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 all need to be meticulously documented
and catalogued so that these photographs could be shared with the donor of the
present. Even though I find that to photograph is almost a reflex action to me,
and the ease and enjoyment with which I photograph even the most banal of
subjects, I started to consider the value of these images and what happens to
this value once it has been received.
The photograph can be considered a form of currency – a term that could
be used to describe how images are used in the modern age and how they
inappropriately propose evidence and provide what Roland Barthes termed a
certification of presence (Barthes, 1993, p. 87). 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
a punctive moment, one way or the other (Barthes, 1993, p. 27) resonating lingering
On the internet, the inherent value of photographic images is becoming
more and more quantified 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. This is a more easily 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 of space online world.
This 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 image transaction,
over the internet in the thank you scenario, the photograph appeases and
validates the donor, and maintains the balance within the family unit. 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).
After the transaction has happened, the image becomes 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, it is redundant and the
thing that we photograph has been appropriated (Sontag, 1979, p. 4), in the sense that
they start to fulfil us, and add value to our lives through the image itself.
In this way the donor is now fulfilled in a way that may not happen through the
simple thanks of a text message, or letter, or simple email. They are visually
stimulated in the knowing that the received gift has been put to good use forms
the tangible link, the emotional connection to object, person and place.
However, these images may regain some of their value over time, re-appropriated
by nostalgia and in the context of historical intrigue. 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).
The present image, the image captured in the moment, this image that has
been used as thanks is a perfunctory exchange. There are many images that I
would go on to record of our daughter that many other families also take. These
are shared online in an album that we created in the cloud where personal
poignancy, and other more candid moments blend together with the thankyou
transaction and become 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 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. Consuming images as we do, it is easy to skip over their value 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 and will continue its proliferation.
Barthes, R., 1977.
Image, Music, Text. Translation edition ed. London: Fontana.
Barthes, R., 1993. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.
Barthes, R., 1993. Mythologies. 1st Vintage Edition
ed. London: Vintage.
Borreli, L., 2016. Sports Fan Science: How Watching
Sports Games Affects The Mind And Body. [Online] Available at: https://www.medicaldaily.com/mind-and-body-sports-fan-sports-games-388444
[Accessed 12 January 2019].
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.
Prix Pictet, 2019. A Lens on Sustainability: Consumption.
Paris: Prix Pictet.
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.
Winerman, L., 2005. The Mind’s Mirror. American
Psychological Association , 36(9), p. 48.