What started as an image taken to say thank you became a question about the continuing proliferation of images. Sharing images online transforms the image into a type of currency that seeks to provide validation for both authors and readers, this perpetuates the visual language of established societal norms through placation, morals and covert colonisation as a subtle blackmail. This is a subtle ebb which we are all complicit and must intentionally reconsider and reengage with the way we use images. Where futurity is concerned, it should begin in the unlearning and relearning of visual culture.
The Online Image as Currency
My 2-year-old daughter would receive many gifts over the festive period from my wife’s extended family as we made our annual pilgrimage to visit. “Make sure you take a picture of her wearing it and send it to your aunt.” In fact, all of the gifts that we received would need to be meticulously documented and cataloged so that these photographs could be shared with the donor of the present. Even though, as a photographer myself, I find that to photograph is almost a reflex action, and the ease and enjoyment with which I photograph even the most banal of subjects is a constant draw, I started to consider the value of these images we were being asked to record and what happens to this value once it has been received, once they are within the realm of the pervasiveness and democratization of photography.
The photograph can be thought of as a form of currency – a term that could be used to describe how images are used, and ultimately appropriated and how they inappropriately propose evidence and provide what Roland Barthes termed a certification of presence (Barthes, 1993, p. 87) in that we must provide others with an ongoing, online record of achievement, no matter how menial that might be This is the new accepted normal acknowledging the representative futurity of our present age. Currency as an acceptance of the ubiquity of images and need to show oneself to others. In this description of the image, photography becomes a form of transaction, promising to pay the bearer on demand, though not to be confused with the commercial sense of the term (photographic skills are of course exchanged for their monetary worth). The value I refer to is the emotional and moral exchange that also takes place through the prolific sharing of images. Images that are designed to reduce your own value, images that are designed to reduce the value of others through the intersection of gaze and the intersectionality this creates (Lutz & Collins, 1991, p. 135); Images that provide an emotive moment, one way or the other (Barthes, 1993, p. 27) resonating and lingering with us.
In the digital sphere, the inherent value of photographic images is becoming more and more quantified, albeit in a dilution of quality and recognized through the unattainable view of perfection that exists; the idealistic and fundamentally edited world of our lives, nothing more than a greatest hits compilation, which is part of the performative power of photography and one that is continuing the illusion and the pretence that extends all the way to a covert colonisation of these accepted norms by driving a homogenised globalized commodity sold as the ideal ‘Caucasian beauty’ which was documented by photographer Zed Nelson in his project ‘Love Me’ and published in 2009 (Nelson, 2009). This has been a growing digital entity as newer generations of technology savvy users enter into their online only worlds, but also an ever existing modus operandi unchallenged by the economics that drive and have driven it.
The recipient of the image who views, is the most important when an image is used as currency, as a transaction. Our lives online are drawn from a tight editing process to seek visual gratification for something that may not even exist, yet we share them and expect acknowledgement for this idealistic life. This is a more readily understandable transaction occurring between the author and the reader of the image (Barthes, 1977, pp. 142-149). This author seeks validation that one has lived; the reader will provide that validation and appropriate the image to suit their own gratification. This is an emotional attribution to the image, one that forms a kind of tangible link to a virtual and devoid online world.
This virtual tangibility can be compared to sporting events – when we root for our team to win, we react in what is known as the ‘spectating brain,’ where we can put ourselves into the role of the athlete on the field and get a real sense of feeling, connection to the sport, and community spirit, without any verbal communication or actual and literal physical link to the act of taking part in the activity (Borreli, 2016). It is something that can be palpably felt through a TV screen, or through the plethora of mobile devices that we interact with daily. This neurological impact has also been attributed to a number of actions wherever emotion is also attached, we start to mirror those feelings after witnessing others perform, which then creates links and other implications in the way we read each other’s emotions and also how we empathize with them (Winerman, 2005, p. 48).
Through the prolific sharing of images that takes place every single second, we aim to generate a validation and empathy from others. However, it could also be a ‘status quo’ that might need to be maintained through these visual transactions. If an emotional resonance is created from the image, then potentially it can be used as a method of placating others. A subtle politics is at play when used as a method of thanks, a kind of irrational behaviour for sending this kind of image, especially if the gift was not gratefully received, as was the case for items we received for our daughter. Not to be viewed as being ungrateful however, some of the items were not the most appropriate, in terms of the size of clothing or the age range of the toy given. In a reverse of the function of the initial image transaction that I discussed related to the internet, in the thank you scenario, the photograph appeases and validates the donor, and maintains the balance within the family unit. Although in most cases this is far from tenuous, it is a form of obscure blackmail, transmitting deeply held moral values and motives: the photograph becomes both a product and bait (Barthes, 1993, p. 92). The currency of the image is within the context and the a thank you is a punctuation that notes the end of the exchange.
After the transaction has happened, the image becomes essentially meaningless and removed from its intended use: its context now has been completed. The context falls away, however the image does not assume new meaning other than its denoted content, it is redundant and the thing that we photograph has been appropriated (Sontag, 1979, p. 4), in the sense that the image starts to fulfil us, and add value to our lives through the attribution of emotion. In this way the donor is now fulfilled in a way that may not happen through the simple thanks of a text message, letter, or simple email. They are visually stimulated in the knowing that the received gift has been put to good use, they can see this irrefutable ‘evidence’ that forms the tangible link, the emotional connection to object, person and place. These images may regain some of their value over time, re-appropriated by nostalgia and in the context of historical intrigue, however this is of course may only be if these images survive the digital process of capture and storage. Printed images have the power to be cherished in a way that digital images will not, or instead they become the property of data harvesting juggernauts and disappear into the cloud (Prix Pictet, 2019) only to be referenced and used to fine tune algorithms and serve you unattainable perfection once again.
The present image, the image captured in the moment, this image that has been used as thanks, is a perfunctory exchange but there are many images however, that are used to capture and create an intimate family record. These are shared online via ‘big tech’ of course, in an album that we created in the cloud where personal poignancy, and other more candid moments blend together with the thank you transaction becoming part of the nostalgia and ongoing narrative following the beautiful development of our child, familiar to many.
In essence, the thank you image transaction is part of the wider discussion on the complacent proliferation of images. If we view photography as a type of currency, it would be in the form of a traded commodity exchanged for emotional validation, whether positive, or more often than not, a negative one. It is a quiet rage that is provided in the exchange of images for validation, consuming images as we do; it is easy to skip over their value due to the deluge and instant replacement of them, and in the quest for even more images. Our culture encourages it, and capitalism demands it, defining our very freedom on the ability to continue consuming (Sontag, 1979, p. 178). The thank you image is just another part of this plurality that exists in photography. We placate, take more, and validate more, yet the need for more images continues. Perhaps the true resolution of validation comes from not photographing at all, or it is that the value lies within the exchange and the validation and not the image itself which is the medium and not the message (McLuhan, 1967).
Online Image currency is a paradigm of our digital cultural exchanges, which we are currently and knowingly passive. It may be important to unlearn in order to relearn this visual culture and gain true visual literacy, here is where the real validation should sit.
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translation edition ed. London: Fontana.
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Lutz, C. & Collins, J., 1991. The Photograph as an intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. Visual Anthropology Review, 7(1), pp. 134-148.
McLuhan, M., 1967. The Medium is the Massage. Paperback ed. London: Penguin.
Nelson, Z., 2009. Love Me: Introduction. [Online] Available at: https://www.zednelson.com/?LoveMe:text [Accessed 27 January 2020].
Prix Pictet, 2019. A Lens on Sustainability: Consumption. Paris: Prix Pictet.
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Winerman, L., 2005. The Mind’s Mirror. American Psychological Association , 36(9), p. 48.