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  • Writer's pictureSarica Robyn

Visual Representation amid New Photographic Technologies

What kinds of change are we seeing in visual representation?

The notion of representation has found invigoration in anthropology through new ideas of self-representation and authorship of images. I categorise these into three shifts:

(i) The identity of those photographed is now self-represented on social media platforms and selfies in which individuals are themselves the photographer and the photographed.

(ii) The subjects of documentaries are now the producers of documentaries through the use of wearable photographic technologies.

(iii) The consumers of documentaries are now the producers of their own lives on social media with a new aesthetic of the everyday and a curated performance of the self.

Further, unlike previous eras in which anthropologists were in control (as photographers and ethnographic filmmakers) of media technologies, individuals now themselves control photographic technologies on social media.

These shifts in photographic practice have caused a loosening of hierarchies between amateur and professional photographers and new forms of self-representation have found an outlet in orchestrated performances of the self.

From curated images on Instagram to playful forms of self-expression on Snapchat, contemporary photographic practices mark an era in which importance is placed on authorship of individual experiences. Images on social media are now experiential, communicating a social narrative and offering new means of individuality.

But has the notion of representation changed altogether?

Although representational practices have shifted in new photographic technologies, a legacy of representation inherited from what we can term the “colonial encounter” remains. Although new photographic technology heralds an era in which indigenous groups can self-represent and smartphones are abundant even in Third World contexts, owing to global socioeconomic inequality a divide remains between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of culture.

Often, the socioeconomic background of indigenous groups does not accommodate self-representation. Consequently, these groups continue to be ‘producers’ of culture for those who can afford to ‘consume’ this very culture through photographic technologies. Global inequality thus furthers an othering project between producers and consumers despite saturation of photographs across the globe. Arguably, until global inequality levels turn ‘producers’ into ‘consumers’ of culture by using their own photographic technologies to ‘capture’ current consumers, an ‘othering’ process of representation persists.

The future for visual representation

Emerging studies of contemporary photographic practices indicate psychological effects from new visual practice, such as the insight that photographs on social media “can counteract the positive effects of deeper engagement and memory” (NYT News Service, 2017). A future overlap between ethnographic and psychological studies on these behavioural effects is likely. Indeed, one can predict future disruptive technologies marking further changes. In September 2017, the Nokia 8 handset will be launched, offering ‘dual sight technology’ that simultaneously captures photographs on the front and back cameras. Perhaps photographic technology will spell radical departures from traditional photography, inviting reconceptualisation of core tenets of visual anthropology.

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