I’ve been spending the first few weeks of this year thinking about how to revise my book on Visual Methodologies for its fourth edition. Among other things, I’ve been thinking about what difference digital technologies – as both topic and tool – are making to its arguments. And I’ve decided on at least one significant change for the fourth edition: the three sites through which the book organises its discussion of visual methods are now four. The site of ‘circulation’ has been added to the sites of the production of an image, the image itself, the site(s) of its audiencing. ‘Circulation’ is intended to emphasise that all images, to some extent or another, travel. Images are mobile, and how they travel matters to what effects they have.
This isn’t an insight created by the development in the past few years of massive, extended social networking sites that now carry vast numbers of images between all sorts of different screens. In fact, the keyword that I’ve attached to it in the book is the idea of a “visual economy”, which comes from anthropologist Deborah Poole‘s book on the way images travelled between the Andes and Europe between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century.
However, I do think that there are some methodological issues involved in looking at – or even thinking about – those huge hoards of online images that require an emphasis on their circulation. I think it’s important that we pay attention to the work that goes into enabling that circulation, for example, in the workplaces where the labour is done to make those platforms feel so easy to use: the coders and the checkers, the servers and the cables. Also, images on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook aren’t stored in some ginormous virtual contact sheet, and not every image has an equal chance of appearing on a Google Images search result screen. Instead, how those images get seen is shaped by algorithmic patterns. Search results are shaped by your previous searches, by your location, by what other people are also searching; and what you see on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also depends on your social network. I think we need to figure out methods that can show us, somehow, the patterns and processes through which those image collections are structured, just as twenty years ago Foucauldian historians like John Tagg and Alan Sekula showed us how filing systems and labels organised earlier forms of photography archives.
This is a problem with Lev Manovich‘s cultural analytics, I think: it engages with the huge numbers but does so by adding them all up, and creating collages of the total. This shows us some interesting things – what Tokyo looks like in 50,000 Instagram images is provocative in terms of thinking about what a photograph now is, I think – but it doesn’t engage with the uneven distributions that shape the circulation of social media images at all.
I don’t know where methods might be emerging from that could do that, or what they might look like, though – so please post a comment below if you do!