Wish you ‘like’ here

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A recent article on the National Geographic website referred to how social networking sites, such as Instagram, is influencing tourists’ holiday destinations. Instead of going to a travel agent to flick through holiday brochures, social media users are enticed by the idyllic views they scroll through on their digital devices.

Not only do the images persuade someone to visit such beautiful places, but also they urge users to want to replicate the same images on their profiles. After all,  the ‘like’ is social currency, and the more ‘likes’ you receive, the more popular you appear to be. Therefore, in order to compete with such competition, Instagrammers search for destinations where they can capture the same such shots of paradise. 

In addition to this, there has been a decline in the popularity of Club 18 to 30 holidays, because people are now preferring the convenience of starting relationships on dating apps.  Furthermore, alcohol strewn images don’t look as cool for millenials. They are preferring to opt for photo opportunities in far flung places, so that they can adorn the walls of their social media profiles with picturesque views  

Subsequently, place has become an important aspect of digital identity. This is something that I would like to explore further when thinking about ideas for my fourth assignment. 

The Digital Condition of Photography

In his essay, 'The Digital Condition of Photography: Cameras, computers and display', David Bate (2013, 78) sets himself apart from the critics and supporters of 'digital culture', by stating another position that:

enquires into and considers the specific 'digital' condition of the photographic image in relation to the social identity of 'photography' as a system for the inscription of visual images.

On reflection, I can see how different generations could attribute a different 'social identity' to photography. I can still remember receiving an envelope containing my photographic prints, after waiting an hour for them to be developed. The strip of negatives, included in the packet, was a reminder of the darkroom process that had been necessary to make the exposures. There was always a sense of excitement to look at photographs, which had been taken so long ago, that it was a surprise to see what they were. There was also a sense of despair when some of the prints included quality control stickers because they were blurred, underexposed or overexposed. I wonder how many moments have been consigned to the bin, unseen again. 

Today's digital generation have never known anything different. After taking a photo, they can instantly review, save or delete it. They have an abundance of opportunities to capture the right image, which has the potential to be shared across the world. Today's digital society is drowning in a sea of images, which are being produced as quickly as water flowing from a tap. Bate (2013) recognises how the permeation of images across society blurs the distinguishing features of photographic practices.

Assignment 3: Critical Review

Fake news and fake views: Can the networked image be believed?

 In 2017, ‘Fake news’ was named as the Collins Dictionary ‘Word of the Year’. Defined as ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news  reporting’ (Collins Dictionary, n.d.), it was often used by the American President, Donald Trump, during, and after, his election campaign. The Internet, and its associated technologies, have enabled the creation and spread of fake news. The purpose of this essay is to determine the role that digital imagery plays in fake news reporting and whether networked images can be trusted. Therefore, this essay draws upon a number of issues, including: the notion of photographic truth; the similarities and differences between analogue and digital photographs; the role of the photographer; the undecidability of the networked image; the role of the network.

Photographic Truth
Before determining whether the networked image can be trusted, it is necessary to establish what is meant by photographic truth. Rubinstein and Sluis argue for the truthfulness of  the  photograph  as  being  ‘underwritten  by  the  scientific  procedure  that  created  it’ (2013, p.6).  Whether rays of light are captured on a metallic plate, light sensitive paper, or a digital sensor, it is that scientific process which defines the ‘truthfulness’ of the photograph. There is no denying that what is in front of the camera is reproduced on the plate, paper, or LCD screen. The photograph may exist as an analogue document, which can be held, passed around, and believed. It is both subject and object. Therefore, by its very nature, the photograph should be trusted to represent the truth, since it is an indexical sign (Bazin, 1980). Therefore, Figure 1 is believed to be an index showing ballot boxes.

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It could be assumed that the analogue photograph has a finite quality, making it a document of reality. Despite this view of the accuracy of the photograph, art critic Geoffrey Batchen (1994, p.48) casts doubt on the reliability of photographs by claiming that ‘traditional photographs - the ones our culture has always put so much trust in - have never been true in the first place. Photographers intervene in every photograph that they make.’

This is a view shared by both Manovich (2003) and Robins (1995), who refer to how photographs have always been manipulated. Batchen (1997, p.212) supports this view by stating that ‘in the mere act of transcribing world into picture, three dimensions into two, photographers necessarily manufacture the image they make.’ Therefore, it would be wrong to judge the reliability of the digital image based on the presumed validity of analogue photographs. Also, it would be naive to assume that the indexical nature of Figure 1 portrays reality.

The Digital Image

We are living in the ‘society of the screen’ (Manovich, 2001, p.94), where digital devices are readily available to photograph, disseminate, and view images. Fontcuberta (2014) makes the distinction that analogue photographs are consecutive, whereas digital images are fluid. [Digital] photographs can be uploaded, tagged, shared, replicated, and manipulated. This ‘hyperphotography’ (Ritchin, 2009) has provided the viewer with a constant stream of images, which they are free to recall, replicate, recontextualise, and redistribute. 

With so many digital photographs to choose from, Price and Wells (2015, p.20) question whether these networked images can be believed by stating that ‘the authority attributed to the photograph is at stake....this has led to a reopening of debates about photographic truth.

With the rise of fake news, both Price and Wells (2015) have good reason to be concerned about the reliability of the networked image. There have been numerous instances where misleading photographs have been uploaded to the World Wide Web.

For example, on the 30th September 2016, a photograph of ballot boxes (Figure 1) was posted on the Christian Times website. The accompanying text reported that a dozen sealed boxes, containing tens of thousands of ballots, had been discovered in a warehouse in Franklin County, Ohio. It was eleven days before early voting had begun, and the article’s supporting image provided proof that the Democrats had attempted to rig the Presidential election. Since we believe what we see, the photograph authenticates the article. Gunning (2004) refers to this as the ‘truth claim’ of a photograph, based on both its indexicality and visual accuracy. The image acts as an index for the viewer. The discovered ballot boxes had been photographed, so the report must be true.

After uploading the photograph to Google’s Reverse Image Search, it had been uploaded to approximately 25,270,000,000 web pages! Unbelievably, it had been first used a year earlier. In 2015, photographer David Warren captured the moment twelve black ballot boxes had been delivered to Sheldon Community Centre, Birmingham, England (Figure 2). He then uploaded the photograph to the Internet, on the Alamy stock photography website. (Figure 3).

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When presented with both Figures 1 and 2, it is clear that one image is a manipulated version of the other. Therefore, one of the photographs should be considered to be untrue. However, taking into consideration Bull’s (2010, p.41) view that ‘the act of making a photograph automatically de-contextualises what is in front of the camera and places what is photographed into new contexts,’ it could be argued that neither photograph fully represents the ‘truth’.

Warren’s photograph lost its point of origin when it became digital (Rubinstein and Sluis, 2013). The photograph ‘inhabits the land of in-between’ (Ritchin, 2009, p.17), in which the idea  of  ‘original’  is  no-longer  applicable.  It  does  not  matter  which  image  is  the  correct version, because the computational image has little to do with indexicality. Hayes (2008, p.94) explains that ‘a camera…doesn’t take pictures; it makes them.’

Instead of light, it is the algorithmic process of the camera (computer) which translates digital data into an icon, or visual likeness (Rubinstein and Sluis, 2013). This is supported by Røssaak (2011, p. 23), who states that ‘the digital image cannot be fully understood through the premises of indexicality and ocular centrism as its final appearance is the result of computation.’

 Berry (2011, p.13) makes the distinction between ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘computationalist’ images. It could be argued that the analogue photograph would be an instrumentalist image, because it is the best possible outcome from an application. However another view would be that the printed photograph remains open to multiple interpretations, even though it can be repeatedly reproduced from a negative. Meanwhile, the digital computationalist image remains unfixed, in a constant state of flux. Rubinstein and Sluis (2013, p.31) refer to the state of the network image as being ‘undecidable’, because it is ‘continuous, frameless, multiple and processual, it cannot be unpacked with the tools of semiotics and structuralism that were developed to deal with finite, framed, singular and static images.’

If an image is everywhere at the same time, it is difficult to determine which one is the original (Baudrillard, 1984). Once the image has been uploaded to the network, the photographer no longer has control of it. The photograph is in a pool of other images, searchable by its metadata,  and its appearance – using tools such as Google Image Search. Anyone can purchase the  image , manipulate it, even   recontextualise it. In fact, this is what happened in Warren’s picture of ballot  boxes.

In an attempt to hide its original source, the image was flipped horizontally, the mirrored text was erased, and ‘ballot box’ was crudely added to some of the boxes. At face value, the viewer could see exactly what the photographer saw. In reality, an authentic photograph had been appropriated and manipulated to validate a story which had never occurred. In fact, the only thing we can be certain of is that online images will have been influenced in some way. Kittler (2010, p.226-227) develops this view of the undecidability of the image further with the belief that ‘computers do not replace analogue representation with digital, but abolish representation altogether by reducing it to 0.’

If  the  plural,  unfixed  nature  of  the  algorithmic  image  makes  it  difficult  to  attribute  either authorship or validity, and if we are to determine whether the networked image can be believed, then we need to look beyond the digital image and interrogate the network in which it resides.

 

The Network

Undecidable images, which are frameless and continuous, are not governed by the same time constraints as their analogue counterparts. Therefore, when determining the truth of the networked image, it is not as straightforward as examining when the photograph was made. Rubinstein and Sluis (2013) confirm this by explaining that ‘the fractal structure that underpins the network suggests a very different kind of temporality that is based around non-linear, fragmented and instantaneous time.’

In November 2017, Figure 4 was published alongside a news report about the seizure of $10m, from the home of the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, Ignatius Chombo. Another reverse image search revealed that the photograph actually depicted the haul of cash from a raid in Brazil earlier that same year (Biller, 2017). Therefore, it could be thought to be misleading to have been used to illustrate the Zimbabwean news report.

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In order to determine the reliability of a photograph, we need to interpret what it means. However, since it is an algorithm, it is not straightforward to just say that the image is ‘false’ because it was taken in a different place at a different time. Becker (2003, p.302) explains that ‘photographs  attain  meaning  only  in  relation  to  the  settings  in  which  they  are encountered.’

 

The reading of a photograph on a news website is influenced by the surrounding text, which tells us what we are really seeing. Before the digital-age, tabloid photographs acted like ‘windows’ onto the world (Ritchin, 2013). The viewer could spend time reviewing and considering what they were looking at, and possibly questioning whether the photograph was reliable. The press photographer was trusted and perceived to be a credible witness, therefore giving credence to the article.

Conversely, in today’s online news streams, images are quickly swiped and clicked away in seconds. There is not the time to interrogate the reliability of the image, so opportunist editors, with budget restraints, risk appropriating similar photographs. Also, news streams move so quickly that professional photographers are unable to capture incidents quickly enough. Therefore, the contribution of citizen photojournalists has become increasingly important and reliable. Ritchin (2013, p.11) agrees with this by saying that ‘their [citizen photojournalists] transparent self-involvement and lack of financial incentive, can be reassuring.’

Although Figure 4 was not a photograph of the actual money seized in Zimbabwe, it is worth considering Kember’s (2003) view that a digital image is just an image-idea of the real thing.  This suggests that it is acceptable to use photographs as illustrations rather than for factual reporting.  

The purpose of the digital photograph is to make a statement rather than a truth. However, if the photograph cannot speak the truth as loudly as the text, then this causes problems for the authenticity of the report. For example, a photograph may be used to validate a misleading article, a view supported by Harold Evans (1978, introduction) who states that ‘the camera cannot lie; but it can be an accessory to untruth.’

 Taking Evan’s view into consideration, Figure 1 confirms the presence of the ballot boxes, so it makes the associated text believable. If Figure 1 had not been included, then it might not have been so convincing. In addition to this, both Figure 1 and Figure 4 are examples of when the photographer loses control of his or her work. Once it is uploaded to the World Wide Web, the digital photograph is susceptible to being used in contexts which the photographer did not intend.

Despite the immense amount of images that exist on the Internet, a particular image is able to be retrieved using its metadata, such as keyword searches which relate to its content. Rubinstein and Sluis (2013, p.30) explain this by stating that ‘the image is everywhere all at once, accessible from any point in the network.’ Digital images can be tagged, and exist alongside content, which can be hyperlinked. This ‘folksonomy’ (Rubinstein and Sluis, 2013) promotes a longevity of the networked image, enabling it to maintain a presence on social networking platforms. Therefore, there is a possibility that an image could be assigned to limitless discourses (Sassoon, 2010). This ‘meta-image’ is a map of squares, each of which can be altered and direct the image to other places (Ritchin, 2009). Subsequently, it is difficult to determine the reliability of an image  when  its  origin  is  blurred  by  a  ‘data  shadow’.  The  image  is  uttered  through  the network, like Chinese whispers can become manipulated and altered from the original message. Bull (2010, p.46) develops this view by claiming that ‘what a photograph means does not derive entirely from its content.’

If we assume that the meanings of photographs are never permanently fixed (Bull, 2010), then it would be difficult to determine whether an image is believable. Rather than focusing on whether the networked image itself should be believed, Robins (1995, p.48) suggests that we should consider how it is being used by saying that ‘images are significant in terms of what we do with them and how they carry meanings for us. This would suggest that, when determining the truth of the networked image, it should be based on whether it is intentionally being used to deceive the reader. Therefore, Figure 1 would be dishonest, whereas Figure 4 could be considered to be an acceptable use of the image.


Photographers try to take advantage of the transient nature of the network image. For example,  an  image  of  a  rally  in  Pensacola (Figure 5),  Florida,  was  shared  on  Twitter  by  Dave  Weigel (Kasprak, 2017). He used it to suggest that there had been a low turn-out for the event, which included a speech from Donald Trump.

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However, a photograph of an arena full of spectators, from another person attending the event, disproved this (Figure 6).

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Figure 5 had been taken before the rally had started, when people were still taking their seats. There is nothing dishonest about the image itself, other than when it was published and the text that accompanied it. Barthes (1977) refers to this as ‘relay’, whereby both the text and image work together to convey a specific message. Sontag (1979, p.5) was aware of how photographs could be misused in this way, by warning that ‘photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.’

The words that the photographer tweets with the image invalidate it, making it untruthful. This is a view shared by Bull (2010, p.41) who states that ‘while the photograph’s view does not change and the moment in the photograph does not move, the meanings of a photograph can change and move around it.’

The photo depicted reality, it was the surrounding text that manipulated the truth. At least Weigel admitted his error in a later tweet (Figure 7).

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This presents an interesting development within the network, whereby the photographer is able to have a dialogue with the viewer about the photograph. Ritchin (2009) refers to the cubist nature of photojournalism, whereby contradictory ‘double images’ demonstrate that reality has no single truth. Participants in the network can look through other images of the same event. Together, those images can either confirm or disprove images taken in the same context.

Panzer (2006) considers amateur photographs to be more convincing. However, ‘more convincing’ does not mean ‘more truthful’. The citizen photojournalist might be able to provide an un-staged image, however they might still be guilty of manipulating the subject and message as a result of their own intentions. Furthermore, due to the lack of hierarchical importance in the network, viewers are not guided by the traditional constructs of the press. This means that they are able to view whatever they like, whenever they want (Ritchin, 2013). Therefore, images and their stories need to be compelling if they are to grab the attention of web users.

Images taken by members of the public appear to be familiar, because they are often taken from a similar perspective. Subsequently, this contributes to its authenticity (Price and Wells, 2015). Also, when images from citizen photojournalists are used in the media, it acknowledges that there are multiple points of view (Kember, 2015).

Photographs contain partial truths and should be interpreted accordingly, because we live in a ‘tangled web of fictions’ (Fontcuberta, 2014). The non-linear architecture of content on the World Wide Web is causing us to lose all sense of what is real and what is not. ‘Fake news’ has become part of everyday life and seen as an inconvenience at most. On social networks, we are able to manipulate our own truths by only selecting particular types of image to appear on our timelines. This presents an idealized narrative of our lives, which can be viewed by our online ‘friends’. In many ways, this is no different to how generations of photograph albums document the highlights of family life. The main difference between the printed and the digital is how they are distributed across the owner’s social networks, whether its passing around the family album, at home with relatives, or uploading tagged images to shared online spaces.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the touch screens of our hand-held digital devices mimic the physicality of ‘holding’ an analogue photograph. Furthermore, photographic manipulation existed long before the Internet, and there have always been doubts about the authenticity of photographs.  The  digital  photograph  can  be  linked,  transmitted,  recontextualised,  and fabricated. Even without post-photographic intervention, the message of every image is dependent on the intention of the photographer. However, it would be unfair to accuse the photographer of dishonesty once an image is released into the network, since they are unable to control how it is used. The networked image remains ‘unfixed’ and ‘undecidable’. Its algorithmic nature means that it cannot be thought of as being indexical. However, without supporting text, the meaning of the networked image can still be misleading, and it can also be used to deceive the reader. Therefore, it is every network user’s responsibility to question the source and motive of what they see and read. Whether an image is believed, will depend on the integrity of the communicator. Images are posted online as an index of our own digital presence, rather than any claim of authenticity. Therefore, it is a case of whether the network itself, rather than the image, can be believed.

Despite the technological shift from analogue to digital, the computationalist nature of the unfixed, digital image represents a truer version of photography, which relates back to when artists used the projections from a camera obscura to replicate images. As we head towards an era of ultra, high-definition, together with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, the viewer risks being immersed further into the network image. Will this hyper-realism influence our perceptions of truth in the network?

References

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Image / Music / Text London: Fontana, pp. 32 - 51

Berry, D. M. (2011) The philosophy of software: Code and mediation in the digital age. Cited in: Lister, M. (ed.) The photographic image in digital culture (2nd ed.)

Batchen, G. (199ti) “Phantasm: Digital Imaging and the Death of Photography,” Aperture 136 (1994): 48

 Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with desire: The conception of photography. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 Bazin, A. (1980) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image.’ Cited in Bull, S. (2010)

Photography. London: Routledge, p.17

 Baudrillard, J. (1984) ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ in Brian Wallis (ed.) Art after modernism: rethinking representation Boston, MA: David R Godine, pp. 252-281

 Becker, K. (2003) Photojournalism and the tabloid press. In: Wells, (ed) The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Oxon: Routledge

Evans, H. (1978) Pictures on a Page. Photojournalism, Graphics and Picture Editing, Heinemann: London

Fontcuberta, J. (2014) Pandora’s camera: Photogr@phy after photography. London: MACK Gunning, T. (2004) ‘What’s the Point in an Index? or, Faking Photographs in Digital Aesthetics

NORDICOM Review 5 (1/2): 39-49

Hayes, B. (2008) ‘Computational Photography’, American Scientist, 2 (96), 94-99. Kember, S. (2003) The shadow of the object. In: Wells, L. (ed.) The photography reader.

Oxon: Routledge

Kittler, F. A. (2010) Optical media: Berlin Lectures 1999, Trans. A. Enns. Cambridge: Polity.

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media Boston, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Manovich, L. (2003) The Paradoxes of Photography in Wells, L. (ed.) The Photography reader

London: Routledge, pp. 240 - 249

Panzer, M. (2006) ‘Introduction’ to things as they are: Photojournalism in context since 1955. Cited in: Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Oxon: Routledge

Price, D. and Wells, L. (2015) Thinking about photography: Debates historically and now. In Wells, Liz (ed.) Photography: A critical introduction. Oxon: Routledge

Ritchin, F. (2009) AEer photography. London: Norton & Company

Ritchin, F. (2013) Bending the frame: photojournalism, documentary, and the ciBzen. London: Aperture

Robins, K. (1995) ‘Will image move us still?’ In Lister, M. (ed) The photographic image in digital culture (1st ed) London: Routledge, pp.29-50

Røssaak, E. (2011) ‘Algorithmic culture: beyond the photo/film-divide.’ In: E. Røssaak (ed.) Between stillness and motion: film, photography, algorithms, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Rubinstein, D. and Sluis, K. (2013) The digital image in photographic culture: Algorithmic photography and the crisis of representation In: Lister, M. (ed.) The photographic image in digital culture (2nd ed.) pp22-40

Sassoon, J. (2010) ‘Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction.’ Cited in: Bull, S. Photography London: Routledge pp 26-28

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin

 

Electronic sources on the Internet

Biller, D. (2017) Brazil police just found a $16 Million cash stash [Online] bloomberg.com Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-05/brazil-police-make- largest-ever-bust-of-lost-treasure-trove [Accessed 14 April 2018]

Collins English Dictionary (n.d.) [Online] Available from: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/fake-news [Accessed 14 April 2018]

Google Reverse Image Search for Figure 1. [Online] Available from: https://bit.ly/2EKY3jx [Accessed 14 April 2018]

Google Reverse Image Search for Figure 4. [Online] Available from: https://bit.ly/2GYTt79 [Accessed 14 April 2018]

Kasprak, A. (2017) ‘RaEergate’ Explained: Was Trump’s Pensacola Rally ‘Packed to the RaEers?’ [Online] snopes.com Available from: h:ps://www.snopes.com/news/2017/12/09/ was-trumps-pensacola-rally-packed-rafters/ {Accessed 14 April 2018]

Warren, D. (2015) Ballot boxes being delivered to Sheldon Community Centre [Online Image] Available from: h:p://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-ballot-boxes-being-delivered-to- sheldon-heath-community-centre-ready-82404979.html [Accessed 14 April 2018]

Zimbabwe Today (2017) Zimbabwe crisis: Reality check debunks false rumours and fake photos [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-42016464 [Accessed 14 April 2018]

 

 

Bibliography

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Oxon: Routledge

Fontcuberta, J. (2014) Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy after Photography. London: MACK Lister, M. (ed.) (2013) The photographic image in digital culture. London: Routledge Ritchin, F. (2009) After photography. London: Norton & Company

Ritchin, F. (2013) Bending the frame: photojournalism, documentary, and the citizen. London: Aperture

Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin

Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The photography reader Oxon: Routledge

Wells, L. (ed.) (2015) Photography: A critical introduction. 5th ed. Oxon: Routledge