Reflections on Flickr: Everyday photography practices online and offline

Dr Eve Forrest

Response to:

The Guardian Camera Club

Roger Tooth’s article for the Reconsidering Amateur Photography strand of Either And [1] not only offers interesting insights about the photographic practices within bustling newsrooms but also reflection on what can happen when you dip a toe in the digital waters of the photo-sharing website Flickr.  Actually, rather than seeing Flickr as a metaphorical river, I prefer to imagine Flickr as a mega-city built from the images it houses; a place so expansive that you can explore it for hours and never reach its outer limits.

In this response article I add further insight about Flickr and its members (hereby referred to as Flickrites) to understand a little more about the everyday practice of photography online and offline. I draw upon research [2] I undertook with Flickrites in the North East of England, who were based in, and took photographs of, the cities of Sunderland and Newcastle upon Tyne.

I concur with the earlier panel discussions [3] that the traditional snobbery surrounding the ‘amateur’ label by academics and professionals is not particularly helpful. The participants who took part in my study were a mixed bunch of photographers with differing degrees of skill, experience and commercial success. The pictures they took were varied in subject and scope: landscape, portraits, UrbEx (urban exploration of abandoned and forbidden places), studio and street, using both film and digital.  Some enhanced their pictures post-production; others preferred to keep them ‘natural’. While a few photographers had a large following on Flickr and enjoyed the attention, others found it distracting and eschewed the limelight that Flickr’s ‘Explore’ algorithm can bring (the top 100 photographs selected pseudo-randomly by the Explore algorithm are not always chosen for aesthetic reasons; it can depend on where a photograph is posted and the number of members that share it). To collectively describe these varied practices, technologies and tastes together as ‘amateur’ means that much is lost and perhaps dismissed in the process.

Tooth mentions that the Guardian Camera Club (GCC) was first considered in an ironic way, as a play on the traditional photographic society format. However sites like Flickr have become popular precisely because they offer a space where photographers can perform, exhibit and compare their work, as well as discuss their deep passion for photography – something that has been (and still is) offered by photography clubs over the last 100 years or more. Unsurprisingly, some of my Flickrites mentioned their direct experiences of photography clubs too, with varying results (which shared the gender and age bias discussed at the Reconsidering Amateur Photography symposium). Various technological innovations may now allow photographers to take more pictures and do different things with them but through ingrained bodily routines, old habits are hard to break. I believe, as Anderson and Tracey put it, photographers ‘aren’t doing anything new… they are doing old things in new ways’.[4]

Although no further research has been undertaken on the GCC contributors, I would suspect that out of 12,000 members only a small percentage of these Flickrites would be classed as ‘active’. Whilst some Flickrites are drawn to a group because of its large membership (allowing an individual’s work to be seen by more people), one told me ‘it is the same old faces you bump into’ on Flickr. It is often only a handful of core members that drive offline meet-ups, competitions and interaction on the group message boards and for every member who is on the site uploading and interacting each day you will find another who accesses the site just once a month, without becoming deeply entrenched within the wider Flickr politic. Moreover, questions surrounding ‘active’ membership and what that term means in practice present a complex set of issues to the researcher working within any online environment. boyd and Crawford [5] wisely suggest that caution should be exercised when examining these figures and drawing wider conclusions about website popularity.

Whilst there was some hesitation by the GCC editors about bringing in a monthly theme and adding other elements of competition, photographers cannot help but be competitive with one another and this is generally accepted behaviour on Flickr. Some members, however, disliked the site exactly because ‘it feels like one large popularity contest’.  When the photographers attended organised offline meet-ups, I witnessed them deliberately going off on their own. They may want to share their images online but when it came to taking photographs it was firmly a singular pursuit. The unspoken competition in many of these gatherings is to see something ‘that everyone else [with a camera] didn’t see’ and generous praise is garnered from other members for doing so.

That said, many of the Flickrites in my study took part in popular set daily challenges such as ‘365’ (taking a photograph a day) or the ‘100 Strangers’ project (a combination of street photography and portraiture). For many members these challenges helped move them out of their visual comfort zone or stopped them from taking too many ‘high dynamic range landscapes’, a format that is understood to be conventional. It is on this latter point that Flickr often faces the most criticism. One Flickrite spoke to me of the endless photographs of ‘grumpy cats and misty water’ on the site and this is what most academics and art critics frequently cannot see past when discussing the site. I believe, perhaps controversially, that looking at the content of pictures on Flickr is a redundant exercise. There are good and bad pictures on there (along with the various connotations with which those terms are loaded) but to focus upon them means missing out on a diverse tapestry of doings that make up online and offline photography practices.

I am happy that Tooth uses the term ‘hobby’ in the context of photography and believe this word should be reclaimed in the way that ‘amateur’ has within this strand of discussion. The term hobbyist, to some, conjures up images of tinkering in sheds, just as image of the camera club envisions the draughty village hall. However a hobby really means pursuing a practice purely for pleasure. Can there ever be any higher praise or any better excuse for doing amateur photography?

Footnotes

  1. http://eitherand.org/reconsidering-amateur-photography/guardian-camera-club/ back
  2. Eve Forrest, On Photography and Movement: Bodies, Habits and Worlds in Everyday Photographic Practice, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Sunderland, 2012 back
  3. http://eitherand.org/reconsidering-amateur-photography/reconsidering-amateur-photography-symposium/ back
  4. Ben Anderson and Karina Tracey, Digital Living: The impact (or otherwise) of the internet on everyday British life in The Internet in Everyday Life, Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornwaite, eds,Oxford, 2002, 139-163 back
  5. danah boyd and Kate Crawford, ‘Critical questions for big data’, Information, Communication and Society, 15:5, June 2012, 662-679 back

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