Category Archives: Part 4

Page 98: Ex. 4.4: the selfie phenomenon.

Brief: Write a short post (around 500 words) in your learning log in response to the question: what does the phenomenon of the selfie tell us about how photography is popularly used nowadays?  Illustrate your post with recent examples from the internet.


I recently wrote a critical essay on this subject for my Assignment 3  so I shall build on that with material I could not include on that occasion rather than reiterate the points made there.

How is photography popularly used nowadays?  

We can start with the theory that everyone who has a smartphone or camera is a photographer these days and so the field is  vast and far too open for any short essay like this one to deal with effectively.  The parameters have to be set before any such analysis can be carried out.

The parameters I shall set here deal with the political ‘photo as trophy’ idea, and the vacuous ‘to live is to be photographed’ tenet of Susan Sontag.

The photo as trophy for me is exemplified by the image designed by Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps’ photomontage Photo Op (2005) featuring a grinning Tony Blair infront of an oil field on fire.  This satirical take on the Iraq war is a ‘selfie’ constructed by a third party reflecting narcissistic tendencies of a particular politician.  The selfie making pastime concerning politicians reached new limits in December 2013 when Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt (daughter-in-law of Niel Kinnock and Danish Premier) were photographed taking selfies at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela, and reported in a Guardian article here:

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The article takes on a feminist hue when it reports that Danish politicians  used this slur to suggest: “She’s been criticised because she looks career-oriented and as if she’s having too good a time. And the selfie continues that narrative. But her real problem is that there is no clear view of what she wants politically.” (1)   The Danish Prime Minister, elected in 2011, has also been given “the media nickname of “Gucci Helle”, so called because of her fondness for designer clothes. As she phrased it, when asked by a party member how she expected to connect to the people in her expensive outfits: “We can’t all look like shit!”  Of course, had she made a habit of turning up for parliament dressed in the sweater sported by Sara Lund in The Killing, even the most egalitarian Dane would have struggled to forgive her. The double standard is the standard one: few men are judged by their appearance; few women are not.” (1)  So although the three are all leaders of their respective countries engaged in the narcissistic practice of taking selfies to send back home to their mates, one, the woman, comes in for sustained criticism in both Britain and Denmark.

The ‘selfie as trophy’  is  covered admirably by Susan Sontag in her essay ‘Regarding the torture of others.’ (2004) (2) in which she details the political arguments which developed after the ‘leaked’ images (how can you talk of leaked images anymore when there are no limits on how images are disseminated?) of the torture practices in Abu Ghraib and the subsequent stress on the semantics of refusing to use various words, one of which was the word ‘torture’ when talking about the images but focusing on the word ‘abuse’.  She looks at the image of soldier Lynne England posing in front of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  Again, I suspect that the fact that she is a woman (in the military) makes readers perceive her ‘crime’ so much worse than if she had been a male.  “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken – with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.” (2) Trophy photographs are taken, like the lynching  images taken in the 1890 – 1930’s in the USA, in order ‘to be collected and stored in albums, displayed’.  The Abu Ghraib pictures were less to be saved but more to be disseminated.  the soldiers themselves are all photographers now ‘recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities – and swapping images among themselves … around the globe.’ (2)

The only way people, whether in the military or not can inflict pain willingly and photograph the process is to objectify ( a terrorist; the enemy) those they are humiliating which also resonates well with feminist arguments about objectifying women.  If they were to imagine that the victims were mothers, fathers, siblings to someone, would they still humiliate and record that humiliation they were inflicting on them?


‘To live is to be photographed’: the ubiquitous mobiles stress that we are never far from a photo irrespective  of time, place or context.   Can we ever maintain that we are not complicit in plastering our vision with ourselves, not to ‘share in the community of actions recorded as images’?    The grin is a grin for the camera’ (2)  How much of this is due to our addiction to aesthetic consumerism and how much is a result of our exposure to incessant consumerism?  We have become our own brands in our constant need to circulate our likenesses to world wide audiences.  Guy Debord’s 1967 theory of society as spectacle was referencing our idea of valuing the reproduction of a work of art rather than the original – how far along that road have we gone when what we want people to value of us is a flat, 2D subjective likeness rather than the ever-changing ‘original’?

Perhaps ‘to die is to be photographed’ would be a better subheading for this image:

The ‘Hijack Selfie’: ‘The grin is a grin for the camera’ (Sontag)

“2016’s most iconic selfie is also perhaps the most unexpected selfie of all time. When Seif Eldin Mustafa hijacked an EgyptAir flight in March in an attempt to reach his ex-wife in Cyprus, one passenger seized the opportunity for a legendary photo. 26-year old Ben Innes snapped a picture of himself beside the hijacker, who claimed to be wearing a suicide vest. After the frightening situation was resolved peacefully, Innes’ photo became the subject of controversy as many criticized the move as irresponsible and reckless. While Innes’ photo is not technically a selfie — a flight attendant took the photo — the picture became widely known as the “Hijack Selfie.””(3)

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P. 95: Ex. 4.3 My meme.

Take inspiration from an idea you’ve researched, create your own photographic response to an internet meme.  This may be something original, or your own interpretation of an existing meme.  It might be funny or profound, but it should make people want to look at it and share it.

“I have recently suggested defining an internet meme as a group of digital items that: (a) share common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) are created with awareness of each other; and (c) are circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users (Shifman, 2013b)”(1)

This is my example of vernacular creativity in the form of stock character macros and reaction photoshop with superimposed text  which is a memetic photo of Donald Trump superimposed on The Scream whose original German title is Der Schrei der Natur (The scream of nature) with Hilary Clinton gaining on him with a dark presence behind her.

In a society characterised by self interest … The USA presidential contest:




Definitions in 1. below.


Reaction Photoshops are collections of edited images created in response to a small set of prominent photographs, which may be labeled memetic photos (Shifman, 2013b). Such photos feature politicians


Stock character macros are image macros (images superimposed with text) that refer to a set of stock characters representing stereotypical behaviors (Knuttila, 2012; Milner, 2013). For example, ‘Sheltering Suburban Mom’ is a conservative hypocrite who preaches one thing and practices another, and ‘High Expectations Asian Father’ over-pushes his children to succeed academically (see Figure 3)


Photo fads are staged photos of people who imitate specific positions in various settings. For instance, ‘Planking’ involves lying face down with one’s arms by one’s side in unusual settings, and ‘Heads in Freezers’ involves sticking one’s head in a freezer, alongside the tag 241543903, which enables search optimization



P. 92: Panopticism: Ex. 4.2

Write a short summary of Foucault’s arguments and comment on the relevance of his theory to digital culture.


1.   End of 17th C. steps to be taken in the event of a plague striking a town: Order is to be paramount: omnipresent & omniscient power is subdivided into roles of people in authority; the individual’s every personal detail were to be made known.

2.  Politically:  Discipline was strong & to be enforced: death penalties for the slightest infringement of the ordered measures taken in the event of a plague. Political power had ramifications into every minute aspect of everyday life: pure community & disciplined life.

3.  Utopia of a perfectly governed city: hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing, disciplinary  power controls the town.  The leper, the damaged individual, is excluded.  The image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder.

4.  Double mode of authority: brand & remould.

5.  Jeremy Bentham’s (1748 – 1832) unrealised Panopticon has a central tower in which are walls and rooms which cannot be seen from the outer surrounding walls housing the inmates.  The front and back walls of this surrounding structure are built to let light in so that, regardless of where the prisoner is, s/he is always illuminated whereas the observer /guard is not.  Key concept: he is seen but he does not see: visibility is a trap.  The invisibility of the guard (authority) guarantees order.  This is the opposite of the dungeon where the prisoner is deprived of light, in an enclosed space and never seen.   the permanent visibility of the inmate assures the automatic functioning of power.(Gk Panoptes = a giant with 100 eyes).

6.  The inmates must never know if they are being watched, but they have constantly in their consciousness the tower – symbol of that authority.

7.  Power has its principle in the mechanism of authority in which the inmates are caught up.  Any individual can operate the machine.

8.  Main principle of the Panopticon: He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

9.  It’s a place for conducting experiments on men, for testing ideas, for keeping an eye on employees.

10.  A way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.  It is a diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; a figure of political technology with no specific attachment to a particular use centred on discipline.

11.  N.H.Julius, French philosopher, said that the panopticon was an event in the history of the human mind.  Antiquity had been a civilisation of spectacle: temples, theatres, colosseum & the circus. In the modern age, the community has gone, public life ditto,  but the private individual & the state still oppose one another & the aim is to build structures intended to observe masses of men simultaneously. (Skyscrapers with glass walls).

12.  NHJ “Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance: under the surface of images, one sees bodies in depth.  The circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralisation of knowledge … the individual is carefully fabricated.  Constant surveillance is the equivalent of indefinite discipline, an endless interrogation.

13.Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

14.  A great aim of governments is to distribute buildings intended to observe a great multitude of men at the same time.

Relevance of the Panopticon & Foucault’s theory to digital culture.

To what does digital culture relate?  It relates not only to images but also to documents as expanded views of the image.

There are many expressions in the document which reference the image, some of which are: surveillance, observation, visibility, seen, being watched, keeping an eye on, panopticon, spectacle, theatre, circus, resemble …All deal with overt or covert aspects of looking and each one is relevant today.
Today there are the obvious & ubiquitous CCTV cameras placed on every street corner, in every shop, petrol station, doctors’ surgery, schools, classrooms, universities, hospital … and in parliament – every aspect of human life is covered by one.

Then there are the public quality control inspections and their concomitant reports in every aspect of human experience (except parliament) which are condensed to one snapshot word: poor, failing, good, excellent which are emblazoned on the mandatory website of every institution – even the corner café has to have a food hygiene assessment on its front door.  Of course, the OCA has the same philosophy: students are expected to have personal learning logs which are not submitted to be assessed but which are expected to be evident on a blog/website: students are the ‘prisoners’ of the institution’s panopticon where we think the tutor – the guardian – will see what we have done but we don’t know when or if s/he will do so – they are totally unseen while our work is in full view.

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Our every touch of the keyboard is recorded and messages concerning it sent to interested bodies, usually with a financial interest in our activities, so that we can be targeted to conform to what society requires us to do; the images we download or upload all form part of some exquisitely complex algorithm which transforms us into disembodied numerical terms operated by anyone, reported to everyone.  The Wikileaks furore will testify to the availability of every computed move being recorded; the phone tapping scandals testament to big brother watching and hearing every thing we say, every song we play, our every move tracked on the wonderful world of Google maps.  I find it interesting to read the request to log my location on whatever device I happen to be on at the time: it makes no difference what my reply is – my location is known anyway.   Every app we make or download is another check on what we do,  where we go and how different enterprises can exploit us; every shop we go past can access our phone and send us a message to entice us in & disgorge our purses or max out our credit cards.  We are encouraged in our modern thinking to believe that we have the world at our fingertips through our mobile phones: ‘to procure for a small number, or even for an individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude.’  The community is no longer the central concern of governments.  What is important is 14 above – buildings intended to have great multitudes of men being observed at the same time.

How often have we heard our society referred to as the nanny state in which every authority is taken away from the individual and taken on by the state which then is ordered in a system of hierarchies developed to control individuals of whom every detail is known.

We are complicit in all this – we encourage observation by buying the devices which are digital in our regulated lives because we don’t want to be left behind in the technology that ‘everyone is seen to be using.’

Axiomatic in this document is ‘Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance.’  The important is not that we are watching but that we are being watched.  We have gradually given up our independence & the autonomy of our communities.

The concept of ‘spectacle’ is differently used by Foucault and Debord.  The former uses it in terms of political control of the masses through ‘spectacle’ such as in a colosseum or the theatre, the latter uses it in analysing the values which society puts on copies of originals,  particularly in feeding consumerism and on the appearance of things rather than on the essence of ideas/things.   Although both men lived in the middle of the 20th C., they interpreted the word differently and both are relevant to digital culture.  Our uploading of images on to social media has long been criticised by photographers: Penelope Umbrico and Erik Kessels to name but 2 current and contemporary practitioners who recycle images to make endless copies of originals and to entertain.



Debord,G.1983. Society of the spectacle. Black & Red

Foucault, M. Panopticism: Essay in Evans & Hall (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader


Project 1:P 84: The ‘digital self’

Great insight:

In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.“(Barthes, 1982,p.13)

1854 sees the invention of the carte de visite;  2013 sees the definition of a selfie being added to the Oxford English Dictionary.  The difference is that there is only one person involved in this process: all the artistry and responsibility is accredited to the sitter playing visual ‘Second life’ games with the viewers and ownership, ethics and copyright are all thrown into the artistic expression and representation melting pot.

The digital self can be represented in a myriad ways: virtual identity as defined by self-selected avatars which change over time; text which creates its own image of you; old photos taken and kept by others;  recent & older photos taken by yourself; artists’ interpretations of you using earthly elements and ways not yet thought of.

Ex. 4.1

Write an entry in your learning log (up to 500 words) about the review of one of the photographic projects mentioned.

The project which struck me most was that of Nikki S. Lee.  She started as a student of fashion photography and decided it was not for her.  Her project developed from her trying to find her own identity: why was she sweetness and light with one person and something totally different with another.  She remembers that when she was younger she used to struggle with who she was and that she was a different person depending on who she was with.

This has already strayed into psychoanalysis and there are specialists who have taken that route but that is not going to happen here. Lee’s quest was to find her identity.   Paul Auster in his New York Trilogy (1987) seems to think that this is a futile exercise:

We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.’”(3)

I’m not certain that I completely agree with Auster.  For example,” as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence”  When we are older we have so many more layers of ourselves to look through than when we were younger so, in a sense we are more opaque to ourselves, but we may also be aware that we can see the layers clearly, that there is a synergy involved in adding all the layers: we are more than the sum of those layers.

Lee dressed up as many different people: pole dancer, prostitute, old woman, skateboader, a bride, a member of the bourgeoisie, a teenager … Her preparation for the roles was quite exacting and  did not just involve dressing up  but also involved developing the skills required, losing weight, putting on weight.  She integrated herself into an Hispanic community, tanned her body, took on the mannerisms which would pass her off as Spanish. The photography involved required someone else to take a photo with a very simple, point and shoot camera. The unpolished outcome was in keeping with Lee’s intention of presenting this as a fake documentary series.

In her Innerview interview with Susie Macdonald (5), Lee said that the series ‘Project’ took about three months and that she decided to quit it because she felt she was becoming someone else, that she was at the same time herself and not herself.

What I admired most in her Projects work was the Layers item. She went to street artists in whichever city she found herself and asked them to sketch her face. She found that there was a difference in how she was represented depending on the nationality of the artist.  She then layered the images and came out with a composite layered version of all the artists’ impressions – I’m not sure if she is continuing with that idea to see how her image changes over time or if she has stopped.

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‘Layers’ by Nikki S. Lee


I don’t think she has found her one identity but she is happy with who she is at the moment. She finds that it is the energy which is exhibited between two people which determines how they present themselves to one another.

Can we ever speak of our one identity? It’s tantamount to saying we only ever wear one mask – surely how we interact with people is never consistently the same? We have different roles in life and, I suspect, that with each role we develop a different identity whether we are aware of it or not. According to Barthes (1982 p.13) we are 4 different people when we simply stand in front of a lens., regardless of what we are wearing or what skills we have learned before we stand in front of it. Except that in each of ‘the one’ there may be legions.