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News Past, Present, and Presence – the shifting function of photography

12 April 2017 Kate

“Much like a painting, a photograph has the ability to move, engage and inspire viewers” writes Nancy Locke, Associate Professor of Art History at Pennsylvania State University.

One of the most significant debates surrounding photography, its functions, and its potential in society is its evolution from science to art.

As Locke goes on to discuss, the capacity of the medium as a form of art has been a subject of contestation from photography’s first century of existence, and one that has continued throughout its history.

More of a scientific tool in its initial incarnation, used by chemists, astronomers, botanists and inventors, Locke notes, “photography seemed to be more of a scientific tool than a form of artistic expression”, perhaps most simply because photographs “didn’t look like art”.

Photography is seen by many critics “as operating in a realm that [is] not quite fine art” but as Locke discusses, “a look back to the 19th century reminds us of the medium’s initial shocking – and confounding – realism”.

Reality through the lens

Of course, a photograph allows one to freeze a moment in time, offering unprecedented access to the past via incredible accuracy and detail. Photography as documentation can be considered priceless in terms of its value as a means of tapping into the histories of our world – and ourselves.

A continuing intense fascination with the human condition plays a significant part in documenting the world and the people in it through the photographic medium.

As the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson established, to capture ‘the decisive moment’ or people living in the moment is to understand better what makes us human.

A recent photograph of a young woman from Birmingham standing smiling and bemused in the face of an English Defence League protester has been interpreted along similar lines.

Taken during a demonstration by the far-right political group in the centre of Birmingham, the photograph shows a man wearing an EDL t-shirt staring into the eyes of the young woman who appears unfazed by his threatening behaviour.

The image has been shared thousands of times via social media and has been interpreted as a powerful symbol of solidarity and defiance. This is a striking example of how photographs can become potent symbols via the meanings attributed to them.

Indeed, the link between content and its potential to go viral is its ability to touch on feelings – for you to share it the content has had to have moved you in some way.

Ultimately, to share something is to share your feelings with others.

Immediate impact

Social media has had a profound impact on photography in this way. Sharing your experiences in terms of what you are seeing, doing, and feeling, is made immediate.

Photography is no longer simply associated with the past, then, but also with the present. As Geoffrey Batchen observes, “everyone concedes that photography is now a medium of exchange as much as a mode documentation.

“Able to be instantly disseminated around the globe, a digital snapshot initially functions as a message in the present (“Hey, I’m here right now, looking at this”) rather than only as a record of some past moment.”

An image like that taken of the woman at the EDL protest in Birmingham reached a mass audience almost immediately, allowing those who were not present in the moment to visualise and respond to this encounter.

As well as this, what we are witnessing with this kind of photograph is what Batchen calls “the collapsing of the global into the personal” which, as he observes, is at the very heart of social media.

Issues of larger scale are given personal relevance on social media, shared with the user’s intimate inflections, reactions, and opinions. And the stories told via such photography are given a mass audience almost instantly through these platforms.

Present to presence

The digital form of photography is also an important recognisable shift in the evolution of the medium. Most photographs tend to remain bound to online platforms, or as part of your smartphone’s camera roll, which has ultimately changed the functionality and physicality of the photograph.


The ephemerality of photography via social media is such that often times if you blink you will miss it. The sheer volume of data means that certain things can easily get lost, or simply go unnoticed


As Batchen notes, “this kind of photograph is meant primarily as a means of communication, and the images being sent are almost as ephemeral as speech, so rarely are they printed and made physical.

“The ‘that-has-been’ temporality of photography once described by Roland Barthes has been replaced with a ‘what-is-going-on,’ a sharing of immediacy of presence.”

The ephemerality of photography via social media is such that often times if you blink you will miss it. The sheer volume of data means that certain things can easily get lost, or simply go unnoticed.

“Pics or it didn’t happen” – the Instagram mantra

The culture of sharing and storytelling created by social media points to what Jacob Silverman regards as a “lack of long-term memory.”

“While records of our activities exist to varying extents … social media exists largely in a kind of eternal present, upon which the past rarely intrudes. Twitter is a meaningful example. It is evanescent: posts are preserved, but in practice, they are lost in one’s rapidly self-refreshing timeline – read it now or not at all.”

The incessant nature of documenting our lives on social media has become a validating mechanism – ‘pics or it didn’t happen’. The content itself seems not to matter but simply that it exists is more important.

As Silverman continues, “in this environment, interiority, privacy, reserve, introspection – all those inward-looking quieter elements of consciousness – begin to seem insincere. Sharing is sincerity.

“A story is told … but more precisely, life is documented, its reality confirmed by being spliced into shareable data.”

The ethical implications of this behaviour have become more pronounced as such activities have increased in intensity over time.

As Rebecca Macmillan from the University of Texas notes, “instead of staying present – being (and really observing) where we are – our impulse is to capitalize on all lived experiences as an opportunity to represent and express ourselves visually.”

The issues of commodifying and marketing our everyday lives that Macmillan draws attention to seemingly stem from a fear of “life in a media bubble.” Has this incessant documentation of experience taken precedent over the experience itself?

Future predictions

So where do debates like these leave us? Are these concerns even valid in a landscape that has so readily embraced and has been fundamentally shaped by these advancements in technology?

Of course, there are many advantages to these platforms and how they utilise photography.

As Instagram’s founder Kevin Systrom insists, this platform is not exclusively for image-sharing. This is not simply because the platform now accommodates video but because images cannot simply be described as photographs or even art, but a message and a tool of communication.

As Systrom explains, how global events are disseminated across social media is truly revolutionary and has changed the face of news broadcast dramatically around the world.

Staying connected in this regard does have its rewards.

The elevation and visibility enabled via social media sites like Instagram, although sometimes feeling overwhelming in terms of the volume of data available, has given more individuals, communities, and initiatives an opportunity to tell their stories and have them heard.


Photography remains one of the most seminal and defining phenomenon of modern times


As Lauren Cornell notes, it can be hard to distinguish what is important when searching through “the big scroll”, for Instagram especially is “a buffet of genres: documentary, appropriation, political commentary, role-playing.

“But its inherent immediacy, sociality, and instant commodification (every stroke from liking to tagging creates community for us just as it creates value for Instagram) changes the nature of these gestures.”

So whether or not you buy into the idea that photography can be a form of art, and whether or not you share reservations about how the digital has changed how we live our lives, photography remains one of the most seminal and defining phenomenon of modern times.

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