Competitive Photography and the Presentation of the Self

Alise Tifentale and Lev Manovich, "Competitive Photography and the Presentation of the Self" in Jens Ruchatz, Sabine Wirth, and Julia Eckel, eds., Exploring the Selfie: Historical, Analytical, and Theoretical Approaches to Digital Self-Photography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 167-187.

This is unedited working draft, as it was accepted by the editors in fall 2016. If you would like to cite the chapter, please refer to the published version which has benefited from later revisions and edits.

In my part of the article, I introduce and theorize the concept of competitive photography, and explore its historical emergence in the photo club culture of the 1950s as well as its transformation in today's Instagram photography and selfie genre in particular. 

Read more about my concept of competitive photography in this article.

Abstract:

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.

Excerpts from my part of the article:

Competitive photography is aimed at the audience consisting of a peer group of more or less like-minded photographers, and the images circulated within this group are discussed and evaluated primarily on the basis of the mastery of photographic technique, aesthetics, and creativity (unlike, for example, family photography that is circulated among relatives and which is discussed in terms of events and people depicted). Although the means of making and sharing images have radically changed since the 1950s, the category of competitive photography thrives also today and includes also a segment of Instagram photography and selfies.

  Example of competitive photography.  Montage of landscape and nature-related photographs from the FIAP Yearbooks of photographic art, published between 1954 and 1965. Detail. Thumbnails are organized in chronological order starting from top left.

Example of competitive photography. Montage of landscape and nature-related photographs from the FIAP Yearbooks of photographic art, published between 1954 and 1965. Detail. Thumbnails are organized in chronological order starting from top left.

Competitive photography always has a collective, social nature. The main feature of competitive photography is likeability—most importantly, by one’s peers and only secondary by wider audiences.  It is photography for photographers. Historically, in the international exhibitions of photography organized by FIAP in the 1950s and 1960s, prints made by one country’s photographers often competed for awards distributed by a jury of photographers from other countries. On Instagram, one user’s photographs compete for the attention and “likes” from other like-minded Instagram users, regardless of their geographical location and nationality.

  Example of non-competitive photography.  Montage of anonymous found family photographs from the collection  Look at Me  ( http://look-at-me.tumblr.com ). Detail. Thumbnails are displayed in ascending order according to the number of persons in the photographs starting from top left.

Example of non-competitive photography. Montage of anonymous found family photographs from the collection Look at Me (http://look-at-me.tumblr.com). Detail. Thumbnails are displayed in ascending order according to the number of persons in the photographs starting from top left.

The primary audience of typical non-competitive photography such as family snapshots, consists of relatives and close friends of the person who took the photographs. These photographs appear more formulaic and repetitive in terms of composition because their audience is interested mostly in what is depicted in these images, not how. But for competitive photographers on Instagram, “how” is equally important as “what.”

To read more, download the pdf of the final working version of the article.