[See Dr. Edgar Gomez Cruz’s album]
Enclosed you will find the prologue of the new book: “From Kodak Culture to networked image. An ethnography of digital photography” (original title in Spanish: “De la Cultura Kodak a la imagen en red”), writen by Edgar Gomez Cruz. This prologue was prepared by Sarah Pink from Loughborough University.
Edgar Gomez Cruz’s work responds and contributes to an emergent strand in scholarship around Communications and Media characterised by theoretical and practical turns away from the semiotic and towards the ethnographic, experiential, habitual and non-representational. In doing so it participates in the process of re-defining this field of scholarship in relation to a series of key theoretical and methodological moves that cross social sciences and humanities literatures and invite new interdisciplinary understandings of digital media. The geographer Nigel Thrift’s formulation of non-representational theory, he writes, ‘takes the leitmotif of movement and works with it as a way of going beyond constructivism’ (2008: 5). Such approaches, like that of the anthropologist Tim Ingold, have key critical implications for visual culture studies (see Ingold 2011: 316). They enable us to understand how the relevance of photography in the world goes beyond the visual content of images themselves and is bound up with their relationship with the multiple other things that are on-going in the worlds that they are part of. In this context alternative theoretical approaches have opened up new avenues through which we might comprehend digital photography. Indeed Ingold provocatively poses the question: ‘Should the drawing or painting be understood as a final image to be inspected and interpreted, as is conventional in studies of visual culture, or should we rather think of it as a node in a matrix of trails to be followed by observant eyes? Are drawings or paintings of things in the world, or are they like things in the world, in the sense that we have to find our ways through and among them, inhabiting them as we do the world itself?’ (2010: 16). The same of course should be asked of the digital photograph. Likewise conventional approaches to the study of digital photography through visual content are revised through the turn to practice theory, which has become an influential paradigm in sociology. Practice theory offers an analytical lens that turns away from the focus on culture. Instead as Andreas Reckwitz puts it: Practice theory ‘decentres’ mind, texts and conversation. Simultaneously, it shifts bodily movements, things, practical knowledge and routine to the centre of its vocabulary’ (2002: 259). These theoretical moves thus create a context where we have new and inspiring tools and frames through which to think about digital photography and the persons and things with which it is co-implicated in the world. Indeed to develop a contemporary study of digital photography involves departing from conventional analytical techniques in the study of the image. In doing so it moreover calls on scholars to follow the increasing urge towards working across and beyond the confines of traditional academic disciplines.
In this contemporary context a series of key research questions emerge relating to how we might understand how photographic images are produced and consumed as we move through and make the on-line/off-line environments of which we are part. It urges us to ask what, moreover are the implications of this for the roles and potentialities that photography and photographs have in our lives. To understand photography in this way then requires the study not of the image itself but of how these stories, experiences and trajectories emerge. It also requires us to ask how these narratives are interwoven with histories of technologies and the industries associated with them.
“De la Cultura Kodak a la imagen en red” is perfectly positioned to take on this challenge. Edgar Gomez Cruz’s is a project that has precisely brought together both the nature of the online/offline world – what he calls ‘onlife’ – and new approaches to understanding the image, media and the ways we engage with these. This book is on the one hand about a world where people go on excursions with their cameras, in different weather conditions and localities, where they eat together, laugh together and photograph together. Their experiences of the world are framed through these embodied experiences of the environment, of socialities and of things and it is from these experiences that their photography emerges. Yet in this off-line world the web is never far from our realities or, in the case of the photographers with whom Gomez Cruz worked never far either from their intentions. The meanings of photographs, we learn, from his meticulous and in-depth ethnographic study, are not to be found in any semiotic analysis of their content. But rather, in the stories of how, why and where they were taken, their trajectories as they were uploaded to flickr, and in the affective relationships and conceptualisations of both self and the world that emerge with and/or in relation to them. Yet as we are also made aware, these contemporary photographic worlds have grown through time through a historical form of relationality with an analogue world. Indeed to understand the nature of contemporary digital photography is also to ask questions about digital media and socio-technological change. To achieve this Gomez Cruz works at the intersection between media studies, anthropology, sociology and science and technology studies.
From anthropology Gomez Cruz takes an ethnographic approach that involves long term and everyday engagements with people as they interweave the practice of digital photography with other elements of their lives. He participated in the world and lives of the people he wished to learn about in a way that is more akin to the doing of anthropological ethnography than to its simple borrowing for an interdisciplinary exercise. The depth, consideration and reflexivity of the relationships he describes – and he has been known to say that he considers the participants to be co-authors of his work – is at the core of the types of understandings he is able to bring to his analysis. There is nothing superficial about this work. It is a ‘felt’ ethnography –in both the affective and physical sense of participation.
This means that when Gomez Cruz writes of the shift to Flickr culture, we can gain a strong sense of this not as a culture to be studied as if it were text, or to be analyzed semiotically. Instead, Gomez Cruz’s study shows how culture, from this perspective is emergent, and produced through the very everyday photographic practices that he participated in and studied. Flickr culture, in my understanding, is presented to us as something that is made. The ethnographic approach is a route to showing us how that socio-technical process happens through the intricacies of social relationships, how it becomes part of life through its embeddedness in routine and habitual practices, and its interwoveness with other domains of everyday life and special occasions.
This book then, stands as an example of how we might go about researching and understanding the new digital and web technologies that form part of the everyday worlds we live in. It calls on us to look beyond the confines of our disciplines, to innovate with new methods and approaches and to attend to the detail of ethnography. To communication and media scholars it issues a call to comprehend digital media content as more than text to be read. Rather in this context a visual image is an outcome of the interweaving of social and technological processes and practices. As such it reminds us that in everyday life the moments when photographic meanings become powerful might be those that are contingent on these trajectories, rather than produced independently from them. To anthropologists it offers a reminder that the everyday worlds that we research are increasingly places where the online and offline are also interwoven, and that indeed they might be neither experientially separate nor analytically separable.
[this is a cross-post]
Thrift, N. (2008) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, London: Routledge.
Ingold, T. (2010). Ways of mind-walking: reading, writing, painting. Visual Studies, 25(1), 15-23.
Ingold, T. (2011) ‘Worlds of sense and sensing the world: a response to Sarah Pink and David Howes’ in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 19(3): 313–317.
Reckwitz, A. (2002) ‘Towards a Theory of Social Practices: A development in
culturalist theorizing’ European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2): 243-63.