The Social Medium: An Introduction

Olga Smith, Dina Gusejnova

OS: In the recent past, the phrase ‘social media’ became associated with Internet-based media technologies such as forums, blogs and social network websites. However, in reality social media comprise a much wider spectrum of phenomena, including print media. Photography plays a crucially important role in linking these more traditional technologies and the newly emergent ones by taking the role of the intervening structure for the construction of social events. In this sense, to designate photography as the social medium involves assessing its power to shape social and collective memories and perceptions of the past and present.

DG: I see the idea of photography as ‘the social medium’ as a provocation, an opportunity for questioning and probing. In various internet-based platforms you mention as examples of social media people are encouraged to place ‘content’ into a prefabricated structure, which allows them to share it with others. In this context, the specific qualities of what is shared appear to be secondary to the act of sharing. To me, this way of discussing media seems slightly absurd: the word ‘medium’ already involves ‘the social’, it is that which stands in between you and me, me and a thing, us and others, etc. So the term ‘social medium’ is a tautology of sorts, since all media are necessarily social. 

OS: But I wonder if the case of photography is particularly interesting because it highlights the inherently social character of any medium?

DG: I agree, and I hope that the discussions we have encouraged will get us closer to an answer to this question. Photographic images may have a higher or a different social potency than other media, such as, for example, the printed word. The prefab structures of the internet-based platforms invite us to think that the act of sharing is almost more important than the content. On the other hand, there are people who follow Marshall MacLuhan in suggesting that the opposite is the case, that the ‘medium is the message’. The sharing of photographs points to a third option: what shapes the message is not just what is being shown, and not the act of showing alone, but the fact that we see the image as photographic. What is it about photography’s claim to reality that makes its impact so peculiar?

OS:  This is exactly the question that I have been investigating in my own research. I have been interested in contemporary photographic practices that combine actual and fictional, and the loss of certitude regarding the hierarchy of representations.

DG: And of course, the loss of certitude has been often ascribed to the rise of digital photography. But has photography become more ‘social’ in the digital age? Does the act of uploading and sharing a photograph with a vast Internet community make it more ‘social’ compared to previous forms of sharing images?

OS: When we talked about these issues we agreed that one of the objectives of this project should be a critical examination of the share of technological innovation in generating new forms of sociability and collective experience. The existent accounts often over-determine and even fetishise new technologies. Against such technologically motivated arguments, it is interesting to determine the degree of historical continuity with preceding image-making traditions. This we hope to achieve by including contributions that focus on the earliest forms of the photographic medium, and highlight continuities between early pictorial traditions and contemporary practices in terms of their social impact.

DG: This could be interpreted as yet another response to Walter Benjamin’s concerns about the status of the artwork in the age of technical reproducibility, as opposed to reproduction by hand. Benjamin famously predicted that the arrival of photography and film will radically change how we think about authenticity. He argued that art will be seen by the masses and no longer be mediated exclusively through princely courts or churches. But this democratization comes at a price: in becoming photographic, art will also lose its original aura of authenticity. These ideas are relevant more than ever in the digital age, when photographs and videos are not only infinitely reproducible, but also infinitely ‘shareable’. But here I see us addressing a different question. It is one thing to be worried about the ontological status of an artwork, and a different thing to ask: what does the introduction of new modes of representing the world, such as photography, change in society?

OS: I agree that the question of whether photography is an art seems to have lost its urgency, at least on the level of institutional acceptance of photography given its prominence on the walls of the contemporary art museum. But I wonder if aesthetics and politics are not closer linked than you seem to imply. I am not talking here about the capacity to fuse artistic and political will to effect real changes in the society, or political activism. Rather, I am curious about how contemporary artists – and especially artists using photography – create a fictional space in which politics could operate. What French cultural critic Nicolas Bourriaud has described as ‘the detour through fiction [that] enables artists to accommodate political imagination’. Another interesting question for me is how fiction can produce actual events, and the role of photography in that. We may rely on photography as a purveyor of categories of experience and event, and yet we recognize that the structure of the images it furnishes is essentially photographic. This gives rise to an almost unconscious perception of reality as already represented, shaped by a flow of photographic images in the flux of recirculation in the mass media. This question of interdependence of reality and representation, real and cultural memories really interests me, and I have written about in relation to work of Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno (admittedly, with reference to their works in film rather than photography).

DG: Such questions revive the debate regarding photography’s evidential powers in relation to the documentary tradition and beyond. However, in the recent past we saw photography and video distributed through social media to have played a key mobilizing role in riots and revolutions, be it the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, or this winter’s unrests in Russia. So despite the fact that it is increasingly easy to manipulate photographs, they are still discussed in terms of being ‘true’ and ‘false’. For example, in Russia during the anti-government protests last winter, a huge controversy started around a picture showing police beating up a pregnant woman. When it transpired that the picture had been misinterpreted, that the victim was not a woman but a man, the act of beating somehow became secondary in the media debates. The image lost its appeal as a shocking rallying cry against the government because the trust of the viewers had been broken.

OS: This question of the evidential power of the photograph and its documentary value must be especially interesting to you as a historian.

DG: It is true that historians use photographic sources as one of the ways of telling ‘how things really happened’, as the famous historian Leopold von Ranke put it. But I am more interested in photography as an obstacle in this regard; photographs set up an illusion of familiarity, they can have a strong and distracting effect on your attitude to the historical material. They have always been used as polemical tools for a variety of political ends. In my current Leverhulme project based at UCL, I am looking at the way international cultural organizations interacted with political institutions during and between the World Wars. One of the central themes is how photographs of genocide, refugees, and wars, distributed by individuals and institutions, have created an altogether new basis for what Leonard Woolf once called ‘international morality’.  So in talking about the new in photographic representation, compared to other pictorial traditions, I would focus on the way technology changes the way people think about images. That is to say, technology doesn’t necessarily change the ontological status of the image, but it may change the social function for which it is used.

OS: This brings us back to the issue we started this conversation with, namely the role of technology and social media in facilitating and producing social experiences. I hope that this project may yield fresh insights into the ways photography shapes cultural events and memories, and how commitment to the values of objectivity sits with its power to shape representations of events.