Competitive Photography and the Presentation of the Self

"Competitive Photography and the Presentation of the Self" (co-author Lev Manovich) in Jens Ruchatz, Sabine Wirth, and Julia Eckel, eds., Exploring the Selfie: Historical, Analytical, and Theoretical Approaches to Digital Self-Photography (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2017).

NB: This is unedited working draft, as it was accepted by the editors in fall 2016. For citing, please refer to the published version which has benefited from several minor revisions and edits.

Abstract of my part of the article:

Many discussions of photography and other types of visual culture including user-generated content often rely on professional—amateur distinction. In this article we introduce a different pair of concepts: competitive—non-competitive. We believe that analyzing photography history and present such as Instagram’s visual universe using these new concepts allows us to notice phenomena and patterns that traditional professional—amateur distinction hides. The analysis of presentation of self in online digital photography is a case in point. We can now see that the selfie genre is complemented by an “anti-selfie” genre that presents the self in a different way. The two genres correspond to different understanding and uses of Instagram by non-competitive and competitive photographs.

Much of the current writing on selfies, Instagram, or camera-phone photography in general tends to decontextualize these phenomena and analyze them on their own without referring to historical precedents. The medium of photography tends to become invisible, while photographs posted on Instagram or other platforms are treated as pure and transparent data, from which conclusions about their makers and their audience are being made (in a social sciences approach), and features like smile scores or gender and age estimates are being extracted and analyzed (in a computer science approach).

What is still missing, and what we propose to bring back into focus, is more attention to the medium of photography as such. There was photography before mobile phones, and photography was shared socially before Instagram. While the new image-making technologies and image-sharing platforms, no doubt, change our definition of photography, much of what is being interpreted as “new” has roots in photographic practices of earlier decades. We believe that adding such historical perspective would expand our understanding of present-day cultural phenomena and let us analyze them as part of historical continuities. It is time to bring photography back into our discussion about photography in social media.