Social photography: Bitter equality lolz


The rise of the amateurs

My thoughts about photography have started with a sued street photographer, a case I’ve written about here and here, and strayed on here. The street photographer as one example of a special professional someone we needed for the documentation of our times might become – if not obsolete – just one in a crowd. What the flood of digital and social photography has done to the value of the single picture, the rise of the amateur photographers does to the photographer’s status. In the case I have written about one point that the plaintiff (who had sued Eichhöfer, a street photographer, because she didn’t want her picture to be publicy displayed) brought up against him was that his photos should not be considered art but luck because he had shot 1.600 photos and there were only 12 he found good enough for the exhibition.

So, what’s art, what’s luck? Of course quantity is a poor argument against art but it is quite common and shows the devaluation of professional photography since it has become a mass product. Chances are that a lot of people would get 12 artworthy pictures if they shot 1.600. If not: There’s always filters and Photoshop, technical skills getting replaced by technology. The photographer’s lament about this does not differ much from the vinyl dj who complains that the automatic beatsyncing of the laptop dj is nothing but cheating. For a person who enjoys looking at the photo or who is shaking their bootie on the dancefloor it is irrelevant.

Chances are that people who pay the photographer’s loan find 12 cheap photos among 16 million pictures that have been uploaded to social networks or photography platforms. Even the biggest media outlets sometimes use snaps that someone had posted on Twitter instead of using the expensive work of a professional photographer who wasn’t at the right place at the right time. “Eyewitness media can often be the best visual a news organisation has from the scene of a story.” With that reasoning a german news organisation, Deutsche Welle, introduced an app for geo-located push alerts for eyewitness media.

Photo blogs and networks like 500px or flickr also have narrowed the gap between the professional and the amateur artist. The maximization of idea-to-monetization speed has contributed to this too, just think of Tumblr’s Creatr Network that is built to close the gap between amateur artists who post on the network and brands who could be interested in buying their work for (in-platform) advertising or design. The old school street photographers might moan “but true quality and professional training”. Well, there might be a lot of uninspired photography on the web but there also is a lot of uninspired photography in galleries or newspapers and magazines that only makes it there because the photographer has the right connections.

Bitter equality lolz

The sheer mass of online photography and ever becoming better filter algorithms might change the game. Imagine a future of photography that no longer belongs to having the best connections in the industry network but to the possibilities of finding the most interesting or relevant fresh content with minimum effort and expense. A future that outsources decisions about whom to hire for what to algorithms. Algorithms that are not built to consider gender and race and education and background but that just pick the best product/picture. Algorithms, will the white men cry, they get sold to us as objective, neutral, while really they are built by humans to get rid of the final frontier: loyalty! Digitalised hypercapitalism might free us of old white boys networks. Imagine a capitalism that will hurt us all the same. Bitter equality lolz.

Today you can see people from a wide range of professions struggle against amateurs and minorities and machines for a privilege they feel slipping away . You can hear this fear between the lines of feuilleton conservatives ranting against women and queers coming for their family values, you can hear it in the overgeneralizing moans against internet mobs and shitstorms. If you look close you can see it jumping up and down behind all the “future of journalism” stories and you can hear it in the street photographers’ laments. Digitalisation is coming for your jobs and status. That is, as long as the networks and algorithms do not include the very same biases in their structure as the people who build them have had for far too long. It is important to consider with what on mind they get build because if profit is the major goal and social considerations are only considered as mechanisms that help binding people to it, they might multiply injustices in new ways that stay invisible and incomprehensible to most. We can’t celebrate it as democratization if platform owners make most of the money of content that gets shared on them. Take a photo platform like 500px and their slogans: “Find the perfect royalty-free photos on 500px Prime”, “Photography enthusiasts – Share your best photos and get exposure”. Or think of music streaming services that seem even more greedy in cashing in on artists than big record labels are.

How do we judge value?

The rise of amateurs raises the question: Whom do we consider an artist or a journalist when we all can do it? It is not just a question of jobs, it also is about artistical value and special rights, like freedom of art and press. To stick with the example that got me started: The picture of the street photographer as an artist who deserves a special status and protection has become a bit dusty. We freed us from a fixed definition of art, and we can no longer draw a clear line between a professional and amateur, or between commercial and artistic photography. In a text about the Eichhöfer-case Meike Laaff asks, what exactly is higher interest about art, and: Should judges be the ones to decide about the artistical value of a work of art? Who is to decide who deserves the special artistic freedom? Artists themselves? The people who have become objects of a picture and see their privacy threatened? Curators, critics, social media companies, judges? Or potentially everyone?

Is it just the context in which a picture gets displayed? As it has been written about Richard Prince putting up other people’s instagram pictures in an art gallery and selling them for $90.000 each? I think that case is a bit more complex as he has not just used the picture but displayed the instagram surface and comments with the picture, so you could argue that this is a kind of social media street photography: The screenshot of a digital public space as street photography. Basically with the same “public’s public” logic with which news sites make whole articles consisting of embedded tweets or social network pictures. I’d love to read an essay on copyright ethics and who’s got the right to profit, comparing these two examples, Prince and journalism that embeds public social media content. And to go even further: Self-representation on- and offline increasingly melt together – how long will will we make a difference anymore? If we demand copyright for our self-representation online, when will we start to argue for it for our offline self-representation?

Social photography – the rise of the amateurs: No scarcity, no masters


(dieser Text auf deutsch)

No scarcity, no masters

Just a few thoughts. The NSA has involuntarily given us the credo of our time: “Collect it all!” We snap away, freeze moments into pictures, store countless photos and videos on our hard drives and smartphones, we add to endlessly growing archives of pictures on other people’s hard drives (clouds and social platforms). Cheap storage, digital cameras on the same phone on which you have free social sharing apps, affordable mobile connections in many countries – this has changed and still is changing the cultural meaning and function of photography deeply. One point is that it has turned documentation into something we have lost all sense of scarcity for. The Wired editor Joe Brown even pledges for that ethos: “I made a pact with myself: I don’t delete photos anymore. I got the largest-capacity iPhone, upgraded my Dropbox account, and uploaded every pic I could find.” His goal? An “honest record of my life”. The single photo in its function as representation for something bigger is no longer enough. For someone like Joe Brown the single photo is like one in a million frames that could make up a film of his life.

Endless desire for human interactions breeds endless archives of our lives

I share the opinion that we are on the verge from archives to ephemerality if it comes to our “socially” shared media as they have become more about communication as about documentation. Some even are about participation, take the #sleepingsquad kids who livestream themselves to each other on YouNow while they are sleeping. As so many other owners of social platforms who don’t get their products YouNow’s maker explains #sleepingsquad with internet and social media addiction, but Katie Notopoulos nails it in her text about that phenomenon: “The aching desire to cut through the tedium of daily life with human interaction is the driving force of everything on the internet.” Or as Nathan Jurgenson doesn’t get tired to explain: We are not addicted to smartphones, we are addicted to each other. And to be honest, if I was a teen these days I totally would powerlivestream with my friends 24/7, too. I remember very well how I wanted to be constantly connected with my friends. The old cliche of the teens who after having just finished chatting on their way home from school, first thing when they came home called each other on the phone to chat on? Me, every single day.

But right now, of the big public social platforms not even those with a more oral feel, like Twitter, are ephemeral. Right now our archives grow. Our endless desire for human interaction breeds endless archives of our lives. If we were constantly aware of what we have posted years ago and that it is still visible online, that anyone can find it via search or per infinite-scrolling their way into our pasts – it would drive us mad and we’d feel the instant need to explain how we were different back then. We would long to give a context, explain how we changed. The faux ephemerality of the timeline stream on social networks are a way of not letting these archives overwhelm you. You post a photo, some people react to it or not, the photo disappears out of our sight when the next things get posted, the photo gets forgotten. Your focus is (glass half full:) on the human interactions it inspires / (glass half empty:) on the metric gratification that makes you come back for more – yeah, 5 new likes or favs! Your focus gets nudged away from what you have documented, from the archive you build. Even photography platforms like Flickr or Google Photos have chosen the infinite-scroll stream and more and more “social” elements (sharing, commenting, liking) to showcase our content.

There is a dissonance: A lot of today’s documentation of everyday lives results from the wish for short-term social interaction but grows into huge archives. Searchable archives. Archives, that have become not only searchable by tags of your choice: “Intelligent”, learning search functions also help you find pictures by recognizing faces. You can search for photos of someone by uploading a picture of their face. You can type “cat” and it will show you pictures of cats. (Okay: and of things that are vaguely shaped like cats, as it doesn’t work that well yet. The more input they get the better they will become though and we feed them just as well as our cats.) Even mapping is possible: the search thing is supposed to recognize places, even from pictures that are not geo-tagged. These huge archives of amateur photography have become wonderful and fascinating galleries and an important source of photography. Even if they might not have been made for a lasting documentation purpose a lot of these pictures get used for it. And this mosaic of a billion pictures gives a far deeper impression of our everyday lives as street photographers ever could capture.

When blogging was the democratisation of publishing, social media has brought us secularisation

When years ago blogging became a thing, many people first reacted as if it was blasphemy that people simply put their opinions, knowledge or everyday experiences out there. Even last year I still got a comment on my blog that was like “What qualifies you to publish this?” trying to cut down my voice. When social networks reached the mainstream you heard similar voices calling out the banality of the content that people shared: How dare you document things as banal as your meal publicly? What does your blurred photo of a sunset add to the already existing millions of pictures of sunsets out there? Do you think you’re so special that someone wants to see your selfie? “Banality” misses the point though. Publicly publishing photos has become about something new: Not to universalise the object of a picture, not to document something of importance for posterity, not as a work of art, no, while all of that might be true too, the most important factor for shared photography is social value. Communication, and often: communication of emotion. What is a boring photo of a meal to one person, to another might be a loving glimpse into how a friend feels about it. The photo of a freshly cooked meal is not just about the meal, it communicates the happy feeling of having succeeded in preparing it, it’s a way of sharing the pleasant anticipation of eating it. #feelings. One lesson the social web taught us is: Just because something is not important to you doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to someone else for reasons you don’t know.

When blogging was the democratisation of publishing, social media has brought us secularisation, and photos are a major example for this. The aura of photography has been ruffled hard by its heavy use on social platforms. The hierarchy of gatekeepers who decide whose pictures deserve getting publicity, which pictures are of value, it has been shaken. Big parts of the press still wonder about why sometimes a cat picture is more important than their well-crafted latest piece of serious news. Other parts of the press and of course marketing profits from the knowledge that emotionally agitating content “works”. Their pictures have to compete with people’s personal content on social platforms, so they do not hesitate to exploit what “works”. (I’ll have to come to an end with this blog post now as I’m running out of “””s.) The idea that only pictures that have an objectifiable value should be published has withered. The whole idea of objectifiable value has withered.

When a professional documenter isn’t a special snowflake artist anymore because everyone documents everything anyway, when we have endless archives of everyone’s photos that get increasingly better searchable – are drifting towards a new understanding of documentation? Hive documentation? I wonder in which ways social platforms change how we see photography in documentation, and art, and street photography which is a bit of both. As I still have a few days off, this wild theorising will hopefully be continued tomorrow. If I’m not too hangover. Recommendation if you’re in Nuremberg tonight: Beat Thang has invited DJ Slow.

Street photographer’s nostalgia – Part 1: Street photography fought the law

“My best pictures have always been those that I have never made.”
Elliot Erwitt

Espen Eichhöfer, a German street photographer, was sued by a woman who was the object of one of his pictures and – (spoilers!) – she won. Kind of. The discussion that surrounded the case, has been rather one-sided: “OMFG, freedom of art! The future of street photography is doomed in this country!” In news media, blogosphere and social networks hardly anyone cared about the woman’s position. As things never are that simple I got curious and started a bit of reading and got drawn in. The disputes around street photography make tensions visible that have risen with our increasingly surveilled and digitally augmented lives. While some street photographers argue that the laws for our right of publicity is dated, it could actually be them who are.

I will post some humble thoughts on a few aspects of this huge topic in a 3-4 parts series this week as it got too long for one. This is the first part.
(German version here. All photos by me.)

streetphotographersnostalgia-pt1-1, photo by eve massacre

Street photography fought the law

In Germany the right of publicity cares more about protection of the photographed than in a lot of other countries: Instead of a “public is public” law people have the right to decide if and in which context pictures of them get published. As Andrea Diener explains, it gets decided in individual case assessment wether the value as historic document or as piece of art outweighs a person’s right of publicity or not. In a recent blog post Günter Hack condemns this right of publicity as “nemesis of any street photographer”. To him and others it seems obsolete and inappropriate today because it is from another historic context. Sixtus writes, that this right is “from a pre-digital time, from an era in which ‘publication’ of a photo meant ‘newspaper’ or ‘magazine’, when it was the exception and not the rule. From a time in which not every person had a photographing machine with build-in publication button in their hands permanently.” This art copyright act (Kunsturhebergesetz) indeed is based on a case from back in 1889, when two paparazzi photographers bribed someone to get the chance to take pictures of the dying Reich chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

The discussion about the dos and don’ts of street photography has heated up in Germany when a few months ago a woman sued a street photographer for displaying a picture of her. A lot of newspapers and blogs have written about it, twitter had people in OMFGs. The photographer, Espen Eichhöfer, had snapped her without her knowledge and put her picture up in a gallery. The picture is said to show her as dominant part of a street scene, rushing over the street in front of a pawnshop. Eichhöfer took her picture down when she complained, but she still sued. While she did not get compensation, the judge did rule that the photographer has violated her right of publicity and has to pay the costs for the lawsuit. This caused an outcry from photographers, art and media folks who are worrying for nothing less than the freedom of art and documentation of public spaces: they fear for the future of street photography. Eichhöfer got a lot of publicity (including a VICE article written by himself) that helped him to crowdfund an appeal to the next higher authority, the Federal Constitution Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht). He wants a judgement that establishes a principle against the “criminalization” of street photography. His aim was to raise 14.000€, he has raised 18.000€.

Another case that got a heated discussion, was the “Lex Edathy”, a change of law that – in rather vague phrasing – criminalizes it to make or spread an unauthorized photo that could be used to harm the pictured person’s reputation. This of course raised complains because this phrasing could be abused to make critical photo journalism impossible.

streetphotographersnostalgia-pt1-2, photo by eve massacre

For the freedom of art

Eichhöfer sees himself in the tradition of artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand or Robert Frank:” My photographs have been made in this tradition, they capture spontaneous everyday situations, that happen unstaged in front of the camera. A well-made street photography is a compression or intensification of life on the street, in the best case it is a document of time, a part of collective visual memory.” This kind of documentation in his eyes is far more meaningful than the depicted person’s wish, even if he says he understands that some people do not want their photo publicly displayed.

The street photographers’ sorrows are easily summed up and they pop up in many discussions in blogs all over the web. Here are some that Sixtus has written about:

  • It is technically impossible to ask every person in the street for their permission.
  • Even if it was possible to ask people for permission, most of them still wouldn’t do so because it would destroy the documentary aspect of the picture: As soon as people know they get photographed, they change their behaviour and the picture would no longer show an authentic scene.
  • Today everybody has smartphones and takes and shares pictures in public all the time.
  • Taking and sharing pictures has become like communication, hence to ban photographing means banning communication.

Günter Hack added the surveillance argument:

  • There is omnipresent commercial and state surveillance, criticize them first because they could harm you more and they have helped normalizing this situation. Why should a citizen have less freedom to document people’s lives than the state?!

For the freedom of omission

While not disagreeing with many of those points, it somehow bothered me that I only came across articles that were on the photographer’s side. The woman who had sued Eichhöfer stayed a mute object in a public discussion that had headlines like “Who owns the face of the woman in the leopard coat?” for articles that seemed to only care about the opinions of curators, street photographers and Eichhöfer’s lawyer. Things never are that simple and I got curious and started a bit of reading and got drawn into this subject. Most of these articles and even Eichhöfer’s crowdfunding pledge only speak of the version of the photograph that hung in the gallery. In Jörg Heidrich’s text though, I read that this picture was also used for the larger than life-sized poster that was used to advertise the exhibition. That led me to skim the actual verdict (available here) and it does mention another detail: The photo was also visible on the gallery’s Facebook page.
Those details got left out of most people’s pieces on this subject.

I think it matters, as it means different contexts and different nuances of publicity. In a gallery you discuss it as work of art in an art context. On a huge poster on a public street it is used in an advertising context and also deanonymizes the woman far more. With her picture ending up on a public facebook page, her face is a target of facial recognition ware. That could help finding other pictures of her and it could be used to track information about her. To paint this in proper digitally augmented world’s colours: That she was pictured in front of a pawnshop could lead to a slightly worse credit report for her. She could get trolled for wearing fur. She could hide from an abusive former husband and the picture could help him track her down. And as the saying goes: what’s uploaded to the web is there forever, so the possible future consequences can not be foreseen. Yes, I am exaggerating but then so do all those pieces that act as if the woman’s perspective doesn’t matter at all. With those possible consequences considered I would say that the right of publicity in its german version might be from pre-digital times but especially in its single case assessment approach it does not seem so inappropriate to  me.

streetphotographersnostalgia-pt1-3, photo by eve massacre

It takes balls

The story of the ease with which social photography has become so widespread in many parts of the world is the story of the dominance of the social groups who have least to fear from being photographed. Their voice also shapes the media discourse about it. People who reject being photographed in public are considered vain and the tone as well as the content of most german articles I have found about the Eichhöfer case shows no sympathy for the photographed woman. It’s all about the photographers: They need freedom to do what they want because they make important art and important documentation work for the sake of humanity. Meike Laaf worries about the self-censorship of those important artists without acknowledging the self-censorship that it can mean for their objects: “Dance as if no one was watching” has become “don’t leave your home if you are not okay with someone taking a picture of you that singles you out and puts you on huge public display”.

“To be a street photographer today, you need ‘obsession, dedication and balls”, the street photographer Martin Parr once said, and indeed it seems to be quite a masculine sphere if you look at the tone in which the photographed get described. Eichhöfer shames the effort of people like the woman who sued him as “hysterical”. Günter Hack calls them “self-appointed victims”, and he mocks them: “I don’t steal little souls, my dear, fragile natives, I am only interested in how the light hits animate and inanimate bodies”. As if a photographer was less self-appointed in his claim for the right to intrusion, to acquisition. As if the fear of one’s soul being stolen was not actually a good metaphor for the fear of being shamed, outed, trolled, stalked, etc. Sixtus also mocks the possible objections of his objects sarcasticly, this is one of the subtitles for a picture he uses in his text about street photography being doomed: “I guess this lady also didn’t want to be photographed. At least I think so according to her expression. In the service of art I have ignored her wish.”

Sixtus goes for the “everybody does it” argument and points to the omnipresence of digital social photography, the future omnipresence of life-logging and Google Glass. He ignores that this is not (yet) the reality of everyone around him. As it slowly becomes reality, more and more people start getting sensitive and long for new definitions of what is acceptable.

To be continued.