Every day we produce digital photographs – and engage with photographic media, whether still images or moving pictures – of various sorts of moments and things. Our digitally mediated day-to-day lives are inextricably linked to visual communication, most specifically photographic image-making. Thus, it may come as a surprise if I challenge you to ask yourself, is photography still quintessentially visual? I posed this question when I presented at the recently concluded International Communication Association (ICA) 2023 Conference in Toronto; my paper was selected by the ICA Visual Communication Studies Division for its ‘Future of Images, Imagining Futures: Evolving Technologies and Emerging Visual Trends’ panel. 

While obviously a visual medium, photography has expanded into numerous media in its digital form. Because of the countless uploads of digital photographs that are feeding into various social media and instant messaging apps, our everyday visual culture may feel compelling and even urgent. Simply looking at the overwhelming numbers of statistical data could lead some to imagine how digital images are already influencing people. Five years ago, a news feature announced that the number of internet users surpassed half of the world’s population (Kemp, 2018). Throughout the pandemic we have immersed ourselves in so much digital activity (We Are Social, 2021-2023) that our communicative affordances, behaviours, and dependencies have all changed in a span of three years. For us ordinary mobile app or social media users, these global statistics may not matter; instead, what is immediately obvious is the amount of online visual media that we encounter daily. Photographic media – from our camera-phones to webcams – now prove essential in our waking lives.  

The short answer is yes, photography is still all about the visual, but I argue that we should start analysing it as our direct means of social participation. In my presentation during the panel, I framed photography as a process of individual or collective participation. I wanted to persuade my fellow academics to consider photography as our social pursuit of something (an image, moment, or phenomenon) and no longer just image-making in itself. In other words, the act of photographing is our act of participation with digital images as by-products – often these images are laden with ‘social’ meanings, such as food pics, selfies or ‘groufies’, throwbacks, #ootd, #picsordidnothappen, #proofoflife, even ‘receipts’. I used my PhD study which involved Southeast Asian locals taking pictures of their everyday lives to offer specific examples and to argue how photography is now more about participating in our online social life rather than just visualising it. 

Taking photographs, however, can be contrary to participation. Since there are many uses of photography that are not at all participatory, defining participation first may prove useful in knowing the participatory dimensions of one photographic practice from another. I made this key argument when I presented at the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). I wrote another paper that looked more into adapting the methodology of participatory photography into online modes of communication, and this was selected by the IAMCR Visual Culture Working Group’s panel on ‘Transmedia, Visual Reporting, (Auto)Ethnography, Cine-Activism, Countervisuality and Intermedial Hybridity’. I discussed, for example, how documentary filming may conventionally be acceptable when showing crowds of people and outdoor scenes, but random people being unilaterally subjected to the gaze or lens of the photographer is hardly participatory. On the other hand, even if a country’s citizens democratically consent to surveillance by facial recognition (if such a public consensus exists at all), public consent is not necessarily tantamount to their participation, especially when it comes to the hardly transparent utilisation of their images and biometric data, which is a completely different thing. The point is, because photographic media are increasingly becoming a question of participation – rather than quintessentially visual – we must scrutinise the role of photographic images, imaging, and image-making in today’s digital communication technologies. 

Photography today has transformed into something completely different than when it was invented two centuries ago – as in ‘light’ (photo) ‘tracing’ or ‘drawing’ (-graphy) – and its contemporary transformation is not just about shifting from the analogue to the digital. It is now visual communication, digital media, and big data lumped altogether. And as we face photographic A.I. technologies and the numerous debates that come with artificial intelligence, I think it’s important to critically consider what are we really dealing with when we use photographic images as a means of social participation.  

I would like to thank the Graduate School for funding my conference participation through the Research Support Award (RSA), and the Postgraduate Arts and Humanities Centre (PAHC) for the PAHC Research Degree Fund. I also thank the ICA for the Paul Messaris Visual Communication Studies Development Fund for the travel grant. 

References cited: 

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *