PHO705 Week 5: The Social Photo

I much enjoyed Nathan Jurgenson’s Guest Lecture in Week 4 (Jurgenson 2021) and have gone on to buy and read his book, The Social Photo (Jurgenson 2019).

This has changed my understanding of photography and social media, much for the better. I now see what drives it: that the image can be regarded as a kind of emoji and the smartphone as an eye in our pocket. On social media, we communicate in a visual language of forms. We are in the world of signs and symbols. Mythologies (Barthes 2009) was prescient.

As Jurgenson points out, this is very different from a traditional arts-based appreciation of photography with its emphasis on rules and tradition. ‘As a visual discourse, social photos are a means to express feelings, ideas and experiences in the moment, a means sometimes more important than the specific ends of a particular image’ (Jurgenson 2019: 18).

I particularly liked Jurgenson’s coverage of the interplay between permanent and ephemeral in the social photo and his examination of the use of augmented reality (such as photo filters) to create a nostalgia for the present that reifies experience and thereby makes it shareable. We cannot simply say something: we first have to dress it in clothes of spurious significance. The slightly alarming consequence is that we have turned ourselves into tourists of our own experience. In documenting our lives we turn our experiences into consumer items, available one by one on our media streams.

Jurgenson’s attempts to justify this new online world in the middle part of the book fall flat, in my reading. He defends social media and the internet generally against critics who either fail to understand that online is also a form of ‘real’ life or whose criticism conceals an agenda of regulation to suit political or commercial interests. The problem here is that while it is hard to disagree with Jurgenson, his book has been overtaken by the events of 2020. These have shown very clearly that social media is a beast that needs to be tamed. Two examples: the alarming rise in generalized anxiety disorder among young people during the pandemic (Co-Space 2021) and the shocking attempt to overthrow the results of the US presidential election. Social media and its empire of lies have propelled both.

The latter part of The Social Photo is a welcome updating of the pioneering work on photography of Barthes and Sontag. Notable is Jurgenson’s evisceration of Silicon Valley’s Big Data movement, ‘This long-held positivist fantasy of the complete account of the universe that is always just around the corner’, which is cynically used as ‘a moral mandate for ever more intrusive data collection’ (Jurgenson 2019: 108).

The most interesting part of The Social Photo for my own practice is what Jurgenson has to say about truth and knowledge: ‘If the history of the medium were boiled down to a single debate, it would be the constant insecurity around the “truth” of a photograph’ (Jurgenson 2019: 95). Photography’s slippery relationship with truth leads us on to the gap between knowing and not knowing that the best photographs inhabit. Jurgenson points out that Barthes said of the punctum, ‘what I can name cannot really prick me’ (Jurgenson 2019: 99). Facts alone cannot describe reality. Documentation is never all it seems. Following Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard, Jurgenson points us to ‘the essential and productive tension between visibility and invisibility, what is known and what is not’, that every instance of knowledge ‘is also an instance of nonknowledge, its opposite, what is unknown. … Nonknowledge, then, is the seductive and magical aspect of knowledge’ (Jurgenson 2019: 101-102).

This interplay is exactly what currently propels my own practice. I am photographing human presence largely in the form of its absence, and thus what the image knows is constantly undercut by what it does not know and cannot show.

The Social Photo has proved a welcome tonic to my studies. It will help me to improve the way I present myself and my work on social media.

References

BARTHES, Roland and Annette LAVERS. 2009. Mythologies. Revised ed. London: Vintage.

CO-SPACE. ‘Co-Space Study’. Co-Space [online]. Available at: http://cospaceoxford.org/ [accessed 20 Feb 2021].

JURGENSON, Nathan. 2019. The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media. London: Verso Books.

JURGENSON, Nathan. 2021. ‘Guest Lecture: Nathan Jurgenson’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/249/pages/guest-lecture-nathan-jurgenson-february-2021?module_item_id=49657 [accessed 18 Feb 2021].