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Visual Overload

Wednesday March 30th, 2011

While you still have access to the New York Times, take a look at the recent piece about the photos of Hossam el-Hamalawy, a courageous Egyptian journalist who found his photos “disappeared” from Flickr.

El-Hamalawy had used his Flickr account to post images of police implicated brutality and torture of activists, but he had not taken these photos himself. Because this was a violation of Flickr’s rules, the company removed the photos, at first without explanation. This, for an outspoken activist against a police state, was somewhat troubling. “Everyone knew that I had released those photos,” he told the NYT. “Then the photos were gone. I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking that at any minute, they were going to come for me.”

When el-Hamalawy tweeted about the deletion, he received a response from the group Anonymous, famous for attacking corporations that had withdrawn support for Wikileaks. Anonymous offered to help el-Hamalawy by retrieving the photos and eventually posting them to Twitter—though they have not (yet) brought down the Flickr site as a whole.

Does the media encourage speech or silence? (Photo by Toufic Araman/Egypt)

Pete Brook reminds us of the backdrop to this problem, which in fact is in inherent aspect of social media: “At 60 billion photos, Facebook has a larger photo collection than any other site on the web. By comparison, Photobucket hosts 8 billion, Picasa 7 billion and Flickr 5 billion.”

In other words, we are confronted with a certain “visual overload” that is constantly erasing the distinction between different types of images, and the content of certain images—which may have a vital role to play for a government, say, or a social movement—is insignificant next to the issue of where it is situated in the network of social media and intellectual property. As Pete puts it:

The flow of images through our daily lives increases at exponential speeds. Social media, photo-sharing sites with essentially unlimited storage and mobile hardware have created this sprawling (and it could be said, suffocating) visual superstructure.

This makes the role of a critical blogger quite crucial; by writing about images, a blogger can “curate” the flow, and write what could be called “extended captions” that render these images meaningful—rather than allowing the sheer volume to make everything meaningless.

On the other hand, this critical curation may not just be a defensive response to an information overload. The social media allow pictures to be personalized, reused, and reinterpreted, in a way that allows observers to situate photography in a different context. Pete mentions an essay reproduced by A Photo Student and written by photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, after they were on the jury for the 2007 World Press Photo Awards. They write about the problem of journalistic objectivity:

Within the tradition of the World Press Photo awards, and in the category of News in particular, there is the largely outdated expectation that a photograph should mirror the scene witnessed by the photographer—it must be unmediated. Yet the dubious relationship between photography and reality is by now widely accepted. After all some of the most iconic ‘documentary’ images etched in our minds have been staged, for the camera. For this Jury however the possibility of a ‘constructed’ news image was worrying. By contrast the author of these photographs is not playing the role of reliable witness, dutifully recording events without bias. He announces himself present at the scene, making a simple conceptual framework and a level of artifice visible that interrupts the idea of the photographer as invisible, and the photograph as evidence. This is refreshing.

Could this be the hidden gift of the iPhone camera and the Facebook photo album—a universalization of the self-critical photograph?

-Asad

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