Social Uses And Effects Of Photography Essay

Communications technologies are used for both the formation of expressions as well as the routine practices of everyday life. They help build a community in terms of government or individuals with shared beliefs, providing a cultural environment. They also provide us with a sense of identity as they elicit ways of thinking about ourselves. Because of the strong relation between communication and culture, James Carey, in his article “Communication as Culture” (1989), has come up with two views of communication that tell us how audiences actively use and make sense of the system – the ‘transmission’ and the ‘ritual’ models of communication. These two models are used in many different ways. They help demonstrate the connections between forms of social order, technologies of communication, and the construction of meaning. They do so by allowing us to communicate to the mass audience and bring out culture by supporting participation from citizens in the social and political life of the communities. These systems of communication are strongly related to the practice of photography as the camera structures the way that we see and present ourselves as well as carries the basis of social cultural contexts. Before analyzing photography and its social function, explanation of the two models of communication will be discussed in this essay.

James Carey views the transmission model as a focus on empirical description of methods of transmission of messages and disseminating knowledge and ideas, in the goal for a presumed purpose of control and/or persuasion. He discusses how communication technologies have facilitated power and governance by giving an explanation in terms of religion. He mentioned in his article “…divinely inspired for the purposes of spreading the Christian message farther and faster, eclipsing time and transcending space, saving the heathen, bringing closer and making more probable the day of salvation”. This act of spreading and disseminating the religion practices shows communication technology has the goal of controlling space and people.

On the other hand, the ritual model focuses on ways in which the process of communication enables the creation, modification and transformation of a ‘shared culture’. It is linked to terms such as “sharing”, “participation”, “association”, “fellowship”, and “the possession of a common faith”. It has a common root of “commonness”, “communion”, and “community”, directed towards the maintenance of social cohesion and solidarity. Carey gives an example of the newspaper to better explain his point of shared production of meaning within societies and culture. He explains that rather than viewing the newspaper as a means of sending or gaining information, the ritual model views it as more of as attending a mass where a particular concept of the world is portrayed and confirmed. The ritual view has a social function where it draws people together in fellowship and commonality by promoting a shared understanding of a common set of values and beliefs. Thus, in light with this, the practice of photography conforms to the view of the ritual model of communication where it heavily carries a social context. By differentiating between the analogue and digital era, this essay analyses Pierre Bourdieu’s arguments in his article “The Social Definition of Photography” on the social function of photography that brings people together.

Analogue photography and digital photography have different functions but they are both forms of ritual communication. In the past (analogue era), photos were primarily kept for the purpose of memory. These keepsakes were usually displayed in albums or frames hung on the wall of most homes or kept in wallet to reminisce “life as it was”. As Bourdieu mentions, photography records the visible world in which it carries a symbolic communication due to its social uses. For example, the social practice revolved around families wanting to keep a picture of their son’s graduation show the past memory in pictorial form as they look back at his achievements in life. Through Carey’s ritual model of communication, this communal reminiscing of the son’s graduation day somehow brings the family together to appreciate the growth of the son, leading to a stronger bond of the household. The appreciation of that photograph hung on the wall can only be understood within the social group of the family as it conforms to their “rules” and uses of them. Aside from keepsakes, photography is also used as a means of sharing experiences. In the research article “Click to Share: Patterns in Tourist Photography and Sharing” written by Konijn, Sluimer, and Mitas, they studied about tourist photography and photo-sharing by conducting surveys and questionnaires in different regions. They mentioned “intertwined with tourist photography is the social sharing of photos” which indicates that the act of sharing after snapping a picture is essential to tourists. People share those photos taken as vehicles of memory. For example, they cited Prideaux and Coghlan’s study that tourists in the Great Barrier Reef shared their pictures taken as a proof of experience aside from using it as a memory recollection.

In the analogue era, photography was considered to be rather costly and time consuming. Technology was not as advanced as now. Cameras were large and heavy and can usually be used by “professionals”. People also needed to wait for the photos to be developed in a lab that could be situated quite a distance away, requiring them to travel all the way there for the pictures. Because of the high cost per photo, long timeline of the production process, and the extra effort to develop the pictures, extra care of the keepsakes has been undertaken, especially by families. Thus, not only does this practice maintains the quality of the image, it also maintains society as the photographs give them a sense of reminder as who they are now.

Pierre Bourdieu also mentions about aesthetic aspect of photography. In his article, he mentions that the judgments made on photographs follows social norms which permit praise or admiration. He cited an example of how a pose can conform to social norms. The meanings of poses can only be understood through a symbolic system among people that share particular relationship. For example, in the article “A coming-out party for women: empowerment through bridal photography” written by Lin, Yeh, and Lan, they mentioned that there is a particular form of pose that Chinese women need to adhere when taking bridal photographs. Based on their traditional values women should be virtuous. This concept is embedded into their marital custom in which they are required to bow their heads and not gaze directly at their parents-in-law or the audience. Thus, the understanding of why the bride is not looking at the camera can be understood by the Chinese community. This divides the comprehension of the meaning of the photograph depending on the social group viewers come from.

In relation to the division of social groups, Bourdieu mentioned that not everything can be photographed. The acceptance of the photograph depends on the function of the culture and the society from which the people belong to. A nude photo, for example, could be used as a laboratory photo for scientists, as an educational photo for those who study sexology, as a competition photo for nude models. It could also be used as a publicity photo to promote a certain kind of lifestyle. These all indicate how photographs can have different ways of utilization among different users. Thus, Bourdieu mentions “…the picture is always judged with reference to the function that it fulfills for the person who looks at it…”. Pictures can be rejected when there seem to be no social function in relation to their social group. When the photograph “do not suggest any resemblance to familiar forms”, the meaning can be discarded by groups who find it different than what they are exposed to. Therefore, it all boils down on the acknowledgement and judgment of taste depending on the cultural community a person comes from. In the digital era now, however, development of technology has been tremendously improving. Lisa Gye’s article “The Impact of Mobile Camera Phones on Personal Photographic Practice” explains that the access to photography has now been made easier especially with the incorporation of the mobile phone and camera. Technology now has also reduced the cost of owning the camera, making it affordable. Thus, many people now own camera for themselves, introducing what Gye labels as “personal photography”. As the cost of a picture changes for, say, $3 to $0, the social functions of photography have also changed. People are inclined to take pictures again and again repeatedly because the practice has become cheap. Digital photography is now greatly linked to social media where people upload “selfies” and the food they ate. Zappavigna’s article on social media photography explains that relationships are created through the uploading of photos. She based her study particularly on the photo app, Instagram. In her article, she explains how those “selfies” and food pictures are a style of “you could be here with me” photography in which the photographer invites the viewer into the image of the frame, eliciting social connection and thus interaction. Many others, though, upload photos solely for the purpose of keeping it online for memory, making the practice somewhat similar as in the analogue era. Digital photography has also become instantaneous with short timeline where people use it to communicate their weddings or milestones immediately. An example of this is multimedia messaging app, Snapchat. “Snapchatters” could send pictures to their social group instantly which could only last for a few seconds. Comparing this to the analogue period, photographs in the past could last for a lifetime instead of a few seconds. It was kept for memory sake. Now, however, it is used to communicate to people of their group – to tell friends that they are attending the wedding of a celebrity, for example. Dijck mentions in his article regarding photoblog which “college students use to keep their distant loved ones updated about their daily life”. The act of communication between friends and family via social media platforms help those social group connect and get in touch with one another. The pictures that they send thus serve as a social language in which they confirm their social bonds.

The example of the incident happened at Abu Ghraib that Dijck mentions show the ritual form of communication. The guards had the intention to use those photographs as symbolic resources for pride to communicate with their family. Though widely understood and accepted by the insiders (army personnel of the prison), this social gesture, however, has received negative backlash from the public. Thus, the acceptance and rejection of understanding the meaning of photographs again goes back to Bourdieu’s point where only those of the same social group can apprehend the message.

The rise of digital photography has also contributed more to self-remodeling or rather, identity formation, through the easy access of picture manipulation. The representation of self via photography has been identified by Dijck through four image-repertoires – mental self-image, idealized self-image, photographed self-image, and public self-image. People, especially those being photographed, are conscious of their identities leading them to try to alter themselves through selecting, editing, and retouching the pictures.

For example, they may remove an entire object in the picture or add desirable features like bigger eyes. The introduction of the easy-to-use photo editing softwares, like Photoshop, gives greater access to people who want to “change” their identity which they were not able to do during the analogue era. Their ability to do in the past was hindered by the stages of formerly “black boxed camera, film roles and chemical labs”. The potential of digital photography to manipulate an individual’s self-image thus leads to identity formation. Digital photography does not mean that people has abandon the use of photographs as a form of memory. People still do have pictorial keepsakes. With the enhancement of technology in fact, Dijck mentions that it gives technical aids that help restore an old damaged photo. This, however, correlates with the idea of manipulation where it also ultimately provides users with the power to upgrade his self-image while “restoring” that picture. The idea of identity formation, in the view of the ritual model of communications, demonstrates how people have a perceived self of themselves. Their consciousness of their appearance in the image relate to their cultural background and preference to have that “ideal” representation which conforms to their community’s norms.

To conclude this essay, photography is not just about taking pictures. It is more than that. Primarily used for memory and keepsakes, social uses and effects photographs now have increased due to technology. Through the viewpoint of the ritual model of communications, photography promotes community in a way that it reinforces the cultural similarities of the social group where everyone belonging there understand the message behind the photograph. Interpretations of pictures, as what Bourdieu has discussed, largely depend on the society where one belongs. Photography also helps create form identity of individuals and groups through picture. Similar understandings of the cultural meanings of identities both help to bond and divide people depending on their social group. As what Caronia mentions in her article, “people make sense of technologies according to their own cultural ways of living their lives”.

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