Reconsidering Amateur Photography

The Becoming-Photographer in Technoculture

Sarah Kember

I want to look at the emergence of the amateur photographer in the context of contemporary technoculture. By doing so, I seek to challenge a sort of isolationist, perhaps even purist, approach to photography that has enabled the realm of the amateur to be positioned as one apart. I am alluding to the sense in which amateurism is deemed to be apart from traditional aesthetics and the institutions and ideologies that support them. More than that, I’m troubling the alignment between amateurism and the celebration of user-centric, user-generated bottom-up rather than top-down culture that is characteristic of the Web 2.0 era and carries with it assumptions about democracy and even revolution that do not bear any kind of scrutiny.  My main concern, in refusing the separation between amateur photography and the wider technoculture is not to replace this political naivety or optimism with a more grounded, pessimistic view or to replace fantasies of freedom with those of technological determinism. Rather, it is to show how the politics of amateurism is rendered complex and contested as photography, photographers and the photographic are redefined and repositioned in relation to contemporary technoculture and in relation to specific claims about mapping and mobility, intimacy and locatedness. By characterizing technoculture less in terms of the supposed shift from analogue to digital technology and more in terms of a move towards ubiquitous computing, I will reframe amateurism within the key terms of ubiquity, notably: ambience, augmentation, automation and animation.

What is the relationship between photography and ubiquity? One way of understanding it is through the process of digitization and the subsequent proliferation and crossover of professional and amateur photographic practices in public and private life respectively.  Through this perspective – one in which the medium itself is no longer deemed discrete while its underlying codes and conventions prevail – we understand that photography is, increasingly, everywhere and that, in Susan Sontag’s words, ‘to live is to be photographed’.[1] We are witnessing the phenomenon of photo sharing on a quite unprecedented scale, as well as the prospect of a fully recorded life.[2] In addition, we are becoming aware that the gap, if there ever was one, between photography and life itself continues to close so that, in both material and symbolic terms, photographic media can be said to shape the world that they pertain to represent. This is, essentially, Sontag’s argument about the Abu Ghraib images [3] and it is a significant adjunct to the everywhere status of the photographic if not of photography per se.

However, there is still something more, or at least other at stake in the relation between photography and ubiquity. Precisely because of digitization and processes of convergence and/or remediation,[4] photography’s own ubiquity is being assimilated to that of distributed, networked and allegedly intelligent forms of computing. Intelligent forms of computing (derived from research in artificial intelligence) are those that aspire to be responsive to the user, adapting to his or her requirements and demands. They may or may not display emotions but in the wake of expert, intimidating and now rather unfashionable systems such as the chess-playing computer Deep Blue (or the fictional Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey), these new forms of intelligence are at least ostensibly more modest, and certainly more servile. The irony, or rather the sleight of hand is, of course, that in serving us, intelligent computational systems are simultaneously extracting data from us and selling it as a commodity. More than that, perhaps, they may even be said to be repackaging us as data. So they are by no means as modest as they might seem.

In this wider context of computing, media such as photography are realigned within the terms of the technology industries and their quest to generate ambient intelligence (literally intelligent environments), automated systems, animated artifacts (like smart toys and pets or electronic personal assistants) and augmented realities. In its co-evolving relation with ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous photography is not, I suggest, crossing always unstable boundaries between the public and private, professional and amateur realms as much as it is becoming part of the reordering of life (as information or data) under the cover of practices of media and communication that are deemed ordinary, everyday, user-based, personal, private and vernacular. Photography theorists miss this crucial operation of power – of biopower since it addresses both biological and cultural life – when they seek to restore the status of amateurism in relation to professionalism or reify the vernacular as a transcendent practice or a practice apart.

Critiques of social media and Web 2.0 have thrown into doubt some of the assumptions made about user-based or user-centric agency, with which, as I’ve suggested, amateur photography is often aligned. For my purposes, however, they have not gone far enough. The strategy of the technology industries is indeed to revive e-commerce more than to empower users as Geert Lovink suggests,[5] but more specifically by staking direct claims to sociality and to everyday environments constituted by users and intelligent artifacts alike. The quotidian, the vernacular is thus contested ground and amateurism is a route to an automated, ambient, animated and augmented existence designed according to the imperatives not of technology per se, but of surveillance-based markets. Which is not to say, of course, that the enrolment of actual amateurs necessarily conforms to the design. The becoming-photographer, meaning the emergent or potential photographer in technoculture is envisioned to be aspirational/augmented, amateur/ambient but s/he is by no means a finished or inevitable entity. S/he may not enjoy the freedoms attributed to her in a range of debates on amateur photography, but neither is s/he wholly predetermined. The relation between freedom and determinism, liberation and oppression is, as Ernesto Laclau points out a co-constitutive one and it is in this dynamic relation that we may find, if not emancipation, then room for manoeuvre. [6]

Ambient and Augmented

Ambient Intelligence is a branding and development of ubiquitous computing. In an industry-driven vision of an ambient intelligent world, ‘people will be surrounded by electronic systems that consist of networked intelligent devices that are integrated into their surrounding [sic] and that provide them with information, communication, services, and entertainment wherever they are and whenever they want’.[7] Counteracting a discourse of business with one of leisure, the stress on environments and sociality incorporates but exceeds the confines of the smart home to include the smart city, transport, clothing and so on. The amateur photographer inhabits these environments and encounters their underlying characteristics of embeddedness, context awareness, personalization, adaptation and anticipation. Ultimately, ambient intelligence is a form of ubiquitous computing that is servile and all about ‘you’ as an individual user and consumer invested in processes of self-building.

In ‘Intimate Media: emotional needs and ambient intelligence’ John Cass, Lorna Goulden and Slava Kozlov enroll digital photographic practices into ambient intelligent environments that enable – and oblige – us to self-build. Factors contributing to the process of self-building include memory, evoked through ‘collections of objects’ including photographic objects, storytelling and the nurturing of relations within a network.[8] In conjunction with other objects and artifacts of ambient intelligence such as speech-based embodied agents acting as software PAs or even electronic butlers (, the networked image constitutes an ‘extended self’ and a ‘cycle of self-reinforcement’ that transects online and offline space and helps to ensure a feeling of being ‘at home in the world’.[9] While enabling and/or obliging  us ‘to maintain an almost constant low level of communication’, the apparently humanistic cycle of self-reinforcement has the capacity for autonomy or the sort of machine-machine relationality that transforms and reorders individual subjects as data objects for the market.[10] Photography is enrolled across the spectrum of ambient intelligent environments: domestic and urban, mobile and fixed. Mark Weiser stipulated that ‘ubiquitous computers must know where they are’[11] and photography now is key to this locatedness.

Where Cass et. al. pursue the role of photography as an intimate medium, Francesco Lapenta has shown how the photographic has come to co-constitute what he calls ‘geomedia’ that seek to map the world with increasing exactitude.[12] Examples include Google Earth, Google Maps, Photosynth[13] and Augmented Reality[14].  Augmented Reality (AR) as an overlayering of information onto a visual scene viewed through a mobile digital camera seems to fulfill Weiser’s call for technologies that merely enhance rather than replace or re-create reality. But as part of a phenomenon of ‘digital photographic mapping’ where one photograph ‘(and I wonder if this is still the proper name to indicate what this image is) is able to seamlessly merge many photographs of contiguous places taken at different times’ its function may be more ambitious.[15] Not only does it juxtapose ‘the photograph’s indexicality’ with ‘a heterogeneous and hybrid organizing principle, geolocality[16] and signal what William Uricchio calls an ‘algorithmic turn’ in visual culture,[17] it also stakes a claim to totality – to the total map-ability of the world – that requires reflection.

Ulrik Ekman points out that ‘whether in cultural theoretical or technical discourses, the terms of ‘ubiquity,’ ‘pervasiveness,’ and ‘ambience’ come slightly freighted with a notion of totalizing universality’.[18] Similarly, Crang and Graham, in their article on sentient cities, look through the user-centric claims of ambient intelligence in order to reveal the dissymetries of commercial and military investment and examine the extent to which artistic interventions might disrupt ‘fantasies of perfect urban control’.[19] The extent to which those fantasies are made real is contestable. The technologies of total marketing and surveillance include Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags used in a commercial context by manufacturers to track the location of products; Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technologies, monitoring and tracking devices; video cameras; Closed Circuit Television (CCTV); sensors and actuators; speech-recognition devices and a range of biometric technologies including Face Recognition Technology (FRT). The limitations of some of these technologies are more severe than others. For example, FRT as a means of automating the recognition and identification of faces of potential terrorists, criminals and consumers alike is unreliable, producing a high rate of false positive identifications.[20] In fact, despite being consistent with the origins of facial identification in the police force and with wider disciplinary photographic practices of the nineteenth century that contributed to both social control and reform, FRT as a technology is markedly flawed. FRT is fascinating in its adherence to institutional ways of seeing that go back to Alphonse Bertillon’s mug shot plus anthropometric measurements for the police or to Havelock Ellis’ (criminal) types and Francis Galton’s (racial) composites (now produced as digital composites or eigenfaces). While it continues to manifest such a divisive but authoritative aesthetic, it nevertheless fails to operate in conditions of poor lighting or when the target face is at an angle not commensurate with the standard frontal or profile mug-shot. It is foiled by low resolution, excess facial hair and glasses as well as by expressions that resist classification and by the substitution of a face for a cardboard cutout.[21] Such limitations are partly those of computationalism per se (how does a computer ‘know’ what a face is?) but they do not preclude the continued pursuit of reductionist computational logics or indeed the underlying rationalities that drive them. FRT remains productive, as I’ve argued, of faces re-cognised, literally rethought, reworked from 19thcentury disciplinary typologies and indeed of photography extended and transformed through its underlying codes and conventions.

Facial Recognition Technology, incorporating a particular history and tradition of photography, might then be considered to be a technology of domination and of the self, simultaneously limiting and facilitating what individuals can be and do in relation to a set of external norms. Its role is thus governmental, but by no means confined to the institutions of government. With its roots firmly established in the US departments of defence and homeland security (which continue to provide the bulk of research and development funding), FRT is becoming increasingly commercialised and somewhat controversially incorporated into forms of social networking including Facebook and, more hesitantly, Google. Using FRT, Facebook makes automatic tag suggestions to its users (600-800 million worldwide) as they upload photographs of friends. This “service” is activated by default (meaning you have to opt out of it) and generates lucrative volumes of biometric data destined for advertisers, app developers and so on. For Adam Greenfield, the always-on biopolitics of ‘everyware’ technologies makes opting out desirable if difficult and demands, perhaps a more hands-on intervention in order to explore the possibilities of re-politicisation.[22] I have argued that, in relation to FRT, face distortion apps such as Apple’s Photo Booth serve only to contain those possibilities within current norms.[23] I would also challenge Crang and Graham’s suggestion that artistic practices are necessarily sufficiently distinct from those of commerce and surveillance to constitute a basis of opposition. Notwithstanding the appeal of projects such as Zapped, that ‘entailed fitting hissing cockroaches with RFID tags and then releasing them in Walmart’ or a biomapping project ‘about enabling individuals to make use of gathered information about their own bodies’, [24] it is also the case, as Ekman points out that art is not only permeable to the rationality of ubiquity, but may even be one of the key constitutive sites of actual ubiquitous computing.


Aspirational and Amateur

The aspirational photographer – understood here to exist on a scale from techno-curious to techno-savvy, willing and to varying degrees able to explore and experiment with new photographic devices – is enabled partly by a range of cheap or free apps (Camera+, Hipstamatic, Paper Camera, Instagram) that constitute forms of self-regulation as well as expression, of automation as well as individual aesthetic autonomy. It is not simply that the apps we prosume (simultaneously produce and consume) very largely do our picture-making for us, but that they contribute to the reordering of us as prosuming subjects becoming data objects for markets. In conjunction with a range of other photographic and cartographic devices, apps constitute the ordinary everyday life of aspirational amateurs who, in representing the unrepresentable and mapping the unmappable, ‘navigate their social worlds’, manage complexity and create reassurance out of anxiety – including perhaps the anxiety of recognising our emergent status as precisely the sort of embodied informational agents that serve us, then, in a double sense, transforming as they reinforce us, serving us – up.

Paranoia is an understandable but ultimately unhelpful response to our increasingly naturalised, insidious (because user-friendly) technologies of everyday control. It reproduces, as Suchman has indicated, a master/slave history of human/machine relations that is too circular and predicated on autonomies and oppositions that, with the increasing dispersal of technologies into everyday biological and cultural life, are ever harder to maintain.[25] In the absence of gaps between photography and life, technologies and users; and lacking any obvious exterior place or space of ethical and political opposition,[26] the liberatory potential of ubiquity (as everywhere and especially as ‘everyware’) lies, as Crang and Graham themselves come to realise, within the ‘inevitable granularity’ of ubiquity itself and the ‘shadows and opacities’ it produces.[27]

I have indicated a number of these shadows and opacities. They include the non-homogeneity, and indeed non-inevitability of the field itself – and therefore, as I’ve suggested, of its constitutive subject-objects. On account of its technological limitations, infrastructural weaknesses, lack of public demand and awareness and so on, ‘everyware’ is currently nowhere in particular. Moreover, while the good disciple of ubiquitous computing interprets, debates and preaches the word of the father/god (in this case Mark Weiser), seeking to fulfil his vision of a world of omniscient, ambient intelligent computing, [28] the good critic exposes not only this instance of omnipotence, but the whole pattern of fantasies and paternalisms that recur throughout technoculture from cybernetics[29] to AI[30] to ALife[31] and onwards.

Doing history as genealogy rather than teleology – as something fundamentally nonlinear – allows us, for instance, to doubt the progression from technologies of artifice (such as artificial intelligence) to those of ambience and augmentation, to question the apparent absence of hubris, the downsizing and the human-centrism that is, I’ve argued, but another route to totality. Total machines however, have a happy knack of totalling themselves.[32] Face Recognition Technology for instance, tries but fails to eliminate the eyewitness as the bug in the machine. No technological system is every truly autonomous and independent of human operators. And then there is the spanner in the works. Face distortion software, sold commercially, codes for precisely what FRT systems seek to eliminate or, through the use of automated expression analysis, reduce to measurable, standardised templates. If the marketization of face distortion is a means of containing it (note the ‘normal’ face is positioned in the middle of the screen in Apple’s Photo Booth), the safe set menus of commercially available face distortion software are not necessarily adhered to in everyday photographic practices where the faces that are busy becoming business are displayed, as they always have been, in galleries, albums and archives that are playful and parodic and that generate expressions that defy their own classification even as kaleidoscopic, twisted, squeezed and so on. We may say about amateurism then, that just as it is securely sutured into self-regulatory environments of ambient intelligence, it is also a means of un-realising them. The aspirational amateur is always already de/enrolled. S/he is constitutive of the total system’s success and failure and is an inevitable part of the non-inevitable coming to be of ubiquity.


    1] Susan Sontag, ‘Regarding The Torture Of Others’, The New York Times, 23 May 2004,

  1. Erik Kessel’s recent exhibition ‘Photography In Abundance’ consisted of a room filled with prints of every picture uploaded to Flickr in one 24-hour period. See Anthony Bond ‘What if you printed out every picture posted on Flickr in just one day? Artist’s 1m images highlight how much we share of our personal lives’, MailOnline, accessed 16/11/2011. Also see Charlie Brooker The Entire History of You, Sunday 18 December 2011, Channel 4. back
  2. Sontag, ‘Regarding The Torture Of Others’. back
  3. A contested term, convergence describes cultural and economic as much, if not more than technological processes and, for Bolter and Grusin is another word for remediation or the mutual refashioning of old and new media. J.David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2000. back
  4. Geert Lovink, Networks Without a CauseA Critique of Social Media, Cambridge, 2011. back
  5. Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), London, New York, 2007. back
  6. Emile Aarts, Jan Korst and Wim F. J. Verhaegh, ‘Algorithms in Ambient Intelligence’, in Wim F. J. Verhaegh, Emile Aarts and Jan Korst (eds), Algorithms in Ambient Intelligence, Boston, Dordrecht, London, 2004, 1-20, 6. back
  7. John Cass, Lorna Goulden and Slava Koslov, ‘Intimate Media: Emotional needs and ambient intelligence’, in Stefano Marzano and Emile Aarts (eds), The New Everyday: Views on Ambient Intelligence, Rotterdam, 2003, 218-223, 219. back
  8. Cass et al, ‘Intimate Media’, 220. back
  9. Cass et al, ‘Intimate Media’, 220. back
  10. Mark Weiser, ‘The Computer for the 21stCentury’, Scientific American, 1991, 94-104, back
  11. Lapenta draws on Borges’s short story ‘On exactitude in science’: See Jorge Louis Borges, ‘On exactitude in science’, Collected Fictions, London, 1999 and Francesco Lapenta, ‘Geomedia: on location-based media, the changing status of collective image production and the emergence of social navigation systems’, Visual Studies, 26:1, March 2011, 14-23. back
  12. [13]


  13. Lapenta, ‘Geomedia’, 17. back
  14. Lapenta, ‘Geomedia’, 18. back
  15. William Uricchio, ‘The algorithmic turn: photosynth, augmented reality and the changing implications of the image’, Visual Studies, 26: 1, March 2011, 25-35. back
  16. Ulrik Ekman, ‘Ubicomp Cultures: Hyperbolic Vision, Factual Developments’, Fibreculture Journal: 19, 2011, 4 – back
  17. Accessed 20/02/2012.

  18. Mike Crang and Stephen Graham, ‘Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space,’ Information, Communication & Society, 10:6, December 2007, 789-817, 791. back
  19. Lucas D. Introna, and Helen Nissenbaum, Facial Recognition Technology: A Survey of Policy and Implementation Issues, New York University, the Centre for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response, back

  21. Sarah Kember, ‘Face Re-cognition’, photoworks, Autumn/Winter November-April 2011-2012, 50-56. back
  22. Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Berkeley, 2006. back
  23. Kember, ‘Face Re-cognition’, 50-56. back
  24. Crang and Graham, ‘Sentient Cities’, 806. back
  25. Lucy Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations, Cambridge, 2007. back
  26. Laclau, Emancipation(s). back
  27. Crang and Graham, ‘Sentient Cities’, 814. back
  28. Stefano Marzano, (2003) ‘Cultural Issues in AI’, in Stefano Marzano and Emile Aarts (eds), The New Everyday: Views on Ambient Intelligence, Rotterdam, 2003, 8-13, and Aarts, Korst and Verhaegh, ‘Algorithms in Ambient Intelligence’, 1-20. back
  29. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, Chicago and London, 1999. back
  30. Alison Adam, Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine, London and New York, 1998. back
  31. Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, London and New York, 2003 and Stefan Helmreich, Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, Berkeley, CA, 1998. back
  32. John Tagg, ‘Totalled Machines: Criticism, Photography and Technological Change’, New Formations, 7, 1989, 21-34. back

Reconsidering Amateur Photography