Figures of Authority

Figures of Authority is a photographic project exploring the role of communication and the representation of the individual in the digital age. Just as the digital image is defined by code, the online user is becoming increasingly condensed into information.

Activities such as politics have transitioned to online spaces where electoral candidates have begun to focus their campaigns. In this environment popularity is measured by how many times a statement is re-tweeted and debates can become highly toxic.

In an age where identity is formed using code, there appears to be a significant loss of humanity. If the potential Prime Ministers can defined by a set of figures, it would indicate society is conforming to a transition in identification, which resembles a bygone practice of cataloguing.


The project is a photographic response to the issues surrounding online communication, digital identity and the residence of computer technology in society. Building on concerns associated with artificial intelligence and research on the online disinhibition effect it appears as though the online world is becoming increasingly compassionless, impossible to tell whether you are engaging with a person or a piece of software. In this world, information is the key aspect and the individual is being increasingly defined by their digital footprint, constructed of personal information. This inconsequential data, scattered across the Internet using applications and platforms such as social media, is used to form an impression of identity by those collecting it. The idea that an individual can be represented entirely by their information or personal ‘metadata’ references the transition in photography where the image is now made up of information. Visual data is just one form it can take, as the digital image is capable of moving between a latent and manifest state instantaneously. The concept that a person can be completely defined by information is alarming, provoking premonitions of a dystopian future where the individual is recorded and catalogued according only to their online presence.

It has been noted that the transition from physical to online spaces has an active effect on behaviour, with anonymity, disassociation, imagination all contributing to this alteration. The online disinhibition effect is an unconscious change in personality and behaviour; where the emotions of the online user can become detached. This leads to abnormal social behaviour which can take place in two ways, either a rush of intimacy leading the individual to reveal more about themselves, or a release of anger where the individual instigates and engages in toxic activity. Previous excuses for this asocial behaviour have involved the individual disassociating themselves with their actions, believing that their online self is separate. However identity and personality is not thought of as being compartmentalised anymore, but rather as a set of constellations; when an individual enters an online space, certain parts of these constellations align to form a particular arrangement of the individual’s personality. Therefore online identity is not an extension of the self, but is just as much part of them as their physical behaviour. As well altering behaviour, online spaces allow the individual greater control over their identity, with the power and tools available to mediate and construct a picture of their identity with commercial idealism in mind.

The images which form the photographic response are binary-coded portraits of the seven candidates for the 2014 General Election, using appropriated images from their social media profiles. 2010 was a very influential year with a coalition was formed and in the five years following this event, politics has steadily become increasingly discussed in online spaces. Party leaders now have Twitter and Facebook accounts, the General Election debates were trending on Twitter and online quizzes were available to see which party is appropriate for each user. The information from political leaders is notoriously ambiguous, with no guarantee that any promises will be held, or that they aren’t hiding more sinister plans. In addition to this, online spaces have contributed to the mediation of their identity, the careful construction of a positive reputation. The Figures of Authority series is making a new statement, can these binary images be considered as a representation, a portrait of this individual? Although humans can’t instantly perceive what these images are offering, computer technology would be able to instantly read and know what visual data this image is telling them. These constellations and fragmentations of identity physically represented by the mediated profiles of information an individual scatters across the Internet makes online users vulnerable, easily exploited by software. Could a future be approaching where a practice of observing, documenting and cataloguing is reinstated with computer technology assuming the authoritative role over mankind?


Photography: A Critical Introduction – Liz Wells

Photography: A Critical Introduction edited by Liz Wells is a staple text in the area of photography and is always my reference point for other material and further research. I set myself the task of researching this book in order to widen my knowledge and identify other writers and practitioners I could consider research in relation to my research paper. As with the other historic texts I researched, there were some chapters more relevant to my research paper than others so I chose to focus on the ones which I assessed would be more useful to me and skimmed the others for potential information. It is also important to address that I chose the most recent edition of the book to make sure that I had the content that was as up-to-date as possible which impacts heavily on my research as my research paper is about photojournalism in its current state. I have made sure that when researching my sources have been as current as possible and where not I have considered and evaluated that the ideology may not be as relevant as it was in the specific time period. My notes and the evaluation can be seen below:

  • Geoffrey Batchen – photography had been a ‘widespread social imperative’
  • ‘Straight photography’ versus ‘Pictorial’ photography
  • Photography was the best means of communication in the industrial age
  • Walter Benjamin commented in reproduction and aura
  • Photography validated our experience of ‘being there’
  • Sontag ‘photographing something is essentially an act of non-intervening’
  • Sontag defines the photograph as a ‘trace’ – directly stencilled from reality
  • Reading the image: semiology is the science of signs
  • Barthes commented on structuralist methodology and the studium/punctum nature of images
  • In documentary investigation, those being represented are being done so through the camera’s ‘gaze’
  • Documentary is a lifestyle genre, movement and tradition – there isn’t a single persepective
  • Karin Becker Ohrn – documentary is journalism, sociology and history (the goal is to bring about social change)
  • Martha Rosler – documentary is a ‘practise with a past’
  • French photographer E. Appert produced crudely montaged photographs in his book Les Crimes fe la Commune in 1871 – it was convincing enough because the public believed that the camera was incapable of lying
  • In the 1930s the paradigm of documentary was to put the subject within the frame of a social problem
  • Michael Foucalt – power resides with everyone in the social system
  • John Tagg – the burden of representation
  • Documentary in the age of post modernism, realism is under attack
  • Lithography and painting were replaced by photography
  • Photography went under a process of relocation and negotiation
  • K. Robins – Photovideo is photography in the age of the computer
  • We have a difference between ‘photographs’ and ‘photographic images’ – the epistemological and ontological status of visual images has changed
  • Post-photographic era was discussed by William Mitchell however it was addressed earlier by Wombell
  • K. Robins – the photographic image in digital culture
  • William Mitchell – new digital age of electrobrigade, a process of improvisation where parts are stitched together to form something
  • Jonathan Cary (art historian) the construction of virtual spaces is very different from the ‘mimetic capabilities of film, photography and television’
  • Walter Benjamin proposed that reproduction allowed ‘plurality of copies for a unique existence’ (his book Illuminations features essay written by Benjamin)
  • Walter Benjamin – a similar process to mechanical reproduction takes place digitally, the nature of the image is reproduced or simulated and stored digitally
  • The new urban experience is characterised by speed/rapid change/fragments – it brought around the developing infrastructure and new, conflicting viewpoints
  • The camera puts the ‘eye’ on the action that might not be seen otherwise, the shutter ‘freezes’ the action (through editing and other actions a narrative can be formed)
  • The camera reveals an ‘optical unconsciousness’
  • Photography and moving image can be used as a tool to document and examine the changing industrial society
  • Bill Nichols – The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems, there are three features in capitalism: entrepreneurial, monopoly and multinational
  • Codes have ideological weight however there is a danger that misrepresentation can be drawn
  • The sheer number of photographs in the world means that no image will ever be seen in its own in the digital culture – concept of intertextuality (the relationship between texts)
  • The photograph is at the centre of a ‘complex of concurrent messages’
  • Change of meaning from pre-digital to digital – rolling narrative
  • Term ‘techno culture’ is becoming more relevant
  • Photography is usually defined as realist because of the technological/mechanical nature
  • Indexical quality (sequential arrangement)
  • Photographic meaning is subject to code, context, operations, decisions regardless of whether it is analogue or digital
  • Fred Ritchin commented on photographic realism and the digital
  • Martha Rosler discussed that manipulation is integral to photography – objective realism is not an essential quality of the medium (Digital Dialogues)
  • Fred Ritchin (In Our Own Image) manipulation is damaging the integrity of the photograph)
  • There are semiotic complexities in the image
  • Proposed a secure category of stable verifiable images whose ethical status could be credited
  • Authorship is the key concept – and perhaps the credibility of the photographer and the organisation
  • Rosler has the view that manipulation of the photographic concept
  • Mitchell and Benjmain have the view that the digital age introduces a new approach to ‘seeing’
  • Another viewpoint is excitement about the techno culture and how the Internet plays a part in the production and transmission of visual images (the photographic culture is potentially outdated, limited to a recording function
  • Rosler commented on the commodification of images
  • The idea of photography and truth is relatively ‘modern’ and is partial, fragile and complex
  • Rosler essay – Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations: Some Considerations commented that discussions of photo-manipulations aren’t the key to the concept of photographic truth, manipulation has always been part of photographic history
  • Photography is a tool of communication and is undergoing a change
  • “Straight photography” is its own genre, has its own history, politics and frameworks where manipulation is avoided
  • Can a manipulated image be considered as a version of the truth? Photomontages by Dadaists/John Heartfield discusses a search for truth through manipulation perhaps to be considered as ‘conceptual truth’
  • Ultimately the meaning of the photograph is created by each viewer and the interpretation and meaning form/drawn
  • Photographic truth does not depend on technology – photography for propaganda didn’t start or finish with the transition to digital
  • William Mitchell – connection between post-modernity and post-photography
  • The tools of digital imagery have adapted to the post-modern era – digital medium ‘privileges fragmentation’ and ’emphasises performance’ rather than evidential truth
  • Artist Esther Panda – the work by the computer will encourage a specific and more prevalent examination of the manipulation present in photography
  • William Mitchell – Photoshop is a heuristic (stimulating ideas for further discussion) tool for understanding photographic representation
  • Manipulation is coupled with the ideology of post modernism – self conscious, playful use of language and style creates a parallel between digital image and poststructuralist theories of language and meaning
  • There will never be a concrete resolution on the ideas of meaning
  • Geoffery Batchen draws on these ideas, photography is a digital process
  • Photographic meaning itself is unstable because is relies on drawing on elements that aren’t there (signs and semiotics)
  • Technological determinism (William Mitchell) seeing technology as an autonomous force having definite outcomes
  • Technological evolution with the camera being replaced by the computer
  • ‘Image revolution’ refers to a wider expansion of visual techniques changing the way in which we will see imagery
  • The image has shifted from visual quotations to visual conceptualism – post photography replaces chemicals with codes, false polarisation between past and post photography because of evolving technology
  • Ritchin/Rosler/Mitchell all have viewpoints
  • Photography is indexical and sequential, dissolution of the singularly moment


As expected this book has been incredibly useful in locating further sources to research such as Walter Benjamin on the subject of reproduction and the mass image culture. I had already identified that his essay on art and mechanical reproduction would be a beneficial piece of writing to research in relation to the history and beginnings of the mass image culture and how his ideology is still heavily relevant to the current state of photography and photojournalism so reading Wells’ book was further confirmation to this. The one interesting and insightful point from Wells was the opposition and comparison between Fred Ritchin and Martha Rosler on the subject of manipulation, I haven’t researched Rosler and her writing yet and it appears that her ideology would be a a good counter argument against Ritchin which would mean my discussions on manipulation would be informed and balanced as a result. Having already researched Ritchin’s writing on manipulation I will set myself the task of reading Rosler’s writing beginning with the essay referenced in this book. In addition to this I haven’t fully investigated Ritchin’s In Our Own Image, choosing to read the more recent texts Bending The Frame and After Photography however the ideas explored by Liz Wells from this book are heavily relevant and still appear current, so I will also make an attempt to research Ritchin’s first text further. Ritchin and Mitchell’s suggestion that the digital age is changing the way the audience ‘sees’ the image is also a concept that will factor in the writing of my research paper however I plan to focus more on the photographic process rather than the way the audience receives it. However I will research this further and write about it in an independent blog post to demonstrate I have a comprehensive view of the state of current photojournalism that extends past the content of my research paper. I am very aware that the word count and the ten minute time limit is going to be restrictive when decided which content to include so the further research will be evidenced in these separate blog posts in an attempt to demonstrate my wider knowledge. Overall Liz Wells’ book has been a highly beneficial tool in gaining new ideas in relation to my investigation of current photojournalism and has sign posted me to other writers and practitioners who examines specific content such as manipulation more closely. Through reading this book I have received direction on where to research next in association to the concepts I wish to discuss.