Digital photography: communication, identity, memory

This paper was written by Jose Van Djick from the University of Amsterdam, I chose to read this paper because I hoped it would make a good connection between the use of photography in forming an identity. I have identified important quotes and sections from this stage and reflected on how they could be beneficial for my research project.


Photography’s functions as a tool for identity formation and as a means for communication were duly acknowledged, but were always rated secondary to its prime purpose of memory (Barthes 1981[1980]; Sontag, 1973)

First, communication and identity formation are not novel uses but have always been intrinsic functions of photography, even in the analogue days.

This paper acknowledges that whilst communication and identity formation were the prioritised function of photography in the early stages, it has always been part of the practice. Photography has been used for communication and identity formation since the practice began, now it’s role as memory preserver appears to be lessening slightly. Once again, I am being referred to the classic writers on photography such as Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, which I will definitely pursue in order to strengthen my writing about photography as a practice.


While the internet allows for quick and easy sharing of private snapshots , that same tool also renders them vulnerable to unauthorized distribution.

This quotation identifies that the mutability of digital technology, although allowing the owner to reach new parameters in image-making and editing, it also allows other owners of the technology to use it deceptively. When you add the Internet into the equation, the chances of having complete control over digital images in the online environment is near impossible. Most users of the Internet acknowledge that there is a chance their images may turn up in another context on the Internet, when one agrees to the terms of condition, they are agreeing that the company owns a certain type of right over all the content someone posts. The freedom of the Internet poses a risk to the user that posts content, which they believe is forming their identity. If an image a viewer explicitly thinks of as part of themselves appears in another context, perhaps when another user is drawing on the content to form their own identity, it could be detrimental to the first user’s experience on the Internet.


…the increased manipulability of photographic images may suit the individual’s need for continuous self-remodelling, but that same flexibility may also lessen our grip on our images’ future repurposing and reframing, forcing us to acknowledge the way pictorial memory might be changed by ease of distribution.

This quotation addresses what I was discussing in the previous section, users of the Internet have to address the likelihood that the content they post might be repurposed by other users. Whether this would be considered ‘bad’ or not, would depend on the imagined emotional copyright the original poster has placed on the content they post. For some users, what they post might be intrinsic to their idea of identity formation, therefore if another Internet user was to take this content and reuse it, the original poster may feel as if part of their identity has been stolen. However if the user doesn’t place an imagined emotional copyright on the content they post, they wouldn’t mind if the other user was to repurpose the image and use it as part of their own identity construction. In fact on the social media site Pinterest, users are encourage to take other images that they see on the platform and ‘pin’ them on their own digital mood boards. The users can choose to upload their own images, or they can create a mood board that is completely made up of repurposed images.


Through taking and organizing pictures, individuals articulate their connections to, and initiation into, clans and groups, emphasizing ritualized moments of ageing and of coming of age.

…anthropologist Barbara Harrison (2002: 107) observes that self-presentation – rather than family presentation – is now a major function of photographs.

The so-called cameraphone permits entirely new performative rituals, such as shooting a picture at a live concert and instantly mailing these images to a friend.

A photoblog, rather than being a digital album, elicits entirely different presentational uses: college students use it to keep their distant loved ones updated about their daily life but individuals may also use a photoblog to start their own online gallery. Photobloggers prefer to profile themselves in images rather than words (Cohen, 2005)

This set of quotes addresses the changed practice of photography in a digital social context and the role of the cameraphone in facilitating these actions. The first couple of quotes identify that individuals take and share photographs in order to find their situation in accordance to the other individuals in their life. However whereas the early forms of social photography revolved around family presentation, current forms of photography focus on self-presentation and the construction of individual identity. The cameraphone is the device that allows this changed form of photography, due to the portability and the ability to perform multiple actions, from producing the image to sharing it on social media. Various phenomenons of social photography have been facilitated by what the cameraphone offers the individual such as the increasing popularity of Snapchat and the selfie: a self portrait with the characteristic aesthetic of being taken using a device like a smartphone.


Sometimes pictures are accompanied by captions that form the ‘missing voice’ explaining the picture.

It is the voice in the caption that I also wish to research in my project, as it is not just that image that speaks to the viewer; the textual element is just as important in negotiating meaning. However I want to address the fact that choosing a caption that works when accompanying the photograph, is a highly artistic practice. This is where I can bring in discussions from the world of photography in relation to cultural theory, which I believe will give my project a greater depth and produce new forms of knowledge.


Digital photography is part of this larger transformation in which the self becomes the centre of a virtual universe made up of informational and spatial flows; individuals articulate their identity as social beings not only by taking and storing photographs to document their lives, but by participating in communal photographic exchanges that mark their identity as interactive producers and consumers of culture.

Some theorists have claimed that personal pictures are the equivalent of identities (‘our pictures are us’) but this claim appears to understate the intricate cognitive, mental, social and cultural processes at work in identity formation (Chalfen 2002).

Having one’s photograph taken, as Barthes observes, is a closed field of forces where four image-repertoires intersect: ‘the one that I think I am’ (the mental self-image); ‘the one I want others to think I am’ (the idealized self-image); ‘the one the photographer thinks I am’ (the photographed self-image); and ‘the one the photographer makes use of when exhibiting his art (the public self-image or imago) (p-13).

Cultural ideals of physical appearance, displayed through photographs and evolving over time, often unconsciously influence the mind’s (idealized) images of self (Lury 2002).

Instead, control, over one’s ‘self portrait’ is a subtle choreography of the four-image repertoires, a balancing act in which photographic images ‘enculturate’ personal identity.

In this day and age, (digital) photographs allow subjects some measure of control over their photographed appearance, inviting them to tweak and reshape their public and private identities.

This section draws on the concept of using photography as a tool for building identity, there is so much in this section. I particularly want to draw on Barthes’ four repertoires, or the four images of self the individual has, including the public self the photographer represents in an artistic context such as an exhibition. I want to propose that the individual on Instagram is drawing on all four of these ideas of self at once, in the fact that the individual is creating and curating an image of self by posting material on Instagram, regardless of whether the individual is physically visible. The images posted on a user’s Instagram account could be considered as a collective self representation and the user is the curator of that. Therefore the user is viewing themselves and their own identity, as both the subject of the image with an emotional investment in their own self-image and as a critical observer, the creative professional that is curating their self-image.

This paper has been really beneficial in supporting some of the concepts I have been proposing, such as using photography to express and build of a representation of the individual’s identity. This paper has examined the shift in the priority of photography, from memory preservation to identity formation. However when I consider this paper in relation to Andre Bazin’s writing on the ontology of photography, I feel I can strive to create a new take on photography in the context of Instagram. When an individual is creating an identity through imagery and publishing this identity on a platform such as Instagram, it could be considered that the platform is the basis for memory preservation, preserving the identity of the individual. However when creating this collective visual identity, the individual becomes both the subject and photographer, the creator and curator. The individual in question takes on an emotional and professional role in the construction (and perhaps preservation) of identity. I will further research the reference in this paper when it draws on Barthes and the four repertoires of identity and relate this to my own research.


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