Pictorial Practices in a "Cam Era"

Studying non-professional camera use
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1746

By Asko Tapani Lehmuskallio
July 2012
Tampere University Press
ISBN: 9789514488467
362 pages
$99.50 Paper original

Cameras are used in situations of many sorts: during childbirth, at confirmations and other rites of passage, when one is dancing at a nightclub, in attendance at kindergarten, on travels to distant places, or in living out sexual relations. For many people, taking pictures is an essential part of experiencing everyday life, yet, at the same time, some pictures taken and distributed to, for example, photo-sharing Web sites become sources of conflict, and removal requests. From any given picture, whether of people or buildings, often it is not possible to say by mainly looking at the pictorial content whether it might become problematic.

In contrast to the cameras of the past, the camera devices used today are ever more connected to digital information and communication technologies during pictures’ capture, storage, sharing, and display. Laptop webcams, mobile camera-phones, and digital point-and-shoot cameras provide salient examples of digitally networked cameras. Pictures taken with these devices can be shared, shown, and archived with the aid of a vast array of interoperable software applications.

The increasing use of pictures in general, and camera pictures in particular, has raised concern both in academic discussions and in public debate in mass media. Whereas some fear that “the visual” will overcome the posited analytical clarity of writing and speech, others embrace an “era of images” as a time of new possibilities in which all can participate symmetrically in a given representational sphere. Whatever the evaluative statement, it is widely believed that, because of digitization, photo use has fundamentally changed. Although such positions are not new, there was not so long ago little empirical research into how people actually use digitally networked cameras.

With these developments in mind, this research focuses on two main research questions:

1) how do we use cameras at a time in which they are ever more available, and

2) how do these cameras mediate our actions?

The questions are answered within a framework emphasizing pictorial practices and qualitative empirical case studies of actual uses. In terms of theoretical underpinnings, the research draws on the work done by Hans Belting in his anthropology of images, as well as from work published by scholars on practices that focus explicitly on material mediations. The research underlines techniques of the body as the first site of any technology and, accordingly, the importance of embodied techniques in studies of camera use. From this perspective, looking and being looked at is of special interest for understanding camera use, as is the question of how networked cameras play their part in these relations.

Because of the sheer quantity of data available, a heuristic approach is applied for coming to terms with non-professional uses of camera pictures at a time when cameras mediate ever more social interaction. The empirical case studies have been conducted in southern Finland and around Berlin, Germany, among mainly middle-class camera-users. The case studies focus on the role of digital cameras and photo services in the use practices of snapshot photographers, on the boundary regulation strategies applied in decisions on what kinds of pictures to share on a photo-sharing site privately or publicly, on the use of mobile camera-phones and an accompanying photo site in a kindergarten, and on image strategies of political activists who try to draw public mass-media attention to their issues of concern.

The empirical case studies show that non-professional camera use is organized into meaningful pictorial practices, which, in turn, are influenced by both social conventions and material mediations. Knowing when to take a picture, whom to depict, and what is to be done with the pictures is learned in face-to-face interaction; by looking at the pictures taken; and through the aid of manuals, advertisements, Web content, and mediated information of other types. With the help of digitization, knowledge of how to create novel pictorial practices can be transmitted rapidly over vast distances and, therefore, is not bound to one specific locale.

Thus non-professional camera use, embedded in translocal pictorial practices, supports life in surmodernity (a concept of Augé), which presents itself in an abundance of events, an abundance of space, an individualization of references, and mediation of everyday communication. For example, parents, in having to fill several roles in society, attempt to be “good” workers, “good” friends, and “good” parents, and they do so increasingly by using information and communication technologies. Unable to be everywhere at once, they find that the mediations used assist them in contracting spatial distance so that the parents can be present in all of these spheres, even if at a distance. The cameras used from afar, as is shown in the exemplary kindergarten case study, assist parents in juggling these various roles.

The research posits that cameras mediate our actions through relational affordances that have to be activated as part of meaningful practices. We have learned to relate to specific ways of taking pictures and to being depicted. Digitization confounds these ways, and interaction learned in offline settings does not translate effortlessly into novel interaction environments. Through digital networking, pictures taken with cameras can be transmitted automatically to a wide variety of recipients, searched with the aid of algorithms, and archived in various forms. Individual pictures quickly become part of global news or are removed from their original context and used in new communication acts. Digitally networked cameras influence this in ways that call attention to the mediation that these cameras provide for, especially since cameras are used for ever more purposes in ever more situations. New questions become important, such as “What kind of information is collected in networked camera use?” and “What kinds of action do they stimulate or encourage?”

At their best, digitally networked cameras enhance our embodied capabilities, extend our motor and sensory organs, and direct useful sensory information into the body, thus becoming momentarily part of us. The benefits of seeing and interacting with others with the aid of cameras should outweigh the disadvantages if we are to live in a digitally networked “cam era.”

Return to Coronet Books main page