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.

Please leave selfies alone – thoughts on the crisises of truth, identity and journalism


“and since we live in present tense
the only hope of making sense 
all depends on the source of light” Fugazi

In his text “Homo selfiensis” Hans-Jürgen Arlt interprets the selfie as expression of what he calls “PR-Society”: a society that is dominated by striving for success by self-promotion. In quite a mental leap he picks journalism as the opposite of selfies because it doesn’t conform to the wishes of the photographed. Instead of that, he says, journalism follows independent criteria like “closeness to reality” and “collective relevance” (translation by me). As a selfie doesn’t have the same objectives as journalism it is no surprise he finds it lacks them but I find it somehow surprising that he condemns them for that lack.

But let’s be game, just for fun: Is what he criticises even speficic for the problem? Yes, selfies are staged. Yes, they only pick a segment of a situation and one that shows us in the light of our choice. That is not specific for selfies though. You can say the same about an anecdote we tell about ourselves: In it we also just chose a certain part of an event and might leave out things that could embarass us. Let’s look at it from the other side: What about journalism? News pieces also are hardly ever independent and they also often show just one perspective on an event. Not just when journalism goes commentary but as soon as it selects topics and leaves out others, and by what and who gets and what and who does not get mentioned in an article. It is typical of old school journalism to pass this as objectivity. That has worked out fine for a long time because if you take a perspective that is very common it gets almost invisible, or rather: all the other possible perspectives get invisible. But that does not justify a claim on objective truth. This is what gets clearer and clearer in our social media era, in which people with different perspectives have ways of expressing their criticism loudly. (So sorry, Chait.) What about photography and objectivity? We live in the days of Photoshop and Instagram filters and staged press pictures (just think of the latest fiercely criticised one, that showed government leaders heading a Charlie-Hebdo march in Paris). Of all those, to pick out the selfie as example for the loss of authenticity by self-promotion is weird. To conjure up the photographer as an entity that by it’s sheer presence magicly manufactures objective truth to a portrait in contrast to a selfie sounds too much like lamenting old boy’s journalism. You know, the kind that a couple of years ago complained about the dubiousness of blogging and today feels the loss of its exclusive control of the relevant perspective approaching by social media posts. In The silent revolution Mercedes Bunz describes a shift in the relationship between truth and facts: truth no longer is what lasts. The digital fact changes fast and constantly because it gets updated all the time. The absence of those fixed points that we were used to can be unsettling.

Truth no longer is what lasts.

In a review of The silent revolution (testcard, #24: Bug report) I summed up: “The polyphony, the multitude of the voices on the web makes a new kind of objectivity possible: the quality of the digital public’s truth is the immediacy of a lot of different voices – a pluralism that asks us to form our own opinion. Instead of trusting a single perspective that was vouched for by experts (journalists, historians, etc.), the recurring report from a lot of different sources has become the new criterion of truth. The active inclusion of the recipient is a central feature of the digital public.” The kind of journalism does can be considered an interesting way of trying to get a grip of this. Bunz also writes on the change of journalism’s role. “She says there hasn’t even been a real balance between press and politics in the past but that in today’s modern media democracies the positions have shifted even further apart: The media have turned into businesses, politicians use them for image work, media moguls strive for political regulations that are favorable for them, in short: conflicts of interest can be found everywhere, everyone is depending on everyone, everyone profits from everyone. Bunz could imagine the digital public, the smart mob (a term she borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari), as regulatory body. (I would be interested if she still thinks so when considering filtered timelines, and reactions of governments and social networks as Zeynep Tufekci described them in her latest paper, wrapped up here by Matthew Ingram.) What I also found interesting is Bunz’ claim that journalism’s attention logic is quite obsolete. While it still is focussed on events and breaking news the digital public gets driven by user interests: ‘If a message is important it will find me’, as Bunz describes it, pointing to Chris Anderson’s longtail theory of semantic niches. Recurring topics are not only meaningful as viral communication but also as criteria for truth.” That journalism mostly just applies viral logic to spreading its news and establishing its brand is a move into a questionable direction.

Selfies don’t exist outside of social media, the problem with selfies does.

Let me get back to selfies. Arlt assumes that in a selfie you are free to present yourself just as you like. That is a wrongful assumption. He neglects that the circulation in social networks is part of the selfie, it can’t exist without it. A self portrait is not a selfie. So a selfie always is staged to function in the logic of social networks. When we make a selfie we imply/apply the look and likes of the others. Selfies are pictures that instead of our view on a situation show us in a situation or pose. The can simply use our facial expression as non-verbal comment on a situation we’re in. Self-performed as meme. And the selfie always points back out of social media, back to us, points out that self-performance is not a specific phenomenon of the web. I don’t have to go to the level of the self only existing in its performance, which is pretty complex for most people. Let me try a simpler approach. Etiquette, rules of interaction, broad consensus on appropriate clothing for a variety of occasions, of genders, of body shapes – so many default settings tell us how we have to stage ourselves. At the same time we are expected to perform in a way that doesn’t show that we are performing. Fake it as if we mean it. Get caught while you are styling yourself and you can fall victim to mockery. Not that different from the public’s scorn that media and government leaders had to suffer for the staged picture at the Charlie Hebdo march I mentioned earlier.

Social media makes the tension visible that comes with the slow change of our understanding of truth and identity performance.

Actually we should thank social media for making the tension visible that comes with the slow change of our understanding of truth and authenticity and staging and performance and for sparking discussions. Precisely because this topic is not restricted to social media. Especially in social media though, deliberate lustful self-performance gets criticised. Criticising selfies often is nothing but an effort to claim control over how people depict themselves, and women and youth get the most of that. If the selfie-critics – who mostly take a male perspective – would stand up just as loudly against other omnipresent depictions, let’s say of sexistly objectified women, as they do when it comes to women’s selfies I maybe might take their criticism somehow serious. But most of the time they only call selfish what is not regulated by and for the dominant gaze of society. That just said to mention at least one problematic facet.

Arlt’s text shows how much criticism of selfies is about the fear of losing definatory power when he writes: “Self-marketing as requirement for economic existence and social career: No rental flat, no job, no application, no relationship without ‘selfie’, without approving the production costs of best possible self-representation. But these shows stay under control of the people that are present and can intervene.” (clumsy translation by clumsy me) For him self-marketing/self-performance is fine as long as there is a kind of supervisory body who can intervene. Says Arlt: because with an “unexpectedly interposed question” the “truth” can be revealed. A “truth” that he links to “efficiency” of all things. (I’m struggling how to translate “Leistung” in this context, secretly LOLing at the possibility of using “performance” and having this whole text collapsing over me. Tempting. But “efficiency” seems to carry that special german cultural background best.) As if self-promotion wasn’t about efficiency. How much Arlt believes in an impartial truth, in an authentic identity behind such fake stagings of ourselves, is especially well expressed in one picture he uses: he laments “the public as a tugging between obscuration and exposure”. I would say that this is exactly what truth is: it is an infinite approximation that emerges within a play of a variety of perspectives which shed light on one detail while casting a shadow on another. I find it amusing how much Arlt’s “tugging” reminds me of the picture of a burlesque “fan-dance” Nathan Jurgenson took from Marc Smith to describe how our self-performance on Facebook works. It can be expanded to all kinds of self-performance, maybe even to all kinds of representations: we show sometimes more, sometimes less, show a different side depending on the context, and identity just like truth only emerges in this dance, only in motion, and is ever-changing. I guess Arlt would not find this very sexy.

Journalism does suffer from the belief that for monetary reasons there is no other possibility but following the logic of social networks.

It is not that I am not agreeing with parts of the criticism of journalism and society Arlt puts forth, else I would not have felt provoked into writing this post. The selfie part just does not make sense in the way he applies it. The navelgazing of journalism on social media and how self-PR-aware many journalists post there, only to stage themselves and their news brand – yes, this is worthy of criticism and misses out on how enriching social media could be for journalism. What Arlt’s post falls short of, is consequently thinking the critical points to their roots. There is the very german yearning for a time in which it was still efficiency that counted and not just self-performance for marketing purposes (and I guess he would see any form of social media strategy of journalism as such. And I would not totally be not disagreeing on that). There is the very manly yearning for a time in which people were blindly accepted as gatekeepers; when that one perspective could be sold as objectivity and other perspectives only appeared as pesky readers’ letters. But there is no conclusive tracking of the “compulsory self-promotion” to its causes, the causes just “are”. Instead he sidetracks his anger and fears to new cultural technologies which he does not really want to deal with.

Journalism does suffer from the belief that for monetary reasons there is no other possibility but following the logic of social networks. That is how articles get designed for speed and reach while aspects like depth and societal relevance get – when in doubt – sacrificed because they do not matter in those networks. My guess is that only when all social networks will have become publishers themselves, media will get to know if they gave up more than they won.

Tl;dr: The crisis of journalism results partially from the focus on “advertising, PR and entertainment” and the logic of social networks, somethingsomethingaboutidentiy, but: Please leave Selfies alone.

P.S.: Arlt’s text does not outrank my no. 1 of curious selfie-angst-articles, the weirdest one still is this one about selfies giving kids head lice.

P.S.P.S.: The german version of this is online at