SYMYPOSIUM: Jose Van Dijck

Digital Photography: Communication, identity and memory: Jose Van Dijck

This piece opens with a quote I am alreadythinking of using through my presentation, ‘Taking photographs seems no longer primarily an act of memory intended to safeguard a family’s pictorial heritage, but is increasingly becoming a tool for an individuals identity formation and communication. Digital cameras, camera-phones, photoblogs and other multipurpose devices are used to promote the use of images as the preferred idiom.’ (An idiom is a form of expression natural to a person or group)

The aim of this study is to investigate the growing changes in identity formation through photography, as it is becoming an expected normality to be using sites such as facebook, twitter, flickr and many more to be representing the self. The role of photography has changed drastically in recent years with the development of digital photography, something I have touched on in my script already. It is described well through the introduction of this talk, relating to the purpose of personal photography. ‘Photographs usually ended up as keepsakes in someone’s (family) album or shoebox. They were typically regarded to be a person’s most reliable aid for recall an for verifying life ‘as it was’, even if we know that imagination, projection and remembrance are inextricably bound up in the process of remembering (Stuhlmiller). Photography’s functions as a tool for identity formation and as a means for communication were duly acknowledged, but were always rated secondary to it’s prime purpose of memory (Barthes; Sontag).’

This is true, as the readiness of the online world provides a platform for the presentation of photographs for others to see, whereas before the creation of these online communities and the digital camera, photographs were kept in a family album for private viewings, it was not custom for others to see them. This causes a great difference in the purpose of photography, as the platform for presentation is so different. The ability of others to see and ultimately judge your photographs trigger a change in reasoning behind the choices of what to photograph. The introduction of the camera-phone has also meant that most of us will have a camera on our person at all times, whereas before this invention people would not be carrying a camera round every day. This provides a wider opportunity for photographs. I believe that the sheer amount of photographs we take now restricts the personal connection felt with an image. When I was younger I had a few photographs of great importance, because they showed single moments or a group of people that meant something to me. Now however, I do not feel I have such a connection with photographs as I did when I was young. This is because we do not take one photograph, we take ten of the same thing and choose the best; a slight exaggeration but the core concept remains, we take more than one photograph of each moment and choose the best. The digitalization of photographs also means the physical factor is removed unless a choice is made to print them. I personally do this often and have over twenty photo frames in my room, however I know this is a growing problem. What happens if your computer crashes and looses ten years of photographs? I know this is a generalisation, however it is the case for most people I know. My mom, who used to be very involved in her photo albums and has albums for almost every year has not made one for over five years. This is something that upsets her, yet she still does not do it as there is not a strong need to catalogue images anymore as they are catalogued in their little yellow folders on the computer.


‘Younger generations seems to increasingly use digital cameras for ‘live’ communication instead of storing pictures of ‘life’. The change in availability of photography and the ability to upload a photograph in a single second changes the way photography is viewed and the choices and understanding of distribution and judgement. Foremost though, photography both before the digital change and after is still a form of personal representation, however the change in audience (from personal family or self to public) has changed the identity most people will present.

‘As Susan Sontag argued in 1973, the tourists compulsion to take snapshots of foreign places reveals how taking pictures can become paramount to experiencing an event; at the same time, communicating experiences with the help of photographs is an integral part of tourist photography.’ This is a point I am really keen to raise; yet I’m so far unsure of whether or not it belongs in my talk. This is something that drives me crazy. We seem to live in a culture now where it is more important to photograph an event than to actually experience it, something made abundantly clear at concerts; almost half of the crowd watch the show through the back of a camera or a camera phone. People seem uninterested in experiencing an event, and more concerned with letting people know they were there. I feel this does relate to representation as it a comment on the over-representation of our generation (if that makes sense), yet it is still a form of preserving memory. Yet, if this is true then in my mind it seems people are more interested in the attempt to form a memory through a camera than with their own brain, as, lets be honest, who really has the time to watch an entire concert on a shaky video? I feel people overcompensate with photography for memory, as there are hundreds of moments in my life I remember without taking a hundred photographs of the event.

‘Through the taking and organising of pictures, individuals articulate their connections to, and initiation into, clans and groups, emphasizing ritualized moments of aging and of coming of age.’ It is then continued to say that photography ‘structured an individual’s concept of belonging.’ I agree with this, as a child who grows up with happy family portraits around the house will most likely feel more centred in the home. The shift in affordability and availability of photography has shifted the focus; cameras no longer belong to a family unit but to an individual, altering the representation from a family to a single self.

‘Whereas parents and/or children used to sit on the couch together and flip through photo albums, most teenagers consider their pictures to be temporary reminders rather than permanent keepsakes.’

‘Having one’s photograph taken, as Barthes observes, is a closed field of forces where four image-repertoires intersect: ‘the one I think I am (the mental-self image); ‘the one I want others to think I am’ the idealized self-image); ‘the one the photographer thinks I am’ (the photographed self-image); and ‘the one the photographer makes use of when exhibiting his art’ (the public self-image).’ These four images of the self will never match up fully in a photograph. ‘When a picture is taken, we want those photographs to match our idealized self-image – flattering, without pimples, happy, attractive – so we attempt to influence the process by posing, smiling, or giving instructions to the photographer. At a later stage, we can try to encroach on the outcome by selecting, refusing or destroying the actual print.’ The ability to take twenty photographs allows us to delete all that don’t match our preferred-self.

An interesting observation made through this is the use of the small screen on cameras. If a photograph has been taken, this preview provides an opportunity for negotiation between the photographer and the subject in order to alter their pose and expression if the first photograph did not adhere to the social conformation attempted. This differs greatly from the analogue days, as though we may have posed and constructed a photograph, it was unknown until the moment had passed whether it was successful or not, eliminating the opportunity to alter the original formation and photograph the scene again.


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