All that distinguishes a photo as image and a photo as component of the mass image is the simple act of attention. Among all the billion images uploaded, stashed or discarded, only a tiny few secure even a few moments of active contemplation.
As data, those vast hoards of unregarded X-rays and unwatched CCTV footage are affirmations of the world’s existence. They state the facts. It is they rather than the tiny number of photographs we actually pay attention to that constitute the record of reality.
The reality they record becomes reality through these records. They are the catalogue of the billions of instants seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, that constitute the world as data. There is little point in complaining that digital images are only code when coded images are the entirely appropriate instrument for recording and storing the behaviours of crowds, individuals, their cancers and caries, the passage of traffic through junctions, wildlife caught on spy-cams or satellite earth observations in every wavelength of the spectrum. This reality is what Foucault would have called ‘biopolitical’ – overseen and governed on principles of statistical probability. This reality emerges alongside the post-war mathematical theory of communication: an ocean of probable events punctuated by a statistically predictable number of unlikely moments – a world that gives itself to metrics.
Just as Shannon and Weaver's mathematical theory divided nature between noise and signal, so we have learned to divide meaningless activity from behaviours and performances. These select actions lend themselves to measurement, for example by Key Performance Indicators or any other feature of the audit culture you especially hate. This is a world of norms, a world that is not so much already code but one that conforms increasingly to the codes we use to measure it, precisely because everything else is just noise.
Human activity has always been singled out for special attention by humans. But as ubiquitous photography approaches the state of all-seeing scientific instrument, even human actions begin to retreat into the background hiss. Too numerous to be attended to singly, human events must be handled statistically. A different kind of attention attends to these diagrams of likely and unlikely activity.
What we do in public used to be public knowledge. Now it is a proprietary dataset that we ourselves have little access to. Something has changed in the meaning of the word ‘publication’. To publish is to make public, to pass from what is hoarded indoors and in private into a domain of interpreting, reusing, recirculating and, at bottom, sharing. But when we share on social media, although we are sharing with friends, we are also donating our images to the public realm. Except that the realm we think of as public isn’t a res publica, a commons, a space belonging to everyone and no-one. We are giving our images to this privatised public space, to be once again hoarded, this time in the databases of behaviours held by social media networks.
We want a shared image to appear. We want it to pop out of its enclosure in our private collections and give itself to others, trusting they will be equally generous in paying it some attention, commenting, replying, sharing their images in return. This action of appearing we should think of as like stepping out onto a stage. The moment you’re there, you realise you have to dance, sing, recite or play a dramatic part. In one sense the person on the stage is simply themselves, Joe Ordinary. But in another they are transformed into the song, the dance, the poem or the character. When images appear in public, likewise, they are both themselves and a performance. Hegel observes that being is always doubled by appearing. 1Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 'Äußerung', ¶136 This means that being is never simple or single: a thing can never be entirely self-identical, existing in and for itself alone. Being always implies appearing, which implies in turn being for an other.
Hegel himself is a little ambiguous here: that Other might be another human, or it might be something like God (he called his pet deity the Absolute; we might have another name for it in the context of this discussion – a point I'll come to in the next post). We might say today that every being appears to another being that might be human or animal, or even inanimate, in the way a rock ‘appears’ to the river whose water is constantly reshaped by flowing over it. We would instantly want to add that beings appear to technologies – to cameras and lenses that ‘see’ more or less in the way humans do, but also to infra-red and X-ray cameras, Geiger counters, seismographs, phonographs, weighing scales and spectrometers. Photography also belongs to this world of scientific instruments harvesting the appearances that beings radiate simply by the fact of being.
To appear is to give over to the kindness of strangers, animate and inanimate, natural and technological. To appear is to be – otherwise.
In the last but one post a couple of weeks back I suggested that, in the eye of the enormous storage systems for images, every image is present, in the sense that it has neither past nor future. The machine can only register existence, not the passing of time. Databases therefore miss the doubling that Hegel observed, the being-for-another that destabilises existence. It is like those brief, alienated moments when we look at a photograph and register only the fact that it is a photograph; as if we looked at them as an extra-terrestrial archaeologist might look at a cache of images disinterred from the ruins of our civilisation, seeing only flat rectangular patterns of colour. Our alien might recognise recurrent patterns, and might even decipher that they represent bodies and faces, but first and foremost they would be merely things. When we think of the ontology, the mode of existence of photographs, their being, we should think of them in this dispassionate way. That is how our cyborg systems consider them: a pure presence.
That is how a photograph presents itself. It is even the goal of some artists’ photography: looking at the pure presence of the photograph as bounded surface where photochemical or optoelectronic phenomena have deposited their records. Not as pictures of things or communications of thoughts and feelings.
And yet, as Marco Breuer’s work in photography suggests (and James Elkins eloquently demonstrates), presence and self-presentation are not simple things. Simply by existing, things give themselves to other things as appearances, albeit not necessarily in the visible spectrum. We humans in particular have no choice but to appear. Being always already involves being for others. If I want to see, I must inscribe myself in the field of the visible, as the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it: I have to agree to be visible. (Here there is another line of thought to pursue concerning what happens whenever photographers sneak a shot, seeing but unseen. When they break the contract, do they sacrifice some part of their humanity? Do photographers who hide from their subjects, as the paparazzi do, begin to vanish into the apparatus of photography, like some technological Cheshire Cat? For now let’s leave that curious possibility aside and, continuing the theme of happiness, presume that the basis of a happy image, or an image of happiness, is that photographer and subject can see and enjoy each other).
So the seer is also seen. In the age of ubiquitous photography, I have to presume that I am constantly in someone or something’s field of vision, wandering through the background of tourist photos or captured on CCTV. But what do they get of me? A shell, a simulacrum, a likeness that however misses me because I am not bound into the kind of social contract which would give me access to the photo, or strike up a relationship between me and the people or apparatus who catch me with their lenses. To the people I am just a passer-by, anyone, whatever; and to the apparatus I am ID number ABC1234, and a cloud of alphanumeric data. Both of them will always miss something, almost everything, about me. I am not blaming these systems: they are no more interested in me than I am in them. Unless I’m involved in the photo, unless the photograph as event involves me as participant (unless, for example, I am putting on a public performance, perhaps on a demonstration or giving a lecture, when I expect to be visible), I am withholding something from the image. And now I have to wonder whether the potential of images, their capacity to see otherwise, is always bound up in some kind of contract in which, however, something is always withheld.
Looking into a photograph is like looking into the face of an animal: so much is offered, and so much is mutually incomprehensible.