We Shoot But Do We Think?
Society has dramatically altered since the advent of digital photography and its combination with other technologies. In recent years we have seen an avalanche of new electronic paraphernalia that incorporate digital cameras but as a society, we have not prepared ourselves for the impact they have made. The diversification of photography is no longer a realm for the educated or wealthy but now available to everyone. Photographic digitisation has lead to an influx of new ways of expressing yourself, initiating real consequences on how our society relates and uses digital imagery. In the last five years, we have seen striking technological advances in space photography, mining/underground photography and medical camera equipment. The Internet has also embraced user-created content by providing people with photo blogs, photo gallery sites, photo sharing sites and pages dedicated to digital scrapbooking. This convergence of cameras with other technology has led to unique accessibility of photography for people with all incomes and all walks of life. You can now find cameras merged with GPS systems, music players, mobile phones, watches, video cameras and alarm/security systems. This plethora of equipment allows us to digitally capture every moment in our lives, but the public has not primed itself for the ethical questions that converged photography may raise.
One of the most compelling consequences of digitisation in photography has been the accessibility of cameras for all people. Digital photography has become ubiquitous in everyday life (Cobley & Haeffner, 2009). Wherever you turn, there is a camera somewhere: in a portable device, on a street corner or wrapped around the neck of a tourist. Due to the emergence of digital formats, the cost of photography has dramatically reduced: camera equipment, photo printing and photographic accessories have much lower price points than in previous decades. Moore’s Law shows the cost of technology will be halved every two years (Mueller, 1999). Because of this pervasive affordability, digitisation of cameras allows amateur photographers to view, modify and correct results while on the fly. It has also resulted in a more ‘disposable‘response from developed communities as ‘poor’ images are deleted either directly from the device or later from the computer (Van Dijck, 2008). If we don’t like an image, we can remove it forever or we can apply modifications using applications on portable devices (eg: iPhone, iPod, DS consoles) or computer software (eg: Photoshop).
The adjustment of images using these techniques blurs the lines of cultural responsibility. In some instances, it can be seen as artistic or as a way to introduce new mediums to the field (Burgess, 2010). However, some modifications can cause distress to the people photographed or to those that view them. When images are adjusted or altered, the veracity of the photograph is diminished; yet often there are no visual cues to inform the viewer that it has been homogenised with other imagery (McInnes, 2001). When viewing the cover of a glossy magazine, it is difficult to tell if the model on the front cover really looks how they are portrayed, or if the image has been ‘Photoshopped’ by fervent graphic artists (Reaves, Hitchon, Park, & Yun, 2004).
Digital cameras have been added to a variety of other technologies that we use in everyday life and are now much smaller and portable than ever before. This digital convergence has led to a cultural change within our society. Van Dijck (2008) argues that whilst photographs were once a means to remember and reminisce, we now also use photographs as a form of communication and a way to further formulate our identity.
Our lifestyles have altered radically with the onset of this collective era (Fang & Ellwein, 1990). Digital photography has spawned new trends in technology that could not have been imagined twenty years ago. There are new hobbies like Digital Scrapbooking (using digital images to create keepsake pages that are later printed out), new Personalisation offerings (where almost anything can have a digital photo printed on it, making it special and unique to the owner) and changes to how we adjudicate sport (with the ‘Camera Eye’ now common in tennis, cricket and horse-racing). The digital age has also brought remarkable medical cameras that improve diagnosis; increase x-ray delivery speed and can aid the blind. It has transformed our safety and security with the use of facial recognition in international airports, with the use of speed cameras on our roads and in user-generated content being sent directly to news outlets as photojournalism (Schwartz, 2003).
But not all these advances can be seen as positive and with these dramatic changes come hefty responsibility. While it is exciting to play with the brand new shiny toy of digitised and converged photography, it is important to remember that as a culture, we have not yet discovered how it may alter our way of life (Garnham, 1996).
Disposable photography is problematic. Images are not printed as much anymore, and fewer photo-albums are found in the home. Distribution of images is most often delivered electronically, resulting in potential loss of our everyday images (Lister, 1995). Cameras, themselves, are now throwaway items as they are included in other technologies, like watches and mobile phones, which are designed to be replaced within two years. While digital photos are cheaper to print and cameras are cheaper to purchase, the cost of digital photography to the environment is also becoming a real concern (Bras, Muir, & Mathewson, 2009).
Privacy concerns are legitimate because cameras are now widespread and easily hidden from others (Hjorth, 2009). Gross, Ruby and Katz (2003) express it succinctly:
“The ethical question raised here is clearly connected to representational power: the inability of certain groups to control representations of themselves, or even to be represented at all.”(Gross, Ruby, & Katz, 2003)
Not only are we using digital images in new and different ways, but we are also sharing them both privately and publicly (Besser, 1997). Society is also quickly becoming aware of both copyright and privacy issues. Due to the prevalence of cameras in all aspects of our life, and their tiny size, almost everything you do in a public space has the potential to be recorded. Who owns the rights to this material? Is it the one being photographed or the one taking the picture? If a person is standing in public space, do they have any rights to privacy at all? These very questions raise doubts about how society is coping with this new-found digital age (Barnatt, 2001).
While privacy and copyright remain reasons for disquiet, ownership of images has also been neglected (Hudson & Kenyon, 2007). As communities explore photo manipulation software, it gives rise to more creative use of photography but also to the doctoring and ‘faking’ of images (Brin, 1998). Altered images pose direct problems for historians and indirectly affect how we, as a society perceive art, our history and our lifestyles (Cummins, 2007).
Historically, our perceptions of ourselves, our surroundings and our world are captured by artists with either photographs or fine art representations. With this awareness, comes the concept of ‘visual truth’. Roberts and Webber (1999) believe that with the advent of image modification software, the truth we know and recognise will no longer exist. However, Messaris & Humphreys (2006) disagree, stating:
“… the rise of the digital age has not weakened the cause of visual truth, but rather, has deepened our understanding of the complexities of truth precisely because digital imaging so clearly demonstrates both the fluidity and the profundity of visual truth.” (Messaris & Humphreys, 2006)
Regardless of which is correct, it is obvious that manipulation of images is becoming more mainstream and we have yet to see whether society will condemn or condone its habitual use.
Yet perhaps the biggest change to society is in the youth of today. The ‘Me Generation’ as described by Twenge (2007), use photography to connect to their peers rather than as an aid to historical reference (Van Dijck, 2008). They share images with friends electronically; they rarely print them out or keep them in an album. The Internet enables them to upload images to a variety of photo sharing websites, galleries and blogs that allow these images to be shared, discussed and commented upon. This is especially noticeable with the use of camera phones as users can shoot a multitude of photos of themselves in the ‘moment’. Van Dijck (2008) suggests these are shouts to the Universe, as if to say “See!”.
As camera phones become more pervasive, everybody is now a photographer; blurring the lines between amateur and professional. This societal change has been dramatic and encompassing. Dunphy Prendergast and Scolai (2003) describe it this way:
“While digital cameras eliminate film, camera phones go much further. They facilitate its ubiquitous use and an almost instant global sharing.” (Dunphy, Prendergast, & ScolaÍ, 2003)
Whilst many studies have been completed discussing the importance of ethics in regard to the digital age, with emphasis on photography, there have been few outcomes that have translated into new laws or guidelines for society as a whole (Fang & Ellwein, 1990; Meltzer, 1995; Mercedes, 1996; Prosser, 2005).
Even with the huge appeal of digital cameras converged into every electronic device you can imagine – or perhaps despite it – society has yet to define a set of rules for us to use as guideposts for the responsibility that comes with this incredible technology. Copyright and privacy laws need to be overhauled to allow for our changing society and legislation need to be made that protect people from invasive cameras but also protect the rights of photographers to document the times we now live in. While not an exhaustive list, the examples listed above show we need ways for our culture cope with this explosion of technology. Our society has been forever changed, for good or for bad, due to the digitisation and convergence of photography. Now we need to decide how to protect ourselves from it.
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