The creative process behind my final set of images titled ‘Figures of Authority’ took place over a number of months. As identified in my initial proposal, I wanted to explore the concept of online communication and investigate how interaction in the digital environment differed from in physical spaces. This eventually led me to consider the role of communication and identity in the representation of the individual online through the use of code. This blog post details the process I took to developing my ideas conceptually, eventually reaching the end point which is my image set ‘Figures of Authority’. This blog post only covers the content and form of the image set, other blog posts detail my decision-making process in relation to presentation methodology.
After researching the dynamics of online culture and partaking in anonymous online communication I identified a term that kept cropping up which was ASL: standing for age, sex and location. This is used as a conversation opener in anonymous online communication because it is a quick method to find out three major pieces of information about the person you are communicating with. However the idea that a person with all of their characteristics and complexities could be reduced and compressed into three defining pieces of information. As a response, I decided to make a photographic piece based on the concept of ASL and how the dynamics of online communication could be limitative and manipulative as opposed to face to face communication.
Deciding on what the images would be of and how to approach this idea was quite difficult, as online communication itself can’t really be represented except through through the actual text. Originally I began the shooting self portraits on the idea of trying to represent the transient connection that is achieved in the space of an online chat room. Although the communication can infer a friendship or another sort of relationship, the fact is that there is a complete loss of physicality which is a concept I wanted to try and visually represent. If the images looked effective then I planned to conduct a series of portraits with a variety of different people in environments which would infer the individual is meeting up with a friend. I made the conscious decision to shoot digitally as I didn’t feel shooting analogue would give me any additional value; this project, being highly digital and based on digital concepts it would appear that shooting digital would be more appropriate.
I shot self portraits based on the idea that I was sitting in my room the way that I would be when I was talking to a friend. One I had taken them, I opened them up in Photoshop to experiment with different editing effects to try and make the subject in the photograph appear transient, ghost-like or like a hologram. Examples of my experimentation can be seen below:
This was my experimentation with imagery at the time of the formative feedback review so I sought feedback from my peers and tutors to see whether the images were actually effective. I received some complimentary feedback however it was identified that there really wasn’t a strong visual link between the content of the images and the ASL concept. It wasn’t being translated and I hadn’t made those strong links to the ASL concept beside thinking about including text alongside the image.I needed to think about how I could change or develop the imagery to progress.
Following the formative feedback review I went back over the notes from my tutorials and came across the advice given to me by David Rule when he said there were different areas I could focus in on. These ideas were the idea of an encounter, the motivation behind the communication and the idea of the online community. I considered all three aspects in relation to the concept of ASL and determined that it suited the idea of an encounter. The concept that identity can be condensed into three pieces of information to make the dynamic of the online encounter simple is definitely interesting. Identifying the aspect I find the most interesting meant that I was in a better position to focus on what to photograph. Perhaps the most well-known genre of photography which approaches the idea of an encounter is street photography, most specifically street photography portraits. This documentary portraiture emerged with photographers such as Walker Evans and continued by photographer Robert Frank.
Following research on these two iconic photographers I set out to undertake my own street photography project for my ASL project. My area of focus was Coventry city centre, I didn’t aim to photograph a particular type of person instead I focused on people who didn’t look like they were rushing from one place to another. The important part of this project was to ask permission from the people I am photographing so that they know what situation they are entering into. An observation from the photographs of Evans and Frank was that in some cases the people didn’t appear to know they were being photographed or looked uncomfortable at the fact they were being photographed. The downside of the person knowing they are being photographed is that they can begin to present themselves in a particular manner however this is an element I feel would compliment the idea of an encounter online. Each person has a greater control over the way their character and personality comes across, meaning they can manipulate and fabricate information about themselves. When photographing I made to shoot a wide range of crops and shoot both portrait and landscape to give me a variety of images to play with afterwards. I didn’t get to shoot as much as I wanted to because the weather turned and it wouldn’t stop raining however I had identified an approach which was effective and I could apply it when photographing over Easter.
When looking at the results of my street photography I found that the landscape images were the most effective:
The landscape images appeared to be better composed and I felt like I engaged with the images differently. Instead of treating them as a typical portrait and moving on quickly I found that I was trying to look at the image differently because it wasn’t the conventional orientation.
Having shot a few images on based on the idea of an encounter I needed to connect these images to the ASL concept. When photographing I asked all participants whether they would be comfortable to allow me to use their age, sex and the location at which they were born for me to use in my piece. I made them aware that the choice to reveal this information was theirs and they didn’t have to. However all participants were happy to do so, which left me with three images and three sets of information to play with. When thinking about how to include the ASL information I thought back to the talk we had from practitioner David Rule who explores the role of text and the relationship between textual and visual information. The reason for exploring the idea of ASL was exploring how a person could be condensed down into these defining pieces of information, therefore I felt I should experiment with overlaying with the portraits and the information. This idea was influence by the artist Richard Galpin who constructed and mediated the view the viewer would see when engaging with his pieces. With this in mind I decided I wanted the viewer to only be able to see each subject in the portrait through the pieces of information. I have done some previous experiments in Photoshop with overlaying text and thought that this method would be effective in my construction of my images. Examples of my experiments can be seen below:
An influential aspect I noted when I was making the images was that the black background was more effective than the white. With the white background, the attention is drawn to the shape of the text more than the person in the image, which although could be effective I preferred the effect the black background gives. The text is easily read in both images and I definitely think the viewer can engage and see the subject more in the image with the black background. I presented these images in my second tutorial with David Moore, he drew my attention to the fact I was merging both the physical and digital encounter together in these images rather than contrasting them. He thought that I shouldn’t include the images of the physical encounter in my project and instead I should really concentrate on making a purely digital response to avoid confusion and achieve a more effective set of images. This left me a bit lost for a few days as I didn’t really know where to go from that point, it seemed like I had hit a bit of a dead end and I was finding it hard to think of what images I could possibly produce now.
After a phase of researching I came across the terms and conditions of Facebook and started reading through them properly. I compared and contrasted them with the terms and conditions with that of other social media websites such as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube and there was one resounding similarity. Every individual partaking in these social media outlets, gives the organisation a license and free use of any content posted onto the site; this allows the content to be shared, copied, changed and stored. Use of information is a controversial topic in the digital age, with scandals such as the NSA and phone hacking raising awareness of the fact that the information people attempt to share privately can be easily accessed and taken by professional institutions or any capable individual. In addition to this, the very nature of the image has been changed from analogue photography to digital photography. Whereas the analogue photograph is defined as a physical negative or print, the digital image exists only of information which can manifest itself to resemble the ‘photograph’ on a screen. There is an interesting parallel between photography being changed to a practice of information and the idea that with using ASL as a conversation opener, that a person is being condensed down to information. This key concept of information is something I really need to focus on in my imagery.
Following this thought process I identified that I wanted to take images and change the manifestation of them from the conventional visual representation and instead display the actual information behind it. I research on the Internet how to change images into the binary code which informs them and came across a conversation website which would take an image and change it into different forms of code, one of which was binary. I attempted to input the images in this converter to see what the results would be, the visual results were quite interesting; past converting the images into binary, this engine actually assigned different colours to the code to attempt to resemble the original image. This could be changed to black and white or kept in colour however the engine still attempted to produce this visual representation of the original image. In addition to this I was still using the images from the physical encounters to test, I needed new material and to change this technique slightly for it to be more effective.
I thought back to the terms and conditions of Facebook and related it to the work of artists I have researched such as Mishka Henner, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin who have worked with appropriate/found photography to counteract the abundance of imagery in society. With this in mind I decided I wanted to work with found photography, specifically the profile pictures of Facebook users as this is a prime example of where an image is used to mediate and construct a certain representation, which in turn communicates a part of personality. I looked closely at the terms and conditions of Facebook to see what would apply to me, whether I could extract the information without the person needing to know or whether I should seek permission. I found that if I was to be using another person’s information I needed to obtain their permission and express to them the exact information to be taken and where it would be used. I went about seeking which profile pictures I could use and achieving permission, I contacted friends I have on Facebook as I felt that they would be more inclined to help my project. It also meant I could try and get a range of different ages, and locations for if I was to do anything with text it would mean that I would have some variance. I then put these into the image converter however I took it one step further and copied the code and opened it in Photoshop. This provided me with a string of white numbers on a black background which looked very effective; like a barcode. It struck me that my images could reference a barcode or a QR code with the additional challenge that instead of representing a price or link, this code would attempt to represent the whole of a person. I took these images in Photoshop and added in the ASL element, integrating the age, sex and location into the binary code.
These images were so more effective than the previous images using street photography, there was a much stronger sense of the ASL concept and the idea of the digital age changing both photography and communication. There are distinct parallels between photography and online communication because photography itself is a form of communication through interpretation and I really believe that these images work off this idea. Having produced a series of these images I thought I needed to experiment a bit to see whether the original black background and white text worked, in addition I wanted to see whether it would be more effective to have the text in the same place or to move it around. Although I was comfortable with my original decisions and felt they looked very visually striking I needed to do the experimentation to find out whether another editing choice would be better for the project.
After a meeting with Anthony over my images, we discussed how effective they were and whether the aesthetic of them was actually working. The inclusion of the ASL information in the actual could be too much of a distraction, Anthony suggested perhaps the information could be the title of the piece rather than in the actual image. I would need to experiment around with the aesthetic and the inclusion of information to see which would be most effective. In addition to this, Anthony drew attention to my choice of subjects, asking why it is important we see the people who are in the portraits as opposed to reaching out to friends and family. The subjects in the work are just as important as the process of image-making and I needed to experiment to see which subjects would be more appropriate than my friends on Facebook. The response to the aesthetic and process behind my work was positive however I needed to push it further in terms of understanding why I’m making the choices I am and how this affects what statement the project makes.
In response to my apt I decided to research and think about which subjects would be more appropriate and effective for my project. In the meeting, Anthony mentioned that choosing someone known for being associated with the digital concepts and issues might work better such as Edward Snowden. With this in mind I decided to search the Internet for some curated lists on who are the most influential people on the Internet. I came across the list by Time Magazine of the 30 most influential people on the Internet which featured people as famous as Taylor Swift to a member of the public who ‘broke’ the Internet by uploading a picture of a dress which acted as an optical illusion, provoking a world-wide debate on what the colour of it was. If I was to use this list in my project I think it would affect the presentation method of the project, I wouldn’t want to feature part of this list as there is no obvious method to determine which people to include. This would mean that the project might be a book or some curated online collection. I started collecting images of the people on the list using their social media profiles, as I felt this element of communication was still important to include in the project.
Alternatively, I also started considering using the political part leaders who are standing for the upcoming election as it is highly topical considering the election is about to take place and there has been a lot of activity online concerning their activity and intentions. Typically politicians are very well known for being able to represent themselves in a specific fashion, trying to be as appealing and professional as possible to the public to try and win their vote. As a result of this, many people feel that the activity by many politicians is simply an act and a front which doesn’t represent their true personality. The purpose behind all their activity removes all objectivity from their actions and we see a representation that is meant to sway the viewer and observer that this person is the best choice for prime minister. The presence of these politicians has become increasingly prominent online, with most politicians having their own Twitter account and Twitter account representing the party they stand for.
In addition to this, the election debates broadcast on T.V were being continually commented on across social media as they were taking place, transforming this social space into an environment of political opinion and campaigning. Interestingly enough it is at this moment when I observed that the behaviour of online individuals became particularly toxic towards some of the party members, demonstrating the online disinhibition effect I had previously researched. The combination of this change in politics, as well as the confusing and bias representational activity from politicians made the party leaders a very appropriate subject to choose for my Final Major Project. By taking their portraits from social media and displaying the underlying code, it demonstrating another form of information which is presented to us, but in an alternative manner. It would be highly interesting to observe people’s reactions to these portraits, as most people are detached from these individuals so there shouldn’t be many emotive reactions to displaying these people as information. However it is highly conflicting that someone who could have the power to run the country in the following months, can be represented so simply as this, it is a very limitative form of representation.
I really took to the idea of using the politicians in my work, as it is topical, it makes an effective statement and it contextualises my work in a specific time period by associating it with a well-known event. Using the leaders of the political party also gave me a smaller number of images which would mean the project could work as a wall piece, which might work better as I want to try and present these images as a typical portrait would be to try and get the viewer to engage and relate. Following this idea, I downloaded a photograph of each party leader from their corresponding Facebook page and compiled them together, ready to convert into code. As researched previously, the terms and conditions of Facebook specify that by making a page public, the creator allows the use of any content such as images and text to be taken and downloaded from the page.
Using these images, I converted them into the binary code using the same process I had used for the previous images and made files out of them in Photoshop. It was here that I played around with different colours again to see which was the most effective, changing the background from black to white and the text as well.
The black image looks like the binary code is an extract because the numbers appear to go on outside of the frame whereas in the image with the white background, it looks like there is a border to the image because the white creates an impression of negative space. In addition to this the black image connects to the concept behind Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series; we relate black backgrounds to screens much more because of the original appearance of computers, where there was white and coloured text on a black background. In addition to this the black background looks more sinister which reflects that the pieces have a serious undertone, whereas the white images don’t look very intimidating. For these reasons I decided to keep my pieces as white text on a black background and not even show the images with a white background at my next formative feedback review. I estimated if people thought I should experiment with the colours they would give me that feedback and if they didn’t it would mean that they found the images effective.
In the build up to the second formative feedback review I was trying to make decisions about how big the pieces should be in the exhibition. This process was initialised when hearing we would have to stipulate what presentation method we would be employing after the second formative feedback review. After submitting these requirements it would be very hard and unlikely to change them so I needed to make sure I had a good idea of what size my images should be by the end of the session. I decided to offer a decision between three different sizes, the first a very small print of about 10cm x 10cm, the second a slightly bigger print of 21cm x 21cm and the last a large-sized print of approximately 80cm x 80cm. The largest size wouldn’t actually print out however I wrote down the specifications for the size so people could visualise the image at the correct size. I posed the question of size on my formative feedback review sheet and asked the opinion of the group in the verbal feedback session as to what size I should make the images. The general consensus from the class was the medium sized print of 21cm x 21cm was the most effective because they were big enough to read but small enough to require the viewer to come in closer and examine the images. The smaller prints were too hard to read and the largest sized print would demand any extra attention from the viewer because they would be big enough to read from a greater distance. In addition to this the medium sized print relates to the idea of an average portrait which will hopefully increase the likelihood of my viewers attempting to relate to the images. With my content and the size of my images decided upon, I then moved onto researching presentation methods and how my images would work in the exhibitions in Coventry and London. Overall I’m really pleased with the content I have made, at the beginning of the project I couldn’t have imagined the images I have now produced but I’m glad I have chosen to specialise in this area.