2. The River
Published: 05.11.2013
in the series Marvin Heiferman
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The “Narrative Clip,” a wearable, life-logging camera that shoots a photo every 30 seconds.

The statistics are staggering, almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that every day, 1.3 billion photographs are made. Of those, 350 million are uploaded to Facebook. Google+ users, who are currently being offered some of the most advanced and easy to use photo-editing tools to lure them away from Facebook, are posting another 214 million a day. 150 million photos are shared through Snapchat, 55 million via Instagram, and another 1.4 million are added to Flickr. Among those images are ones made by people who photograph everything they eat, everything they own, and whoever walks through the door on their home. I recently read that 9% of mothers photograph their children daily.  And also, that in the time it takes to read a sentence shorter than this one, another 14 million photographs will have been made.

People make all of those pictures for a variety of purposes, because they have to or need to or want to. Because image-capturing devices are usually within reach and just because they can. A few years ago, while researching for Photography Changes Everything, I called up an industry analyst who had always been a good source for quantifying photographic activity, to ask why he thought we’ve all become so trigger-happy.  In the past, he said, people were culturally programmed by advertising and camera manuals to take photographs of life’s special events, but with the spread of cell phone cameras that began to change. Increasingly, people were making pictures for reasons they weren’t quite sure of, couldn’t justify, or would rather not articulate. If you pressed them to respond, they’d say they were taking pictures of whatever it was that they encountered and thought was cool, curious, or weird.

Selfie in Shanghai, 2012, Richard Schneider, pictcorrect

In the years since, back-facing cameras and the selfie phenomenon have added yet another category of motivation to the list. Photography has become a way for people to take the representation into their own hands and to confront, rehearse, perform, and then broadcast images that track where or declare who they are. Photography, once a novel method of paying respect and doing some selective bookkeeping of life’s major events, has now and for many become an indispensable diaristic, communication, and navigational tool. In an interview on the shifting nature of image-making published last year in WIRED, photojournalist Stephen Mayes spoke with Pete Brook about the fact that photographs were no longer objects, but experiences.

This year, with the test-marketing of Google Glass, and this month’s planned release of the “Narrative”—the miniature, clip-on, and life-logging camera first announced as the “Memoto,” until Motorola, which has trademarked the word “moto,” strongly objected—we’ll be further empowered to take pictures, on-the-run, hands-free, more easily and even more frequently. (The “Narrative,” an elegantly minimal and tiny piece of technology, automatically shoots a picture every 30 seconds.)

One question, of course, is why we’d want to do that. Another equally interesting question is how and whether all those pictures could be seen, accessed, and used. Google Glass is already been tested out by a handful of doctors to share still and video images of surgeries as they perform them in real time and, no surprise here, to make a porn film. For now, here’s links to two more recent stories about how the river of pictures we swim in and contribute to will—in the short and long term­—get deeper, wider, and wilder:

Lifelogging Camera Maker Memoto Has a New Name, $3M in Capital and a Ship Date

How Google Glass will usher in an era of superhuman vision

8 comment(s)
Posted 05.11.2013 at 17:04

The question which pops into my mind, a part from your two mentioned ones, is how can we - human beings - going to handle and process so much information?

Marvin Heiferman
Posted 05.11.2013 at 23:54

An interesting point. While there may be no way to stop the river of pictures, what we look at and look for in them is, to a large extent, up to us. And while there are some people (myself included) who might want to see as many as possible, others will undoubtedly want to limit or filter all that input. What fascinates me in particular are some of the issues rising up around archiving, about how and whether all the pictures being made can or should be saved, a task that demands endless decision making and the expenditure of time and money as imaging storage platforms "evolve" and at some point, life and death decision about images ultimately have to get made.

Posted 07.11.2013 at 02:59

You don't. The vast, vast majority of these photos are really only relevant in narrow contexts, to a small number of people. We don't need to "handle and process it" any more than we need to handle and process every tweet on twitter.

David Campbell
Posted 07.11.2013 at 11:58

The global numbers of pictures made and shared are staggering - and the largest number is via WhatsApp, now running at 400 million per day.

But these images don't form a river (let alone a flood) that we can all freely dip into. They are a reservoir at best, and not one that can be tapped by everyone.

The overwhelming majority of pictures made are shared on personal social networks which are not open to the public at large. I can't see your Facebook uploads unless I'm a friend. I can't get your Snapchat or WhatsApp pictures unless you are sending them to me. Even for Instagram I have to make the conscious decision to follow you, and then another conscious decision to look and pay attention.

Because these global statistics are about production rather than consumption, I feel that too often conclusions about the difficulty of handling and processing are too easily intimated, yet because of the conditions of production they don't really exist as the public problem that is often implied.

(FWIW, I addressed some of these issues in a recent post: http://www.david-campbell.org/2013/09/05/abundant-photography-misleading-metaphor-image-flood/)

Marvin Heiferman
Posted 07.11.2013 at 21:09

While images may be stored away in reservoirs, as David points out, rivers (as a quick Wikipedia check just confirmed) flow towards ocean, lakes, seas, or other rivers. Images do get parked on our cell phone and hard drives and tucked away safely (or so we like to think) on our rented shares of real estate in digital clouds. But the fact that there are so many pictures being made does matter and have an impact; talk to people responsible for management, maintenance, and the future of large photographic archives and you’ll start to get an understanding of the startling, Sisyphean challenges they face daily, especially if more keep flowing in. And when you consider the number of images that don’t or won’t stay in place, such as the ones that are spread virally, the river metaphor may make a little more sense. In gathering up stories for WHY WE LOOK (@whywelook), I regularly come across stories about photographic images that refuse to stay in place, and a number of those stories end badly. The pictures that emergency and hospital workers or cops pass around, but shouldn’t, are only one example. Photographs move around. and the more there are, and, as Merry Foresta, director of the Smithsonian Photography (2000-2010), used to say, they silt up. And when they do, they change the landscape and our experience in it. David’s right, I know that people are entertained and awed (myself included) by the sheer quantity of images that get made. Maybe people (myself included) can get a little dramatic when they toss those numbers around. But those numbers are astounding, and the numbers of pictures that get made do mean something, particularly because a fair share of still photographs won't stay still.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 08.11.2013 at 11:59

I wonder whether that overflowing of fluidity changes how images are? Maybe that's too essentialist, but I think that part of the currency of the cell-phone image is that it is possible to instantaneously distribute. That it pictures small private moments, now often staged as those things seems secondary to its packaging as portable data. So my question would still be whether they document the event or rather all the staging, reporting, waves of sharing that frame the event.

I think the event still slips away, which is part of the permanent desire to "fix" it even if "fluidity" is now what drives the technology and its operation. The virtual to actual transformation is still as salient in Instagram images, it's just obscured by the real of the filters and aesthetic (high contrast street photography reportage blended with William Egglestone dye transfer colouration) which seems to homogenize all these little instants into one Instagram world of EVENT.

The event itself is too located in the elasticity of time to be extracted into a spatial plane (be that analogue or digital).

Silting up of images has surely to do with Deleuze's idea of flows thickening, slowing down and stratifying around an attractor, around a zone of intensity. And precisely as Marvin says that density of iamge changes experience, actaully becomes experience. But still it is the image itself that surges intot eh real more and more, and less the event itself.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 12.11.2013 at 18:29

The Narrative clip is a Cartesian gridding of experience. Whereas we intuit that our experience of life has varying densities, concentrations of intensities, contours and curves, a Cartesian striation chops up experience into neat equally portioned bundles that bear little resemblance to actual experience. Simply put. Life just isn’t that ordered—and with the Narrative Clip, the continuity of life is arbitrarily dissected into 30 second pulses of image. Yet these images are not a record of life, rather they are just a matrix of data which do not contain affect, and so flatten life’s meaningful moments to an algorithmic diagram.
Increasingly, in the capture/making of images now more than ever before more work is done mathematically than photographically—graphics processors that form or correct (drive an image towards norms of acceptability) are accelerating in their power faster than sensors are developing in their sensitivity and capacity. This supremacy of the digital matrix over the analogue mask is recognisable in the promotional video for the Narrative Clip. With the clip, you can as Narrative’s advertisement claims, recall the name of that restaurant you went to last night, either through date and time data or location information street address coordinates—all encoded with every 30 second snap. The video chirps: “Thanks to Narrative’s smart algorithm, GPS and time data you can search find and share. It’s never been this easy to capture, relive, and tell your life story in photos.”
On reflection though, what is actually recorded by Narrative are just the outlines of events, the markers and not the things themselves. A single pertinent image or condensed set of images even if extracted from the vast array of regular metronomic snaps only mean something as the Narrative promo would have us believe if relived and told. Yes, Narrative records points in a narrative but not the story itself which can only be brought to life through other symbolic means—in other words, language.
At the level of data it is the time or place where and when the image was made that is key, and the visual data merely a supplement to those deictic pointers. The textual data tells the clip user’s where and when it all happened, linking the illustrative image to their integrative intuition of being there at that time. The image principally then is merely decorative evidence of that fact and might only inadvertently capture key effects within its frame, but does so with the same disinterestedness as with the other 360 images it made that evening. The signalisation of experience is complete. What is lost in this model is the intensity and livedness of moments. A nowness of variable intensity is replaced by a thenness of univocal extension—time is replaced by space; involvement is replaced by accountancy.
This is what the Narrative Clip does; it generates a litany of image objects which are arranged by the choices of a corporation and not according to the intensities of an individual who might feel the moment arising out of the plane of quotidian life. What the Clip interestingly does, however, is set down nodes that are interconnected with multiple other nodes: it’s just that we don’t see them because the grid they are in dominates, rather than a sporadic connectivity. The potential of such new and accelerating technology is just peeking over the horizon of our image-to-referent world, not however to supersede it, to toll its death. For if we can tailor image performance rather than image accountancy to our individual benefit, we can perhaps open up the rhizome of the image-to-image world for ourselves in what ever constellations we wish to arrange.

Pete Brook
Posted 13.11.2013 at 06:05

Clearly we needn't process or "understand" all images produced. It's impossible. Images don't come with a requirement to be processed. Marvin's book Photography Changes Everything is an excellent primer on the innumerable uses and reasons for photographs. Last on any list of reasons is a need for us to come an understanding of all images!

We're all agreed, though, that the proliferation means something. Social psychologists are looking at how image making—or more precisely the ease and ubiquity of manufacture and distribution—might shape our behaviours and might shape our society. I have suggested in the comments on the next blog post ‘III: Posing As What?’ that while photography has often been a performance, perhaps behaviors are shifting toward a new type of performance based upon the subjects’ knowledge of image circulation - namely, a shift from private album to public platform.

As far as the statistics go, the number of images is, as David says, more a matter of consumption than production. But that is not to say that the types of images have not shifted significantly based on the ease of production. I’m very attracted to Peter’s notion of streams of images coagulating into a single indecipherable EVENT detached from time. Is that EVENT Instagram itself?

How many Instagram feeds repeat the tropes of the next? Often I look at personal accounts and don’t see anything personal about them. I see the same pictures of nature, feet in leaves, attractive friends in evasive poses, exotic foods — it is as if people are mimicking the bland wannabe look of lifestyle photography. Which is why it is so impressive when someone like Ruddy Roye takes an overt documentary approach. Roye contextualizes his portraits with much of the subject’s information and his relation to them and it. (Truthfully, I don’t think Instagram is an ideal platform for Ruddy’s work, but that’s another discussion.)
For me, the most important question is not one of consumption or production, it is one of storage. More and more of our images never make it off our mobile devices. It’s not really about if we remember them but if anyone is. Well, you friends won’t do it for you. Maybe your enemies will? Long after we’ve forgotten about our snaps, they’ll still remain on a server or in a data center owned and operated by someone else. We used to think those third parties were corporations such as Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google, but following the NSA scandal we can add the U.S. government to the list.

I should suppose I would anticipate two different uses of images the corporations and the state would make. Corporations want to plug in images as data points to profiles so that they may target you with profile-specific ads and make it more and more difficult to conduct life outside of their networks. Users are complicit in this too; we make decisions to use social media and we have choices of email providers and encryption. I’m not just bashing corporations here. Whereas, the NSA wants to know about your whereabouts, your communications, your acquaintances.

Following PRISM revelations it is hard to know where the “partnerships” between state and corporations began and end. The Guardian claims all parties knew about the U.S. Government’s back door access to data but tech firms deny any illegal cooperation. Zuckerberg says the NSA “blew it” and Marisa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, says her company complained but couldn’t stand in the way of NSA warrantless scraping of data. Meanwhile, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google put on a good show of disgust recently in a WSJ interview at the allegations that the NSA was intercepting data between its users and data servers.

In a recent chat with a colleague, it was suggested that whatever we think is the worst case scenario, it’s wise to assume that it is the case. Data storage is not a problem; it’s basically unlimited. 2% of all electricity in the U.S. is used for internet and data centers. We think of the former East German Stasi as being totalitarian in their view of citizens yet the NSA has in its possession millions of times the amount of data and still growing.

Nevermind your Facebook timeline, the government has in storage your life online.

I’m particularly concerned about facial recognition technology. How long might it be before such technology is plugged into these huge stores of data? Asserting that profile images were public, Facebook recently announced plans to run its facial technology on over 1 billion profile pictures.

Within government, Mike Dewine the Attorney General of Ohio signed off on 9 million Ohio drivers licenses being plugged in to the state’s facial recognition program.

The storage capacities and the technology exist. Do the legal use and profit incentive? I’d argue yes. If photos can’t be used to sucker users into buying stuff, who is to say that in 50 years when we’re all dead and gone, there won’t be any number of commercial uses for this amassed visual collection we’ve all added to? Can we really expect the law to protect users? No, the law has done a pretty good job of abusing users data thus far. And, as I said earlier, we’ve all hit the “AGREE” button when faced with terms of service.

Benjamin Kunkel recently wrote, “Should social-media ownership become profitable while users continue to produce content unpaid, we are in a situation, more economically lurid than any imagined by Marx, in which the owners of some very minimal means of production—servers, office buildings, or the title thereto constituted by their shares on the NYSE—enjoy all the revenue from the economic activity of people who receive no wage whatever."

We’re feeding a beast and the existence of the images we feed it will far out last any of our efforts to police, profit or retain ownership of them.

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