C’est ce que je fais qui m’apprend ce que je cherche.1
Pierre Soulages 

Whether collectively or individually, in different forms and levels, we always have some difficulty in facing social and personal changes that imply a redefinition of visibility, privacy, memory, death, time, space, and everything else that social media currently challenges. We often use conceptual devices to help us understand these changes2. Less literally and perhaps less intuitively, it seems that looking at photography and its means of production and diffusion can help us understand social media and its impact.

Photography appeared as a new technology that, by almost magical means, allowed us to document the world in a new way and to share these frozen moments of a lived experience with people who had not been present. More than a technological breakthrough, photographs “have an unprecedented influence in what we know about the world, and how we think and feel it, beyond personal experience” (Duncum, 2002, p. 16). Photography has changed the way we look at time and space, privacy and visibility, truth and falsity. The emergence of the camera, by altering the structures of vision, has changed the way we view the world and, along the way, has generated many of the same debates and difficulties we nowadays face with social media. The rationales of our ways of seeing, of what we can see, or the concepts of public and private, change today as rapidly as in the early years of photography. Over one hundred and fifty years later, the way people become visible to the world and the way they make the world visible to themselves has been reshaped by the new capture and sharing devices.

The history of photography can provide many clues that help us understand social media and contemporary society. The arguments that associate online content and social media with noise without great value are not very different from what Baudelaire said in 1859 about photography: “If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted it or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally” (Baudelaire, 1955, p. 230). Similarly, more than a century before ‘pics or it didn’t happen’, Émile Zola said in 1901, “in my view, you cannot claim to have anything until you have photographed it”3. We can truly understand photography and social media only when we consider that our vision changes and that the way we see it is always historically and socially contextualized.

Photography is, by its very nature, a technology of instability. In its staging of a game between real and simulation, between the visible and the hidden, between the creative and the mechanical, photography is permanently in a flow, from plates to film, and then to pixels, and now to a moment where everybody is carrying cameras all the time. These changes not only affect the modes, times and places of image production but also alter their means of diffusion and reception.

It is important now to clarify that the photography that matters to us here is the one that is the majority of the photography produced today and that we will call it social photography4, as opposed to the photography produced for artistic or documentary purposes.

Current discussions about social photography rarely go beyond the technical details and its devices and platforms, but defining it by its tools or reducing it to something that can be shared on social media sounds too simplistic and technology-centric. This photography should be considered more as a development in terms of self-expression, memory and sociality than as a mere technological evolution. We must look at social photography as a cultural practice, particularly as a way of seeing, communicating and learning. 

Over the past few decades, the concept of ‘culture’ has been progressively democratized and socialized in order to integrate all these new practices and “no longer consists of the sum of ‘the best that has been thought and said’, considered as the summits of an achieved civilization ”(Hall, 1980, p. 59). The ‘culture’ is no longer just a ready-made product we consume and becomes ‘what we make in the varied practices of everyday life, including consumption (Storey, 2010, p. 140).

Understanding our social world today means understanding the ubiquity of digital communications and social media, which, in turn, is largely made up of the images we make and share5. Any contemporary social theory must at least partially also be a theory of social media which, in turn, must also be partly a theory of social photography.

Over the past decades, at all times, it has been said that photography is more important than ever, and this statement has always been true. Photography has long been more than a form of artistic expression or documentary or journalistic practice. Long before social media, images had already touched almost every aspect of everyday and social life, from politics to the way we saw ourselves. The greatest demonstration of this intrusion of photography into our daily lives is, besides the growing number of cameras and photos, the way this habit of documenting has been lodged in our consciousness. The logic of social photography organizes our minds in new ways. We look at the flow of life as a succession of potentially documentary moments and often experience life at the service of this documentation, always with the audience in mind and these “so-called postmodern images involve immediate, short and intense sensations” (Duncum, 2002, p. 15).

In ‘Ubiquitous Photography’, Martin Hand points out that although the vision we had projected for the end of the 20th century was highly marked by the presence of virtual reality and simulation, today, reality is somehow different: “the visual publicization of ordinary life in a ubiquitous photoscape” (2012, p. 1). The biggest technological impact associated with social photography may not be the increasingly high-quality and ubiquitous smartphones, but the social media platforms that enable an audience and a social motive beyond the mere technological possibility. Without an audience for each of the snapshots, pre-social media photography had to work harder to get some attention; it had to be important or special or valuable to justify being seen. Although the barriers to taking photos have been lowered through automatic digital cameras at first and later with smartphones, it seems even more significant to us that the barriers to viewing images have also been lowered.

However, our collective consciousness has yet to be updated in relation to the meanings of photography and “a single image can serve many purposes, appear in an array of contexts, and mean different things to different people. The power of images is derived both from the shared meanings they generate across locations and the particular meanings they hold in a given place and culture” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2018, p. 13). The relationship between representation and the processes of ‘meaning production’ through symbolic systems is, by nature, a complex phenomenon (Sturken and Cartwright, 2018, p. 18). In its most common definitions, ‘representation’ can be “a description or depiction of something, or a symbol or substitute for something. The representation may ‘be’, or ‘stand for’ something else, just as in Saussurean semiotics, a sign is defined as ‘anything that stands for something other than itself’ ”(Leve, 2012, p. 6).

Traditional analysis have always focused on photography as an object and on the objectification of physical photography. This was a defining element of analog photography and has continued to animate contemporary discussions about digital photography but it is no longer so important in social photography, where why is more important than what and how. The images in the social stream evoke more than they explain; they relate more to experience than to the facts. This is what happens when photography stops looking at both the exceptional and becomes more orientated towards the normal, smoothly integrating the fabric of everyday life.

Just as it is simple to appreciate the special moments, it is also easy to underestimate the apparent banality of the moments that happen in between. Those who study the social world appreciate the complexities of the trivial. It is the smallest gestures and social grooming that create the substance of our lives and social photography is unsurpassed in the record of this informality of everyday communications.

Photography as an object, which until recently was its defining element, is now much less important and more disposable. In social photography, the object itself is less an end (a beautiful photograph per se) than the means (a significant contribution to an uninterrupted image feed). Whether because of the self-destructive character imposed by the design of some applications such as Snapchat, or because it is marked by the ephemerality of its visibility in a continually expanding feed, social photography reduces the importance of 

image corporeality. “The image object becomes a by-product of communication rather than its focus” (Jurgenson, 2019, p. 23).

Every image has its limits as a unique document, a record and a piece of information. But as part of a stream, what becomes most evident is a new form of visual literacy. As a visual discourse, social photographs are a medium for expressing feelings, ideas, and experiences at the moment, and the means are sometimes more important than the specific purpose of a particular image. For example, a photograph of feet in the sand have less to do with that particular beach than with the concept of beach, which may mean that we refer to warm weather and holidays, a relaxing moment, a trip or to whatever other meaning this beach concept might have for ourselves and for the people we hope will see the picture. Photography is no longer just a trace of the real as Barthes argued, and now mediates a dialogue between real objects and their symbolic meaning, acquiring an iconic character. This is also why low quality images often tell better stories6. While high-resolution images invite you to focus on the visual information, in what is shown and how it is shown, low-resolution images are more likely to replace concepts, becoming icons.

Traditional photography is closely linked to the notion of photography-as-object while social photography is much ethereal and more immediate. Cameras and photographs gradually became liquid7, and the image that hitherto had existed as a solid paper object is now mere digital information that moves through space with increasing ease. Social photography is more fluid precisely because its corporeality is less pertinent, existing mainly as information and flowing as such. And, as we have already seen, the objects present in social photography, while relevant in their particularity, have a greater tendency to be reduced to their symbolic value.

In fact, the whole history of photography could be written in terms of its increasing liquidity, especially when we refer to how it is becoming increasingly agile and fast. As Zylinska states in ‘Nonhuman Photography’, digital photography is “a continuation of users’ practices enacted with the analog medium; only it is faster, even less permanent, and even more excessive” (2017, p. 179). The concept of liquid photography, applied to social photography, describes not only how quickly images are created but also how fast they move, how they spread, are shared and re-shared with friends, family, and potentially anyone, but also their tendency to leak beyond the prescribed limits. More than fast, social photography is virtually instantaneous and the fast pace with which images are produced and diffused allows for a new type of photographic communication that is not only faster but also more universal and sometimes more expressive than words. Simply put, aphotographis sometimes faster than words.

This is not to say that traditional photography was not social. For example, many Polaroid images, by their attributes (instantaneousness and technical limitations) were made to be viewed, shared and discarded. Like social photography, its potential to communicate was its aim and the object was only a medium that was often discarded after. It is important to underline that, more than its aspiration to become a self-referential object, the function of social photography is communication. Social photography finds its purpose not in the image-object but in the transmission of the moment as it presents itself. Its circulation is the content and the experience is what is shown and shared. By reducing the importance of the object, making it almost or completely disposable, social photographs refocus on communication.

Communicating with images implies seeing and feeling the world as a communicative substance, as a collection of expressive potential waiting to be updated by its own record. Much of social media is designed to record, classify, store and rank lived experience that, as any kind of documentation involves a type of indirect ownership of the present. In On Photography, Susan Sontag describes photography more as a kind of invasive objectification process than as documentation:

“There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can be symbolically possessed” (1977, p. 14).

Social photography, and the audience it promises, places us in the present with a permanent concern about how it will be viewed in the future. We end up seeing almost everything as potential images, transforming the present into the past with every photograph we take and, ultimately, making us nostalgic for the here and now. Social photography, and social media in general, encourages its users to look at the present as a potential document for others to see, and in this documentary consciousness, photographs are not just representations of the movement of life; it is life that itself becomes determined by the logic of documentation (Jurgenson, 2019, p. 30).

Like photography at the time of its creation, social media merges the objective record of reality with a sharing impulse. The big difference lies in the fact that social media offer to contemporary documentary view a wide audience and therefore amplifies an intensification of the perception of others in our own perception. More concerned with the way the image circulates than with its content, social media asks us to look at the world through the lens of others and then identify what they might like.

The ephemeral nature of social photography contradicts the historical trend of photography to increase in abundance. From this perspective, the growth of a more ephemeral photograph can simultaneously act as a device that re-establishes the importance of more special and permanent photographs and also as a symbol of their own photographic disposability (Jurgenson, 2019, p.51). The permanent photographs that then become more scarce may then become more important. In the age of digital abundance, photography desperately needs this introduction of an intentional mortality to ensure the return to immortality of some of the valuable photographs.

What photography had to learn since its early days, much of the tech industry and big data has yet to realize: data captured can never be objective, natural, or just formed by truth. Regardless of the amount of information, this is never a direct reflection of life but an imposition dependent on its own policies. To treat big data as objective and true is both a fallacy and a fantasy, just as when we look at, or have looked at, photography as a mere representation of truth.

Social photography is a technological mediation of our lives and a powerful contemporary example of how reality can be augmented. Seeing through the logic of images, considering how we communicate with them and construct ourselves through their audience and their status is also a way to describe digital connections as potentially intimate and real as writing.

In the end, social photography is a fusion of media and body that helps to clarify the way we see, think, speak and feel through images. The media have always been something alive and inhabited and the camera, as soon as it becomes social, reveals more clearly than ever how we are made of and by images, as much as they are made of and by us.

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Baudelaire, C. (1955). The mirror of art, critical studies. London: Phaidon Press.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation (Body, in theory). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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  1. It’s what I do that teaches me what I’m looking for.
  2. Let’s think about the structure of files and folders that helps us understand how a computer works, or the notion of online that figuratively helps to get to know a new and complex concept of describing through a familiar word.
  3. Cited in Susan Sontag, On Photography, London: Penguin Books, 1977, 87.
  4. This photograph can also be called snapshot photography, personal photography, domestic photography, vernacular photography, networked images, or, as Fred Ritchin differentiates in Bending the Frame (2013), an image as opposed to a photograph.
  5. “The more widely circulated a sign is (and mass-mediated signs circulate very widely, by definition), the more diverse the more diverse the practices are within which that sign will be embedded (Rymes, 2011, p. 210).
  6. At the beginning of social photography, most photographic applications took advantage of this factor, using effects that intentionally degraded image quality and simulated traditional low-tech cameras.
  7. Zygmunt Bauman created the metaphor of an increasingly ‘liquid’ world (2000). Bauman argues that almost everything becomes less solid and heavy and instead lighter, more fluid, porous, agile, and difficult to grasp, a consequence of the radical changes and upending of traditions caused by modern ideologies and technologies.