Questions of Framing & Images of Solitary Confinement in America

My current research seems to be headed more towards vernacular photography (wedding photographs, instagram, etc), which marks a significant shift away from my previous work on framing violence in war and the Abu Ghraib prison photographs.  In working to find a common thread that links these seemingly disparate bodies of visual artifacts (mostly as a way to help me feel a little less unhinged), I’ve settled for the time being on a concern with a relationship between photography and narrative.  Specifically, I want to build an argument that starts from the premise that we use photographs to shore up the shifting stories we tell about ourselves and others.  Our narratives may change with time and with audience, but the photo provides a persistent point of reference.  The photograph can incite particular narratives based on what it includes, but its exclusions can also shut down narrative possibilities: what’s not in the picture isn’t often the focus of our stories.

There are two key claims undergirding this premise.  First, that we continue to invest photographs with an evidentiary quality, despite the fact that they are alterable and that they do not guarantee an accurate record of events.  Second, that framing practices are active in the moment of making a photograph and these practices have a delimiting effect on the narratives the image might incite.  The second claim is critical because it introduces a political stakes to photography that might not be readily apparent.  Quite simply, what does not get photographed generally does not get spoken about and is more likely to be forgotten than images that are widely circulated.  Perhaps most obvious in mainstream news coverage of wars and other disasters, the practice of selecting images is also a practice of deciding what will be publicly known and thus discussed.  That said, the process of framing extends beyond the photo editor’s newsroom call or even the photographer’s decision of where to direct her camera.  There are norms of recognition operating in our culture (and operating in different ways in different places) that delimit the field of visibility long before a photo is taken.  These norms can function innocuously, directing our attention towards action rather than stillness, to lit spaces rather than dark corners.  But in the case of war photography, these norms can also work to delimit our ability to perceive human-ness and human suffering: the shot-up soldier appears as unambiguously human, but the local, the prisoner, the deviant can be a bit more troubling.

All of this is to say that how we see the world affects the photographs we take.  Long before a camera is in a news photographer’s hands or a smartphone is in mine, there are norms of recognition at work that directly and indirectly effect the way a photo is framed.  And the resulting photographs (along with the visual silences, images uncaptured) reiterate these norms and framing with the narratives that might spring up around them.  However, narrative might offer an counter to the frame operating within the photograph: we can ask what happened before or after, to the left or right, etc. Indeed, every photograph circulated carries with it the weight of photographs untaken and, by extension, stories untold.

And how does all of this link to images of solitary confinement in America?  I’ve mentioned Pete Brook’s excellent blog, Prison Photography, before.  Recently, he posted on the paucity of photographs of solitary confinement in American prisons.  Prompted by a journalists contacting him with requests for photographs of solitary for various stories, Brook’s article discusses the lack of visual images of the practice and its facilities, despite the widespread use of the tactic in American prisons.  Brook includes a small selection of photographs, but ends the post with a request to any photographers who might have more images.  Carceral practices and facilities are visually un/under-represented in North American news media, resulting in a lack of public knowledge of prison conditions.  Far from an innocent exclusion, the absence of a visual record is essential to the continuation of current carceral practices.  To show would be to open the possibility of multiple narratives, some of which might raise the question: how can we do this to other human beings?


Photopanic: Instagram and Nostalgia

While my research isn’t headed towards analysing Instagram and other smartphone-based digital photography apps, I keep coming across articles about it.  Initially, these articles intrigued me because of their mention of nostalgia, and its attractiveness to a typically-young user group.  The attraction of the nostalgia of tints and filters that aim to reproduce the visual style of specific analog cameras of the past rests in a desire to produce a past that doesn’t exist, to create a context tied to a sense of authenticity.  But, as Nathan Jurgenson argues, the nostalgia of Instagram’s faux-vintage photography is tied to a greater trend of self-documentation in social media and a user obsession with creating an archive of oneself.  The faux-vintage aspect of these apps speeds up the move from taking the photo to producing memory, he claims, by importing a sense of past-ness through different editing options.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous discussion of Jurgenson’s essay, the most interesting function of these apps is the way they prompt users to view life as a cycle of of memories-to-come.

Since writing my earlier post on Jurgenson and Instagram, I’ve come across a series of brief articles that touch on similar themes.  Most of them lack the theoretical approach Jurgenson takes, and mostly spend their time hand-wringing.  There seem to be three key concerns: the relationship between Instagram and professional photography (I, II, III), the plague of filters, and the implications of Instagram’s sale to Facebook.

The concern about whether professional photographers ought to use Instagram and, relatedly, whether the app itself is destroying photography as we know it sounds eerily familiar to concerns raised during the rise of digital photography.  To be fair, digital photography has changed photography: it’s faster, its more manipulable, and it’s more accessible.  And the majority of viewers in the western world are aware of the possibility that anything can be photoshopped.  But, the possibility of manipulation hasn’t eroded the indexicality or evidentiary quality viewers tend to attribute to the photographic image (more on this in a future post).

The concern with filters seems related in many ways to the concerns with the manipulability Photoshop enables.  The perceived problem with Instagram’s filters is that they are instantaneously available for on-the-fly editing and that their basic function is to “soften all the ugly, too-real bits, to make plainly composed images more compelling” (Petrusich).  The filter, it seems, replaces a trained eye.  I don’t really disagree with this argument, I just don’t think it’s the most interesting aspect of this debate.

What continues to bring me back to concerns about Instagram and its effect on photography is how it changes our relationship to the image and, by extension, how we see ourselves.  The ‘we’ here is not professional photographers, but the producers and consumers of an ever-increasing digital album of vernacular photography.  Self-curated stories of everyday occurrences, from the much-maligned but ever-popular food photo to snapshots of pets and kids to neighbourhood flora and fauna, can be read in a positive way: maybe it’s refreshing that we are stopping and noticing our world.  Instagram may indeed be instant, but it also requires the user to notice a moment and actually take the photo.  And I don’t think that stopping-and-thinking is a bad thing, even if the stopping is brief and the thinking is quite shallow.  However, the less-forgiving interpretation is that it speeds up and deepens a path toward a narcissism fuelled by social media

A photograph is no longer predominantly a way of keeping a treasured family memory or even of learning about places or people that we would otherwise not encounter. It is now mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one’s navel (Estrin).

The relationship between nostalgia, particularly the brand available through faux-vintage photography, and narcissism is one that bears further study.  A conversation about narcissism and self-documentation seems inevitable and necessary.  And yet, I’m not entirely sure of where to start.  If Jurgenson is correct and the self-documentation rampant in social media profoundly alters our orientation toward the world, making all presents into future-pasts, what does this do to our narcissistic psyches?  The obvious answer is that it makes it worse: we are all the stars of our own documentaries, of which we control every aspect of production.  This knot of self-documentation and self-narration is one that I”m going to try and untangle, at least a bit, going forward.

Mediated Childhood: Digital Photography and Innocence

Last week, the Globe and Mail published an article on the ever-increasing saturation of smartphone photography.  Katrina Onstad’s piece began with an expression of discomfort about witnessing a child’s excitement about having his sandcastle creation photographed and then his demand to immediately see the image.  Onstad’s discomfort lay in the child’s focus on himself, rather than his sand creation, in the photo.  Rates of smartphone photography have increased in the past year, Onstad claims.  And as a result, how we comport ourselves towards one another has also changed.  Onstad describes a loss of innocence, an inability to fumble through life blissfully un-self aware.  Her favourite photographs are candid, often ‘bad’ photographs and she laments the power of the smartphone to seemingly enforce an aggressive perpetual self awareness.

Onstad’s lament, however, seems to rest in digital photography’s ease of deletion.  While a roll of film could be edited by inserting only ‘good’ photographs into an album, cast aside prints aren’t always thrown away.  The one’s that aren’t are a source of value or, at least, interest for Onstad:

Digital photography allows for constant curation of images, which usually means the selection of only the happiest moments. When pictures had to be printed, the good and the bad had an almost equal chance of survival, and some of those ugly pictures are some of the best: Dad’s wobbly eye; the cat’s butt caught in the corner; the really bad perm. The perfectly posed childhood leaves little room for the messy part of living, where the joy is.

Onstad’s concern with the deletion of ‘bad’ photographs doesn’t take into account concentration of camera’s in any particular moment.  Just as the parents she’s observed might be focused on getting the perfect shot of their darling child, there are always other cameras around snapping up ‘outtakes’ and sharing the humorous results.  While a perfectionist-revisionist history of an event may be captured and edited by mom, teenage sister or cousin might be capturing a very different version of the moment in question.  The constant curation is perhaps not as complete a process as Onstad describes.

While my own concern with digital photography and the curatorial disposition towards one’s life is less nostalgic than Onstad, I appreciate her concerns.  Photography has a powerful role in bolstering the narratives we create to add structure or a sense of cohesion to the fraught process of individuation.  And it plays an significant role in establishing a group’s memory – be that a nation’s or a family’s.  Onstad ends with a modest call to put down the camera, at least some of the time.  Adults, she urges, “need to remember what it’s like to experience an undocumented, uncontained moment, and kids need to feel that they are forming themselves not to be seen, but to be”.

I suspect that her sentiment is commonly held among parenting types, particularly those prone to hand-wringing about the end of their childrens’ innocence.  I wonder, however, if a return to shaping ourselves to ‘be’ rather than to ‘be seen’ is possible.  Going forward, I want to explore how deeply contemporary digital self-documentation practices have shaped our conceptions of ourselves, our modes of experience, and how we form relationships.  We pause to photograph and to post, but do we pause to reflect on our experiences?  In concurrently developing a documentary narrative of an experience and undergoing it, do we forsake the negotiation of memory with others (the back-and-forth of remembering)?  Or perhaps we have are in a wholly different epoch of remembering, where narratives are decided through an online stream of comments and likes or the posting of counter-narratives?


Thinking Theory I: Creswell

Reading Creswell’s instructions on how to determine and incorporate a theory section in qualitative and mixed methods research left me a little…off my game.  

While my background is in political science (arguably a methodologically-obsessed discipline), I have always gravitated towards political theory.  Similarly, my theoretical interests are what have brought me to this program.  The theory, for me, is the starting place.  And it’s the end point.  Rather than deductively placed at the beginning of a research project that sets to prove a hypothesis or inductively developed at the end of an undertaking, I often refer to theoretical perspectives throughout my writing.  Exploring how different ideas interact when read together, observing the ways examples can open new trajectories of thought or illuminate limitations, and crafting bringing old ideas to bear on contemporary politics (or vice versa) are all research moments where I feel comfortable.  Challenged by the content, yes. But comfortable in the process.

That said, Creswell has made me wonder about the value of this approach.  Theory begets theory, but does it do anything else?  Does it provide value that extends beyond the tiny constellation of writers I invoke and an even tinier constellation of other researchers who might be interested in the results of such work.  As I’ve noted previously, the challenge of conducting research that has a purpose that extends beyond feeding my own curiosity is something that causes me some anxiety.  In “The Use of Theory”, Creswell offers a series of “Transformative-Emanicapatory Questions”.  When first reading the chapter, I was able to pass by these questions without too much thought, as I’m fairly certain I won’t be doing the kind of on-the-ground research that would merit such considerations.  However, as I continued through the later chapters and am beginning to sketch out the parameters of my pilot project, I found Creswell’s questions bothering me more than I’d usually care to admit.

A quick aside: My pilot project, as I mentioned in class a few weeks ago engages a new site I haven’t worked on before: wedding photography.  The research I hope to do is primarily concerned with the connection between photography, memory, and narrative.  I plan to explore this connection and interrogate how it has changed with the digitization of photography and, crucially, the album.  Wedding photography is not so much the primary interest, but will serve as a particular genre of photography where memory and narrative feature prominently and digital albums are manifold.  

Creswell’s questions caused me to step back from my plans and consider the utility of my proposed research.  He asks the researcher:

“Did you deliberately search the literature for concerns of diverse groups and issues of discrimination and oppression?” {hmmm….while there are lots of avenues for exploring discrimination and oppression in the wedding industry or, more broadly, the institution of marriage, I don’t know if the taking and circulating of photos is one…}

“Will the data collection process and outcomes benefit the community being studied? {that depends, are wedding photographers and their subjects all that interested in the way they use photographs to establish a narrative of their weddings, their relationships?}

“Will the results help understand and elucidate power relationships? Will the results facilitate social change?” {yes…and no…the results might elucidate our different investments in the photographic image and how we use the process of taking photographs to orchestrate particular comportment towards one another…it might even get at the issue of memory and how we actively invoke practices of framing to ensure particular instances are heralded as our sanctioned memories and other instances go unphotographed and uncriculated, leading to their exclusion from narrative accounts…but does such results gesture toward social change? Unlikely…}

Creswell’s questions have prompted me to grapple with my sense of self as a researcher, my ethical and political commitments.  Is there a politics involved in photography?  And is it a political question worth studying?  Do our narratives and the modes by which we memorialize matter?  To these questions, I can confidently answer yes.  It’s when I move into the particularities of the research I’m proposing that I feel unsure.  I know there is something interesting going on in wedding photography, but is it a worthy site of research.  

Articulating the stakes of my research is something that has always challenged me and, as I move into the unfamiliar territory of a new site of study, I find myself unable to rely on the stakes I’ve turned to previously.  While the aim of Creswell’s chapters on theory and research design may not have been to prompt reflection on the merits of one’s proposed research, his work has sent my down this line of thought.  I don’t have a solid defence for why my research matters, here and now, but I know that going through the difficult process of building that defence is crucial to having the confidence to move on with my work and the ability to present my ideas to diverse audiences.  I look forward to the end result, but the process is going to be a rough one….

Filtered Presents

While I had a ‘negative result’ in searching for an article that used new media methods, I did come across an interesting discussion of Hipstamatic and Instagram smartphone applications.  Originally posted in May 2011, Nathan Jurgenson’s essay, The Faux-Vintage Photo, describes both how these apps work visually and how they function in digital and social spaces.  Jurgenson mobilizes on Fredric Jameson’s concept of nostalgia for the present to explain the appeal and popularity of faux-vintage photos.

The popularity of the apps themselves is fairly simple: having cameras built into phones that are (generally) immediately connected to the internet shortens the window between taking and uploading a photo.  In one fell swoop, I can now take a photo, augment it with a wide array of filters, and post it to any number of social media – including this blog.  Previously, my very convenient point and shoot camera would have required loading the photos onto my computer, fiddling with them in iPhoto, and then posting them.  The speed of this process, Jurgenson suggests, leads us to a viewing our experiences with an eye to potential documentation.  Every moment is a potential trace, a potential image for a burgeoning digital scrapbook.  This searching for soon-to-be memories isn’t limited to Instagram’s faux-vintage photos, but is part of a broader structuring effect of new social media.  In living with an eye to how we will represent ourselves, as the creators and curators of our personal archives, Jurgenson claims that we develop a documentary view – something that photographers develop over the sustained, trained practice of making photographs over time.  But, we are not just self-documenting, we are also are own archivists.  Rather than looking back at old documents, at other people’s documents, we have collapsed the creation and preservation into the same moment.  “We come to see what we do as always a potential document,” he writes, “imploding the present with the past, and ultimately making us nostalgic for the here and now.”

The real point of interest for Jurgenson is not simply self-documentary with an eye to the future, to recognizing the present moment as something we want to capture and return to (the box of childhood home movies in most of our parents’ basements likely attests to this).  It’s the faux-vintage style of the photos that is more revealing.  The filters available on Hipstamatic and Instagram allow for manipulating the saturation and definition of an image, for applying a scratched look or faded edges – all of which provide a ‘physicality’ that digital images lack.  Jorgensen claims this sense of physicality, this aged look provides a feeling of authenticity, which “places yourself and your present into the context of the past, the authentic, the important and the real”.  Actual vintage photographs posses this context because they are, in fact, old and from another time: faux-vintage is simulation.

It is this quest for self-documentation in an ethos of simulated history that changes how we experience our experiences and interactions.  While the faux-vintage trend in photographs may pass (Jurgenson acknowledges this likelihood), the structuring of present interactions with an eye to a very public, shared online documentary practice will like continue and intensify.  Rather than dismissing faux-vintage photo apps as lazy photography that abandons a concern with framing in favour of tooled-up saturation (which is not a misrepresentation of these apps either), Jurgenson helps us to look at what this mode of photography does and what it reveals about this emerging self-documentary point of view.

While I’m absolutely unable to theorize on the effects of this point of view, I can agree with Jurgenson’s assessment of the attraction of Instagram: I’m also hooked.  So instead of a dramatic theoretical statement to wrap this up, how about a filtered, blurred, Instagram-ed photo of a yak?


The Prison Industrial Complex, a bird’s eye view

The Prison Map was produced by Josh Begley, an Interactive Telecommunications student at NYU.  Attempting to create a visual representation of the geography of incarceration in the United States, the prison capital of the world.  The Prison Map combines location information compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative with the Google Maps satellite images, intending to create a sense of the volume and scale of the prison industrial complex operating in America.

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Begley’s project provides an interesting visual experience, that feels almost illicit.  While the modern carceral system is designed around making the prisoner seen and observable (see Foucault, Discipline and Punish), the system keeps prisoners out of the public eye.  The implications of this concealment are legion, the lack of public awareness of prisoners’ rights or of the effects of private for-profit incarceration are just a start.  Begley’s map doesn’t offer explicit information about contemporary carceral practices, but in depicting the sprawling spaces of incarceration it prompts some key questions: what is going on in there?  how many people are in these complexes?  what would it mean to take a closer look?

In assisting viewers in visualizing the physical scale of carceral infrastructure, perhaps Begley’s map also opens new avenues of inquiry into an often unseen and undiscussed institution.