artists. At the same time it creates myths. Instagram is an extra organ, an
extension of the body. I would like it if the likes and comments weren't there
though. Just images, no hierarchy” (Jenkins et al. 2015).
With this affirmation it becomes clear that Instagram on one hand creates more
proximity between the artist activity and the audience during the production and
the immediate outcome, often in a preview mode, but on the other hand it builds a
fame aura around the same artist, who becomes the protagonist of a new concept
of developing art work, embracing the entire art work production process.
In this way, a photographer has the opportunity to display his photographic
material, reaching and attracting an unprecedented network of people who use the
medium, thereby creating a global gallery of every kind of photographic “intention”,
from art to vernacular.
In fact, as stated by Nadav Hochmann and Lev Manovich (2013) “the default
presentation of images does not employ groups of documented events (or private
albums), which may contain each user’s photos and create a cohesive narrative.
Instead, photographs are presented as a continuous stream of images from various
users. Users perceive a montage of images taken by people they follow, thus
eliminating notions of “traditional” time or event presentations and cataloguing”
(Hochmann and Manovich 2013).
So, the art world system has been revolutionised by an innovative factor through
which art material is canalised from the source to the addressees, changing the
previous dynamics of distribution of photographic material: as said by Jordan
Teicher in his online article on American Photo, the “traditional gatekeepers in the
world of street photography—the museum curators, the gallerists, the newspaper
and magazine editors—still hold significant sway. But through Instagram,
photographers have found that amassing a vast following can provide a fast track to
those power players who, in previous generations, would have been elusive, if not
impossible, targets” (Teicher et al. 2015).
As a matter of fact, Instagram represents the place where people have expressed
their lives with images, depicting a “filtered, shadowed, sharpened, brightened,
tilted, faded, structured, saturated way of seeing life through a lens” (Swant et al.
2015): thus “the application allows its users to apply different manipulation tools. By
adding hues, grain, contrast, etc., each filter evokes a different “feel” changing the
message communicated by an image. In this way, while taking a photo of a specific
time and place, we apply a filter to it to suggest a different time or atmosphere”
(Hochmann and Manovich 2013).
Consequently, the interplay between time and space in photography returns once
again, though acting in a different perspective through which “the result is a multi–
temporal image which suggests at least three different temporal references: the
actual time when the picture was taken, the time evoked by a certain filter, and the
time span indicated by the application when viewing the photo. Ironically, while a
geo–temporal tagged image connotes the precision of time and space coordinates
(we know the exact longitude/latitude coordinates together with the exact time it
was taken) the software subverts this message by displaying multiple users’
photostreams in a single feed, a relative time indication, and a distorted, filtered
photographic image” (Hochmann and Manovich 2013).
Particularly in street photography camera phones “have changed not just how these
image-makers shoot and relate with their peers, but also the way they display their
work and achieve success” (Teicher et al. 2015): the change “has not only widened
the definition of who can be a street photographer, but it has expanded our concept
of the street” (Teicher et al. 2015), moving its focus on a spatial order, where
photographs discover “parts of the world, or communities in otherwise well-covered
cities that, decades ago, were greatly underserved” (Teicher et al. 2015).
Instagram has intrigued many inexperienced people by photography, getting them
closer to the visual medium, starting to “photograph the world around them on a
daily basis, increasing and discovering a love for photography” (Prives et al. 2012?).
On the other side, many professional photographers have familiarised with it, as
explained by Guy Prives: “I have lived in the world of photography for several years
and keep a close eye on every new and innovative discovery in this field. It is this
reason I was exposed to this application at an early stage; more than a year ago
now. After just a brief observation I fell in love with it and started to upload not only
photographs I had taken with my own cell phone but also many pictures that I had
taken with my camera. I like to share my work and images that reflect my personal
life with my friends both of which increase in number as time goes on” (Prives et al.
But where does this kind of attraction for a photograph derive from, and in
particular, do contemporary images overcome the use of words in social media
The answer seems to be contained in the so-called picture superiority effect, which
consists in a preponderance of images over words within human memory, due to
the fact that it is “extremely sensitive to the symbolic modality of presentation of
event information” (Yuille 2014).
In this frame, the picture superiority effect finds its basis in the “dual-coding theory”
speculated by Allan Paivio in 1971, in which verbal association and visual imagery
works together in order to represent information acquired by the human mind:
despite working simultaneously, they “are processed differently and along distinct
channels in the human mind, creating separate representations for information
processed in each channel. The mental codes corresponding to these
representations are used to organize incoming information that can be acted upon,
stored, and retrieved for subsequent use” (Wikipedia 2016).
For instance, while thinking about what happens when the human mind elaborates
a certain thought, the immediate recall is an imagery from where subsequently
information is acquired, where “the crucial point about such experiences is that the
eliciting question and the behavioural expression of recall may be entirely verbal,
but the mediating mechanism apparently consists of nonverbal imagery
associatively evoked by the words” (Paivio 1971).
Social media photography brings the human mind directly in a nonverbal system of
communication, where the character of visual immediacy on screens seems to
adhere with the human mind visual data elaboration: in this way, the imagery
psychological process is playing a key role in the new form of social media
Following such reasoning, Paivio affirms that concrete imagery consists in
“nonverbal memory representations of concrete objects and events, or nonverbal
modes of thought (e.g., imagination) in which such representations are actively
generated and manipulated by the individual” (Paivio 1971): so, it is like if human
mind not only contains space for the storage of images, but also for a sort of mental
elaboration of such photographs, in which a person “corrects” or “modifies” the
images through his personal perception and imagination, as well as a computer
post-production program for digital pictures.
A sort of codified representation of feelings and sensations has been built, where
technology not only has become a physical extension of the photographic practice
of taking a shot, but also a deep connection with the emotional part that
characterises the outcome, or in other words, the stimuli that captures a given
When Paivio considers that the abstractedness of visual representation “requires
the manipulation of spatially and temporally remote events” (Paivio 1971), he finds
a correspondence with the interconnection between time and space in social media
photography: the sender of an image is geographically distant from the receiver, but
in real-time is connected, so a certain experience is shared at the same moment of
its happening, creating an unprecedented spatiotemporal connection.
The photographic practice traditionally “involves an ability to manipulate (mentally)
the components of a stimulus situation in order to conceptualise the not-here and
not-now” (Paivio 1971), but now the omnipresence of an internet connection and
the effect of social media, which act as communicative poles, have allowed humans
to bridge the physical absence through images that report human experiences in
real-time: the visual representation is limiting the sensation of distance, not
reporting things already happened and concluded, but rather teleporting the viewer
in an event which is simultaneously taking place.
Connie Malamed, a consultant, author, and speaker in the fields of visual design,
online learning, and information design, says that “a new meaning emerges when a
person takes a picture at an event and then immediately sends it to friends. The
photograph becomes a way to virtually bond and interact. The transmitted photo
won’t be organized into an album or viewed with family in the future. Rather, the
photograph’s meaning resides in its immediate experiential value. It’s part of an
ongoing conversation where the sharing of photos is done in the context of peer-
group environments more than at home” (Malamed et al. 2016?).
The relationship between visual sense and space is also recalled when Paivio
assumes that “the receptors and higher neural elements of the visual system are
spatially organized, capable of receiving, transmitting and processing information
simultaneously given in a spatial array” (Paivio 1971): from this statement it is clear
how fast is the information reception process of the human mind when it comes in
contact with an image.
An important aspect which characterises the visual power in communication is the
fact that it does not need any translation, which is also the key to understanding
how social media photography works as a communicative medium all over the
For this reason, the focus moves on the significance of meaning, which explains the
real value of the communicative act, where “the meaning of a word is the mental
image it arouses” (Paivio 1971): through this dynamics human minds decode the
spoken and written meanings of languages in images.
MIT neuroscientists have proven that “the human brain can process entire images
that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds — the first evidence of such rapid
processing speed” (Trafton et al. 2014), clarifying how much the images learning
mechanism in human mind is more immediate compared to words.
An interesting fact is “that speed is far faster than the 100 milliseconds suggested by
previous studies” (Trafton et al. 2014), where one of the main cause of this
phenomenon could be the whirling and continuous stream of pictures that have
generated this new form of visual language, which has enhanced the photographic
analytical ability of the human being.
Mary Potter, the MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of
the study, titled Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, says “the fact that you
can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find
concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what
we’re looking at” (Trafton et al. 2014).
So, in this case concepts are the result of a process of data assimilation, in which
“the job of the eyes is not only to get the information into the brain, but to allow the
brain to think about it rapidly enough to know what you should look at next. So in
general we’re calibrating our eyes so they move around just as often as possible
consistent with understanding what we’re seeing” (Trafton et al. 2014): the huge
images flow, and the consequent gathering in memory, both generate a
consequentiality where the brain is able to focus on the essence of a context in a
few instants, thus constructing a continuous visual pattern able not only to see the
past, but also to expect what should happens next.
In the experiment conducted by MIT “researchers asked subjects to look for a
particular type of image, such as “picnic” or “smiling couple,” as they viewed a series
of six or 12 images, each presented for between 13 and 80 milliseconds” (Trafton et
What has changed from the previous studies on this matter is that “the human brain
can correctly identify images seen for as little as 100 milliseconds” (Trafton et al.
2014): what Mary Potter and her team have varied in their experiment is the
increase of “speed until they reached a point where subjects’ answers were no
better than if they were guessing. All images were new to the viewers” (Trafton et
Surprisingly, even if “overall performance declined, subjects continued to perform
better than chance as the researchers dropped the image exposure time from 80
milliseconds to 53 milliseconds, then 40 milliseconds, then 27, and finally 13 — the
fastest possible rate with the computer monitor being used” (Trafton et al. 2014).
Also Simon Thorpe, director of the Centre de Recherche Cerveau & Cognition at the
University of Tolouse, affirms that the new experiment “shows that the meaning of
an image can be extracted even when an image is mixed up in a sequence of six or
even 12 images presented at 13 milliseconds per image — a rate of about 75 frames
a second. Another striking finding was that the effect is also seen when the question
concerning the target is only presented after the sequence has been run, meaning
that the brain can extract meaning even when there is no way to predict what will
be shown” (Trafton et al. 2014).
Another important contribute comes from Maximilian Riesenhuber, head of the
Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience at the Georgetown University
Medical Center (GUMC), who stated that human being “are not recognizing words
by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have
suggested. Instead, neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word
looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary” (Teber et al. 2015), another
confirmation of the existence of a photographic database in the brain, which is
decisive for the comprehension of verbal language.
The study that GUMC has conducted involved 25 adult participants, who had to
learn a set of 150 nonsense words: a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
has been used to investigate on the relationship between brain’s plasticity with
learning capability both before and after training.
What has emerged from the investigation is “that the visual word form area
changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training the
neurons responded like the training words were nonsense words, but after training
the neurons responded to the learned words like they were real words” (Teber et al.
2015): from this result it can be assumed that the visual word form area (VWFA) is
the vehicle through which people confer a particular meaning also to nonsense
words, thus contributing to the acquisition of them.
Dustin Stokes from the University of Utah and Stephen Biggs from Iowa State
University have argued that “vision is taken to be the paradigmatic perceptual
sense, and its structure is then imputed to the other sense modalities in a way that
is insensitive to differences among modalities” (Biggs and Stokes 2014), recognising
the sight sense as the one which is capable to “drive” all the others.
The ultimate social media platform, which seems to be more photographic even
than Instagram, is Snapchat, an instantaneous messaging service where the
message itself lasts just for a limited time period, before been erased: “we realise
that this is not just individual experience, it is a social act, we take pictures in order
to share, and to see the response to our sharing. We have to take the word
‘Snapchat’ literally – the photograph is just a form of chat, saying Hi, a more
interesting emoticon” (Miller et al. 2014).
It is interesting to notice how Snapchat has risen in the last year, overcoming other
important social media such as Twitter and Pinterest: a research commissioned by
Edison Research evidences that in 2016 among Americans aged 12 and over,
Snapchat is used by 8% of the population, with a 4% increase compared to 2015.
This data certifies that social media photography “has really empowered this idea of
instant expression, which is really showing someone where you are and how you’re
feeling in the moment” (Dredge et al. 2015)
In reference to that “the default setting for almost everything people share online is
that it will live for eternity in the cloud” (Gillette et al. 2013), and with the passage
of time this could create “problems for individuals and societies that need the ability
to forget in order to move forward” (Gillette et al. 2013): thinking about these
statements, it can be supposed that the success of Snapchat derives just from the
possibility to share images of any kind, without having any thought about their
permanence on the internet.
As Nathan Jurgenson says “by refuting the assumption of the permanence of the
image, Snapchat is a radical departure. It inaugurates temporary photography, in
which photos are seen once by their chosen audience and then are gone in 10
seconds or less” (Jurgenson et al. 2013): in this way, Snapchat pictures are public
human representation of everyday life with a limited abidance of time.
What could happen in the future is that “photographs taken and shared as
temporary will impart more meaning to those chosen to be permanent. In the age of
digital abundance, photography desperately needs this introduction of intentional
and assured mortality, so that some photos can become immortal again” (Jurgenson
et al. 2013).
So, Snapchat constitutes a further step of a radical change process in the meaning of
photography, an extreme one, for which images have become messages utilised to
represent what is going on more than what it used to be, and also in the words of
Evan Spiegel, co-founder and chief executive of the site, it is possible to understand
that “historically photographs have been used to save really important memories,
major life moments, but today, with the advent of the mobile phone and the
connected camera, pictures are being used for talking” (Horton et al. 2015).
This is the confirm that photography is turning to a mass communicative dimension
more than ever, where the visual character has acquired a dialectical trait through
which people communicate in a more deep psychological way than the use of
In this sense, McLuhan’s statement “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 1964) is
currently finding its incarnation in social media photography, where pictures are
messages and medium at the same time, because they represent not just the
contents of something, but are also the vehicle that brings information among
people in the contemporary age.
All these elements has been fundamental to understand how photography is
influencing communication between individuals, where technology has become a
bodily extension through which people express and share their lives in images.
Starting from the contextualisation of photography as a form of art, the theories of
American sociologist Howard Becker and German philosopher Niklas Luhmann have
been useful for this dissertation.
Becker’s sources have contributed from a sociological point of view, and in
particular for the redefinition of participants in the art world: technology has
dramatically altered the previous scenario, which was characterised by the division
between artists and the audience who used to consume their artworks, changing
this dynamics in a global network where everybody can be both producer and
consumer of photographic material, generating the figure of the “prosumer”.
The support that has come from Luhmann has been fundamental to comprehend
what has happened from a psychological point of view, focusing on the relationship
between social and psychic systems in order to realise what entails the observation
and interpretation in photography, making images real forms of communication.
In this way, it has been possible to build up the basis of the dissertation discourse,
making clear not only what is intended by photography as a proper form of art, but
also its communicational meaning in the contemporary age both individually and
Then, the discourse has illustrated how technology has changed photography, firstly
with the passage from analogue to digital started in the nineties, a passage that has
revolutionised the way in which individuals produce images: in fact, digital has
transformed photography in a computerised practice, making possible the storage
of huge loads of material in hard-disks, but above has offered the chance to develop
and post-produce on one’s own account the pictures taken through specific
With the arrival of the new millennium, a first and significant convergence has taken
place between two kinds of tools that were distinct until that moment, phone and
camera, which combined together have changed the use of the photographic
medium by people.
The fusion of these devices has opened new perspectives for individuals, in which
the photographic act has broadened its communicative potential into people’s
everyday life, consequentially increasing the domestication of photography: in this
way, this form of art has started to become not just an artistic or documentary
practice done by professionals, but a way to express everyone’s feelings, emotions,
and so on, via the images.
After that, in the course of the noughties, the internet has progressively acquired
importance, becoming a global network able to connect people through increasingly
faster connections: this phenomenon has determined the inception of social media
sites, virtual places in which individuals have started to share photographic material.
In this way, the second convergence between camera phones, the omnipresence of
the internet, and social media platforms, has been decisive for the formation of an
unprecedented photographic global mass language, characterised by a form of
presence in time and a physical absence in space.
Moreover, other issues have been modified like the dynamics that links real and
virtual or the relationship between private and public: the first has been subjected
to the progressive hybridisation between human being and technology in
photographic production and distribution processes, while the latter has involved a
transformation of habits. For instance, pictures that used to be kept in albums and
shared with family or friends, now are globally disclosed on social media, where
private and public spheres have been fused together in the absence of any barrier.
In the end, an excursus on the role of photography in social media has been traced,
supported by statistical and psychological sources, proving that visual is overcoming
the use of words in social communication mediated by technology.
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