Informing Contexts - The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media Nathan Jurgenson
I have a strange relationship with smartphones, for example I hate the amount of time my kids are on them, I hate how my boss can get hold of me 24/7, I hate standing at a gig with my view blocked out by the mass of phone screens and I hate taking selfies and getting the right pose. However despite all these negative emotions I actually use social media as my main outlet for my photography. With no professional practice behind me I have used Instagram as my main vehicle for sharing my work to a wider and ever growing audience across the world. Ironically in the week that I started this research my Instagram account was blocked due to a suspected hack. I therefore became acutely aware about how much interaction I have with social media and the void that exists when it is taken away. I was therefore keen to read Nathan Jurgenson’s book The Social Photo.
On a personal level there are times when I have struggled with the abundance of social photos that constantly fill my social media feed from selfies, food and a whole host of mundane subjects many appearing to lack the artistic qualities that I associate with good photography. This particular topic is topic is discussed in The Social Photo as Jurgenson poses the statement “the fixation on professional and artistic photos comes with conceptual baggage. The way people communicate today with an image is less art historical and more social theoretical”. This statement is reinforced by Edgar Gomez Cruz who adds “photography has gone from being a medium for the collection of important memories to an interface for visual communication” with the considerations involved in taking the images more social than technical. This coming at a time when the actual taking of the photograph is made so much easier, with ever ‘smarter’ phones and cameras working in tandem with an array of post edit apps and filters that remove the previously required technical knowledge.
Reading Jurgenson’s book has helped me appreciate that I have been subconsciously fighting against the social photo and not appreciating what they are, especially when viewed as a whole, rather than one image in isolation. I really liked the analogy of the train window where we now view photographs in a grid or stream, like someone taking in the panoramic views as the railroad headed across the midwest. As the traveller takes in the different views from the carriage window , so do we ,as we scroll through our social media stream, each image another view out of our windows.
The social photos express feelings , ideas, emotions and experiences that cannot and shouldn’t be ignored just because they don’t meet my preconceived notion of what a photograph is ,based on some historical standpoint that I have. The physical photograph that was produced in the pre digital era was an object to be viewed or hung in a gallery whereas today’s social photography is lighter more immediate. This does not mean that the photography cannot still focus on an object either from an artistic or photojournalist point of view and be shared on social media. It is just important to recognise that the majority of images captured and shared every day are social photos and that they are sharing the experience and emotions of that moment from a more subjective than objective point of view.
As previously discussed in the introduction I do have an uncomfortable relationship with my smart phone and during this research I temporarily lost the use of my main social media outlet, Instagram. I therefore read with interest Jurgenson’s assessment of real life and that the false notion that pre digital was the age of reality. That with social media we are some how removed from reality and placed into some other form of being. The constant over saturation of texts, updates, emails, social photos etc causes a loss of logged off real life. Jurgenson points to the fact we mistakingly view being online as meaning not being offline. Assuming that you can only be one or the other fails to capture the fact that our lived in reality is the result of the interpenetration of online and offline . The mistake being to assume the experience is ‘zero sum’, i.e. you are either one or the other . We live in an augmented reality where our real world experience is enhanced by computer generated information. There is a direct link between both online and life offline. You are never entirely connected or disconnected. This was emphasised to me during my period of time without Instagram, as I still took photographs and continued to see the world through the lens of my camera, viewing every moment as a potential photograph. Whilst I was no longer scrolling through my feed of images, social media was still very much part of my reality.
Whilst photography is considered by many as a means of capturing and documenting what was in front of the lens there has always been a debate around the truth of the photograph. For example does a portrait capture the true sense of the subject, is the scene recorded by street photographer an accurate reflection of what was happening or is there some staging or manipulation. Richard Avedon points to the fact ‘All photographs are accurate, none of them is true’ and Jurgenson references Susan Sontag’s assertion that ‘the photo is the work of both poet and scribe’ . Where the scribe will aim to capture the authentic truth of the world, the poet will add some subjective creativity. This can be illustrated by comparing the photojournalist who is perhaps more aligned to the scribe, focusing on the photographs information, as opposed the pictorialist who is more the poet and places greater emphasise on how the image looks. With the advent of digital photography the increase in manipulation gives rise to a fear that photography is losing its ownership of the truth. However I wonder if some of this fear is more the overt nature of this manipulation and the fact everyone can now take a photo and is aware of what is possible through editing. The pictorialist movement has its roots stretching back over a century and film based analogue photographers have been editing images in their dark rooms, in much the same way that we do today in Photoshop.
In conclusion I can see both the scribe and poet at work in many of my images and I agree with Jurgenson that both can work together to produce images. With all the advancements in technology and manipulation techniques there are some who question whether digital photographs are actually photographs at all. However for all of the advancements, digital cameras and smart phones still work with light to create the image. Henry Cartier Bresson spoke about the ‘decisive moment’, that split second in time when everything comes together and the moment should be captured. The sheer scale of how many images that are now taken and shared each day is mind blowing but each and every one involved a decisive moment. When considering the ease with which we can now take photos, Jurgenson suggests this decisive moment may actually be when not to press rather than press the shutter.
With my instagram account now unlocked and live again I have continued to produce and post my images across social media. Whilst the reading of Jurgenson’s book may not overtly change how I take photos, I continue to add my poetry where applicable, I do think it has helped me understand the importance and value of the social photograph in our augmented society today. There has never been such an abundance of photography both being taken, shared and viewed all of which are adding to the fabric of our society and this should be embraced and celebrated. I for one am glad to be a photographer in this era.
Jurgenson, N. (2020). The social photo : on photography and social media. London: Verso.
Edgar Gomez Cruz, “Photo-Genic Assemblages:Photography as a Connective Interface,” in Digital Photography and Everyday Life: Emprical Studies on Material Visual Practices, eds. Edgar Gomez Cruz and Asks Lehmuskallio, London: Routledge, 2016, 229
Richard Avedon and Nicole Wisnik, “An Interview with Richard Avedon,” Egoiste, September 1984
Sontag, S. (1978). Susan Sontag on photography. London, Great Britain: Allen Lane.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Whose “Decisive Moment” Shaped Modern Photography. (2019). The New York Times. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/henri-cartier-bresson-photography.