Catchup with Fred Ritchin

This was one of the highlights of Phonar as myself and student Olly Wood were lucky enough to be able to conduct an interview with Fred Ritchin alongside Jonathan Worth. We had the chance to prepare a question which Jonathan would introduce at the appropriate moment. Ritchin explained the overview of his two books After Photography and Bending The Frame for the benefit of any listeners who weren’t familiar with them, after which we entered into discussion.

Ritchin observed that we are constantly trying to describe the unfamiliar aspects of the world following the latest paradigm shift using familiar but perhaps outdated terminology referencing the description of the motorcar in history as the ‘horseless carriage’. Images and videos are in dialogue now with the production of ‘photo films’ and the capacity to extract a ‘still’  from a piece of moving image. When talking about the strength and potential of the digital image Jonathan Worth suggested the digital image may have more veracity because of it’s embedded meta data. However Ritchin counteracted with the perception that ‘truth’ is an image made up of a wealth of different images including the content, data and context; each of which is easy to manipulate or distort. As Joan Fontcuberta indicated, the credibility of the each photograph now seen in society very much depends on the credibility of the photographer. In terms of the ‘proactive photographer’ Ritchin referenced in previous interviews, this concept is still unseen in the current field of photojournalism however practitioners such as Marcus Bleasdale and Aaron Huey are working towards this idea through the process of collaboration. Although they are still working in the reactive sense, the creative methods they use to engage different demographics are an example of the responsibility David Campbell describes that a photographer needs to take on to produce social change. As Shahidul Alam denoted, photography is the current tool in which we are striving to create change in our society; the introduction of digital technology to which has without a doubt expanded the capacity. However we must continue with the idea of quality that Ritchin continues to examine and ultimately make sure that the most effective bodies of work are the ones that stand out from the noise.

In extension, whilst most practitioners praise the use of digital technology to achieve change Ritchin still states that perhaps the most effective communication of ideas is the original face-to-face interaction. This perhaps references his faith in the front page acting as a rallying point that the population could collectively engage with and respond. He talked about the discussion of iconic imagery on the Subway and although the viral nature of the Internet has been proven to provoke a mass response, this is a very disconnected method of evoking social change. Ultimately the most effective force is a physical group of people which has been narrated throughout history through events such as The French Revolution. In addition to this, the introduction of digital technology has increased the capacity of a person or organisation to control their own image. Ritchin explored this concept in his first title ‘In Our Own Image’ and the power of this control is being seen today through the videos produced and distributed by ISIS. Ritchin also urged society to consider the possible consequences of the digital revolution, referencing the historic example of the motor car; although it brought opportunity, it also eventually brought about climate change. Perhaps the digital revolution in facilitating different tools for social change, has also increased the capacity and provided platforms for the act of terror to be maintained and preserved.


Stephen Mayes in conversation with Wired

This blog post is a reflection on the interview conducted by Pete Brook from Wired Magazine with Stephen Mayes on the concept: ‘Photographs Are No Longer Things, They’re Experiences’.

Smartphones are a pivotal force in the transformation and expansion of photography in relation to mass consumption by the citizen population. The images produced from phones truly reflect the latest paradigm shift; where digital SLR’s attempted to replicate the appearance and characteristics of analogue cameras, smartphones are completely different. There is a fluidity in the digital images that allows the user to make continuous changes that wasn’t seen in analogue photography and the instantaneous nature of communication accentuates this. Ritchin described digital photography as “quantum imagery”; the more we try to examine the medium the more possibilities are opened up and it becomes harder to evaluate. The smartphone device was originally designed to communicate and stream; it is this process of immediate reaction that fuels the existence of smartphone photography. Our relationship with photography is changing from documenting and cataloguing evidence to the act of experiencing and streaming. However we still try and relate the digital image to traditional norms and values, we are embracing the digital culture but are constantly relating it back to familiar ideology, as we did with the automobile.

The main catalyst for the rise in smartphone photography in the media is the accessibility and the ease of the citizen user to produce and publish content. Most of the current events have been documented and experienced through phones; some of the most integral imagery from the Japanese tsunami was captured and shared from a smartphone. However the greater capacity for freedom of speech has created an unstable environment as the traditional gatekeepers are no longer in control of the information. This raises the questions of who should be the individuals providing the information? There is a certain credibility and trustability with the imagery and videography seen from mobile phones however it is not appreciated as a solid, serious medium. However should the population pay photojournalists when there is an online network of citizen journalists willing to provide information for no cost? These speculations are being made by many in the world of media however for now there it is apparent that there is still a role for the professional photographer as they have the skill to construct and read an image in a professional sense.

To see my Storify notes on the interview – follow the link below

To read the full interview – follow the link below

Twitter Discussion: Artificial Intelligence

A key part of the Phonar course is the element of connectivity and openness, this is mostly achieved through the social media platform Twitter. Phonar participants are encouraged to tweet their ideas and notes surroundings the concepts explored in the Schedule with the hashtag ‘phonar’ which allows anyone interested to view all of the tweets related to the Phonar concepts.

In this case the discussion was provoked by the article Fred Ritchin introduced to Phonar about an advance in Image-Recognition software. I was particularly interested in this article because the advance of artificial intelligence is a concept that raises many issues, perhaps the most common is the idea that computers are expanding their capacity to replace humans. Does the element of software change the nature of existing practises? For example could a software version of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ reference historic actions of documenting and examining a culture with the view of dominating it such as the British colonisation of India? Although the film ‘The Matrix’ still seems a futuristic concept, the act of teaching a computer to examine and essentially understand it’s environment and the people in it could essentially equip them with the tools and knowledge to eventually dominate humans. Perhaps this has already happened? How many people in the world today are completely dependant on technology to survive?

The discussion was shared between myself, Matt Johnston and twitter user Jon Jolley and was based around this speculation whether artificial intelligence has actually reached the point of human thinking. Jon Jolley argued that although computers can ‘decode and describe an image’, it can not fully understand it yet and that we still haven’t seen an existence of ‘robotographers’. To which Matt Johnston responded with the question of whether GoogleMaps could be seen considered as a robot photographer. Certainly although the technology of GoogleMaps is responsible for the imaging of infrastructure we increasingly rely on; it still took the human to drive the car with the camera mounted upon it, to collate this information. With this logic, saved actions in Photoshop could be considered as editors as the human constructed the process but the technology carried it out.

In today’s society it is evident that technology has improved the capacity of the camera to construct the potential for a perfect image by choosing the right settings and even being able to detect a smile which activates the shutter. When posed this fact Jolley counteracted with the view that technology has been equipped with a number of ‘tools’ previously unseen but in it’s current state digital technology doesn’t have the ‘objectivity’ to ‘form a narrative’. However he immediately challenged this notion with an article declaring that a patented book writing system has been responsible for the creation and sales of a vast amount of books, suggesting that technology does have the capacity at least to create a linear narrative. Through examination it became clear that artificial intelligence does actually have the capacity to complete tasks that suggest a thinking process however the exact nature of which is yet to be defined.

Matt Johnston focused around the term previously used to describe the thought process in constructing a narrative which was ‘objectivity’. We typically have a split between subjectivity and objectivity in relation to the construct of content, especially news content. However are these terms the ones to be used in relation to the process of construction made by artificial intelligence? Certainly they replicate that of the human thinking process however they are only measuring data and using algorithms to complete the task given to them. Matt Johnston introduced two terms that would perhaps better examine and describe the contrast between human and artificial intelligence; these are evidentiary and emotive. The evaluation and usage of data by artificial intelligence would the evidentiary thought process whereas the emotive thought process completed by the human would be the inclusion or exclusion of emotion in the construction of their narrative. Subjectivity and objectivity would still be applicable to the emotive thought process as an object approach is the removal of personal emotions which would allow the issue to be examined without bias.

It is clear that Fred Ritchin is right in his urge that we start to redefine the changing environment around us and stop relating unfamiliar content to the outdated ideology we feel safe in. Once we start re-describing our environment we are in a state where we can examine and understand change. As David Campbell outlined, we construct and engage with narrative to fulfil our need to contextualise ourself in relation to our surroundings, therefore it stands to gain that if we define the world we will be able to better understand it. However the examination of the technologic evolution may not become completely achieveable through definition. Ritchin defines digital imaging as ‘quantum mechanics’, the more we try to quantify the effects of the digital revolution, the harder it will become to measure as the evolutionary process fluctuates.

Discussion: The Narrative of Photoalbums

“Does a print album carry a better narrative than a digital set of images?”

This was the question posed in our Phonar discussion follow examining Sarah Davidmann’s interview which referenced the fabrication of the photo album. In a physical photo album the subject can have a physical involvement in the construction and preservation for example by writing the memory on the back of them. However what happens where there is a missing photograph? It raises questions as to whether it was lost by accident or whether it was removed intentionally. This references the example from Sarah Davidmann where she discovered that although her Uncle Ken was transgender, he was only represented as heterosexual in her family photo albums; any photographic evidence of his transgender identity had been excluded or removed. In the digital culture the manipulation of family narratives is considered to be quite common, however the effect of this fabrication can have still have the same negative consequences. For example Kim Jong Un commissioned the removal of his Uncle Jang Song Thaek from every photograph shared together and in addition destroyed governmental documents that denoted their work together. Although on face value this appears to be comical as those who knew of Jang Song Thaek won’t forget him instantly, as time goes on and this time period becomes that of the past, the presence of this individual will have been lost in both memory and imagery. This can be reflected in the photo album, there is a finality in destroying a print photograph, Sarah Davidmann managed to rescue her Uncle’s memory and re-examined it to liberate his memory however how many individuals have been excluded from their family history for good? In addition to this there is the issue of the preservation of family images using a material which itself can be prone to destruction; surely the indestructible nature of the digital photograph would the better choice.

Print images appear to carry less of a trace than digital images, when we lose or destroy a physical print it is harder to retrieve than a digital image. A digital image will nearly always be findable, as once shared online there is no restriction to the amount of copies that can be made. The issue of findability is something that is being addressed in the society today as the European Union pressure Google to expand the right to be forgotten online outside of the existing parameters. There appears to be a different in nature between that of the physical print and of the digital image and perhaps a different purpose for them. Stephen Mayes identified that digital photography has become more of an experiential medium whereas the physical print exists more of an artefact, continually evidencing the static moment which perhaps means it is more appropriate contextually for preserving family memories.

In the debate between the purpose and importance of physical images compared to digital images the concept of narrative. As David Campbell explained, in order to construct a narrative we need to make certain inclusions and exclusions; it is impossible to encompass the whole world into one story. Although there have been certain instances where digital technology and editing software have been blamed (and rightly so) for the fabrication of the images, it is clear that the narrative can also be used to manipulate and fabricate therefore as photographers we need to take care in putting together a story whether it be with physical prints of photographs or digital images.

Ian McDonald by Jamie McDonald

Phonar (Photography and Narrative) examines the construction of narrative using tools such as digital photography, collaboration across mediums, the written word, or in this case analogue photography. The film below examines the career of photographer Ian McDonald by his son Jamie McDonald who is a photographer, curator and now film maker.

After excitedly exploring the usage of tools such as digital immersion technology in relation to narrative, it was refreshing to watch this piece of film which immediately slowed the pace of my thoughts, perhaps referencing the contrast between the speed of digital and analogue photography. Ian McDonald’s approach was to understand the context before the environment before photographing it, eventually progressing to produce images depicting time, place and change. In this instant the final outcome can still be called a photograph without any consideration; the print was made through the mechanical process of analogue photography without the existence of any digital metadata. However although photographs are generally seen as an instant impression and a decisive moment, these photographs are telling a story and designed to be read.

There are many different ideas surrounding photography and context explored by professionals such as David Campbell who professed the importance of context in constructing a narrative. However it is slightly unclear where in the timeframe of photography this context should be achieved. In the case of Ian McDonald he made sure to gather the knowledge before hand in order to understand the environment before photographing however in some cases it is the act of photographing that discovers and gathers the context. Ian McDonald’s photography is a slow, deliberate approach completely different to the instantaneous nature of digital photography. Stephen Mayes speculated that platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat represent that raw thought of the user, in contrast the prints produced by Ian McDonald are the culmination of time and research; which however could be considered the most truthful? Certainly the context informs the work of Ian McDonald which would suggest a greater amount of truth, however in photojournalism the reactive, instantaneous content from citizen journalists has been praised for its credibility and trustability in relation to controversial events. Perhaps instead of considering the ‘truth’ of an image in its manifest state, we should be thinking about it’s potential to tell a version of truth to different communities as Ian McDonald’s work is likely to be seen by a completely different community to that of the population who communicate using SnapChat.

Beware of online filter bubbles- Eli Pariser

Jonathan Worth referred to the idea of filter bubbles and the way an individual searches online through commercial search engines. Matt Johnston provided us with an avenue to pursue this idea further by watching the Ted Talk with Eli Pariser.

It is without doubt that the Internet is the defining product and indeed the catalyst of the digital revolution, presenting the user with a means to research and experience without having to leave their desk. However as Eli Pariser identifies in this Ted Talk there has been an ‘invisible shift’ in the way the we follow information online as a result of these search engines, the consequences of which we may not be able to notice. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, commercial search engines examine and catalogue your previous search history and use it to tailor you future searches and the adverts that appear with them. This feature is primarily used to sift through the vast amount of content on the Internet and present you with the resources that it considers to be the most relevant to you. Social media platforms also track your activity and use this information to tailor your search results and construct your newsfeed. All these algorithms and formulas come together to construct a ‘filter bubble’: a mix of content produced for us based on each personal archive of information.

The defining characteristic of producing news is to consider that which would be in the public interest, therefore the best mix of content would be information that would both please us and challenge us. It is this balance that continues our growth as an individual and allows the capacity for us to take action against issues we don’t agree with. However we have seen a transition from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones and also computers have been proven to accurately replicate a human; as it stands a computer is still unable to think like a human. [for more on this concept click here] If computers are going to be in control of our information we need to make sure that the information seen in our news feeds is not that which we would be constantly comfortable with; otherwise the majority of people would be continuously watching cute cat videos for the remainder of their lives. To have a functioning democracy there needs to be a constant flow of all information; without which our country would reflect that of China and Korea who restrict the information an individual can see.Unknowingly our search engines may be removing our freedom of discovering new content in their quest to continue producing information that it considers relevant. The term ‘relevant’ needs to be redefined in the area of Internet searching; to mean that essential mix of pleasing and challenging. This references Fred Ritchin’s urgency to start describing the world with new terminology instead of trying to relate unfamiliar elements back to that which we already know and understand. In addition to examining our new environment we also need to re-establish the element of control, we need to not only choose which result we want to see but choose the nature of our search.