Emotional Archives: Online Photo Sharing and the Cultivation of the Self’

03Apr12

Palmer, Daniel. ‘Emotional Archives: Online Photo Sharing and the Cultivation of the Self’, Photographies, 3:2, 155 – 171

The nature of these digital snapshots has already attracted considerable attention. For instance, there is widespread agreement among researchers that such images are both more intimate and mundane than earlier forms of personal photography (Gye; Murray). Indeed, the immediacy of photo sharing has been compared to sharing experience itself (Federman 4). One result is that the Internet has provided a space for an ever-accumulating archive of personal visual experience, memory and emotion.

[…] contemporary capitalism requires that we must be willing to embrace continual transformation as an essential condition of contemporary subjectivity. Subsequently, life is framed as a series of events, and “self-realization” becomes a driving force for promoting consumption.

Although the role of photography as memory is contested, the importance of family photographs as a particular kind of storytelling as memory is well established within photography theory. This is particularly the case for the most archetypal of twentieth-century presentation formats, the family photo album.

The fact remains that while seeming to merely record actual moments in family history, family albums typically perpetuate myths of coherence and togetherness by favouring happy moments. As such, they are implicated in the naturalization and reproduction of patriarchal structures of the family and leisure (see Bourdieu; Sontag; Hirsch).

Notions of “family” are changing. Nevertheless, and importantly for the argument I wish to develop here, family albums still typically restrict their focus to the immediate personal history and associated events such as holidays and weddings. That is, they present a “vision of the family as a sealed unit, impervious to public events” (Edwards 123).

Despite significant continuities, current changes to the ways in which we capture, store and disseminate photographs – and the emergence of online photo-sharing platforms in particular – demand a rethinking of dominant theories of personal photography.

[Describes tags, comments, categories and captions used on websites like Flickr]

Thus a verbal textuality accompanies the online posting of the pictures, and these become “essential elements of participation in the social aspects of photo sharing” (Rubinstein and Sluis 18).

Camera phones afford users the ability to document, re-present, perform and share the intimacies of the everyday. Even as their digital copies might haunt the networks long after they were taken, the images produced by camera phones are typically experienced as ephemeral artefacts, unlike analogue photographs that are usually meant to be kept. Indeed, amateur digital photography in general, with its ritualized modes of production, on-screen display and near-instantaneous sharing, may increasingly be considered in terms of an “economy of presence” (Gye 285).

The instantaneous feedback and sharing of everyday experience is quite clearly at odds with the traditional function of personal photography, around preserving memories of meaningful events, echoes of which can still be heard in such recent Kodak advertising slogans as “enjoy your memories” (from 2005).

A key difference with digital archiving practices compared to their analogue antecedents is that the images are publicly accessible (and even revisable) by others in their exhibition and sharing.

Instead of evoking loss, preservation, and death, users and viewers are encouraged to establish a connection with the image that is simultaneously fleeting and a building block of a biographical or social narrative.

[Discusses website thisMoment.com ; relates to decisive moment]

The notion of the unforgettable moment is obviously central to thisMoment, in which a moment is defined on the site as “any experience that has significance or meaning to you”.

Likewise, just as a traditional photo album is designed to be viewed by others, the images published online are meant to be watched and commented upon by family, friends and strangers; they are not mere archives or databases to be consulted. Certainly the possibility of remote strangers looking at our private pictures is quite new, but as Patricia Holland has observed, the photo album has long functioned to “translate private meanings into a more public realm”

It could be argued that thisMoment’s emotional coding is not very different from the practice of putting pictures into a photo album and adding comments, thus making the images part of a diaristic narrative, or framing an image in vocal narration. However, by tagging the emotion in advance, thisMoment attempts to textually build into the photographs (and other media) the chains of emotional associations ordinarily provoked by an image in the time of its display.

[…] what is distinctive about thisMoment is that the “owner” of the emotion and meaning of a photograph is the author of the photo-biography rather than the photographer. And, as is characteristic of the digital age, this emotional categorizing is constantly revisable, and may be commented on by others; unlike previous modes of codification, there is no physical negative or print permanently inscribed with a caption or date.

In thisMoment, one’s past and possible future may be expressed and re-imagined in fluid visual statements, grabbed from the global media archive, in a radical updating of the older concept of the personal scrapbook. In this sense, the software becomes a vehicle for the re-contextualization of photographic imagery in the service of perpetually mobile and transferable desires.

In a double action, then, thisMoment asks us to publicize our personal lives as history and to domesticate historical events, to personalize history. It fuses personal and collective notions of memory, blurring if not altogether collapsing the distinction between directly experienced and mediated memories and desires.

Depending on one’s critical point of view, this blurring either affirms postmodern pessimism about the collapse of memory into the eternal present of mass media representation or requires a more optimistic rethinking of how we conceive of historical consciousness in terms of what memory scholar Alison Landsberg has called “prosthetic memory”, memories that while not experienced directly “become part of one’s personal archive of experience”.

By reconfiguring our everyday reality into a story form, we create a sense of order that is comforting; this appears particularly appealing given the exceptionally fragmented nature of our present reality. Photo-biography sites like thisMoment are therefore a tool for the cultivation of the self, the enjoyment of which constitutes a peculiar privilege for those with the luxury to contemplate their lives as a “journey” towards success.

Not only is thisMoment a form of reflexive personal archiving, its “moment theater”, “moment flow” and emphasis on a “fluid, interactive timeline” underline the notion that memory is a trace that takes shape in the present; we are always recuperating, reconstructing, fabulating belated and phantasmatic accounts of the past.

The current expansion of the means by which people archive their lives using digital photography can be understood to be indicative of a cultural anxiety about identity, part of a “larger transformation in which the self becomes the centre of a virtual universe made up of informational and spatial flows” (van Dijck 115).

To the extent that the entirety of our lives becomes ever more available as a digital archive, photography is opened up as a site of dialogue in relation to other elements of media culture. It hardly seems coincidental that the notion of “the moment” is re-privileged, in a freshly individualized mode, precisely when both the stability of memory and the still photograph’s ability to capture events and generate shared experiences appear so threatened.

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