Being a photo designer and media scientist Thomas Abel currently holds a scholarship at the »Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology« (BGHS) at Bielefeld University, promoted by the ›Initiative for Excellence‹ of the BMBF and DFG. There he works on digital portrait photography with regard to production practices and image culture. Fields of interest to him are image science, Visual Sociology and visuality as well as photographic practices and photographic culture. From the perspective of social image science he also wrote the following article for the »personal-views« project.
What’s going on here? – The private image as an object to irritation and bewilderment
Private pictures make up an inherent part of the environment and everyday life of modern societies. Already newborns face the practice of taking private pictures. Since early childhood one is familiar with the production and motifs of private photography, taking a picture or being the object of it. People, to a greater or lesser extent, know how to handle a camera to take their own private pictures.
Photographic technology enables people to take pictures of their very own life situation and their relations to others as well as their individual environment. Snapshots, copies of real life and documents, sometimes arranged in picture stories or comprisals, turn to a depiction of ‚that’s what it was like’ and a testimony of being.
While in course of time digital techniques replaced analogue ones, nothing essential has changed in the general attitude towards photography and private pictures. Despite all talking about the unlimited opportunities of digital imaging and image processing, pictures are still thought to be copies of reality and documents of memory. Familiarity with cameras, pictures and their application has grown and even intensified with easy to get digital cameras and cell phone cameras. The production of private pictures is, more than ever before, an experienced action which remains unquestioned and follows rules and instructions, in part unconscious, in part on purpose. Taking, collecting and presenting private pictures is thought of as a normal thing to do. So why all the talking about private pictures as objects to irritation and bewilderment?
An example to point out irritating and strange aspects of private photography is the motif of the decorated and illuminated living room Christmas tree being a true ›icon‹ of private photography and inherent part of family albums. In contrast a bedroom scene hardly ever makes it into these albums or at least it is rarely shown to other people.
Although Christmas trees as well as bedrooms are both parts of private environment and as visual motifs of private life equal in some way, far less photos are taken from bedrooms than from Christmas trees, birthday parties or other celebrations. In the end it does not matter what led to the decision for one or the other motif and its conversion into a picture. It should only be made clear that the practices and motifs of private photography are not arbitrary but intended and follow a kind of ›picture-policy‹ of privacy. This strategy is based on decisions and attitudes and obeys stereotype conventions of presentation that are constructed, selected and produced. From a historical perspective, rather than from a contemporary one, it is much easier to realize that private photographic practices depend on socio-cultural contexts and decisions of action.
Approaching private photography as a sociologist therefore means adopting an attitude that brings irritation and bewilderment to familiarity and thereby opens up new perspectives. Routines and other forms of pretended clearness are the starting point of some reflections on what it really means ›to take a private picture‹, on what is going on there and on the circumstances affecting, controlling and influencing it. In this sense doing photography in private contexts means ›cultural practice‹, which is produced in interactions with the help of behaviour and communication of the people involved. These practices are on the one hand determined and stabilized by internal and external circumstances but on the other hand open, variable and contingent. From this point of view pictures of private photography are as irritating and bewildering as the practices themselves: so it is to find out what the ›privacy‹ of private photography really means or should mean in and as pictures. So the great challenge for sociologists is to understand what is happening when a picture is taken and to describe the situation of its emergence.
But this challenge is not a heuristic one although it is a principal task of sociology to look for, describe and understand phenomena of human culture in regard to their meaning, relativity and impact on a society. Within a ›media‹ society and ›visual culture‹ the production and handling of private photography is in fact an immanent cultural technique and skill. For private photography it could be said that there are not only quantitative changes concerning addressing issues and presentation options by the abundance of pictures and glut of pictures but also qualitative ones. This qualitative dimension means the relation between different ways of perception in media-images and what we call ›images of reality‹. According to this argumentation and distinction media-images transport ways of seeing that are different from our experiences of ›normal‹ seeing and affect changes in the perception and expectation of what things should be like in everyday life.
Doing sociological research with private pictures
Private photography is interesting for sociological research because it is an inherent part of the culture of a society: it is perceived, produced and used. Analyzing private pictures does not mean finding out what they really are or can be ontologically, but what their value and importance is. What private pictures ›tell‹ and how they tell it, how private pictures can be interpreted and how they are used are central questions of sociological image research. Moreover, the contexts and relations of pictures are interesting for sociological research. In this sense they are seen as carriers, media of social sense and cultural resources that influence other interrelations. According to the research question chosen the focus amongst others can vary from media focussed to recipient focussed approaches etc.
A ›media focussed approach‹ in the first instance deals with questions of the meaning of pictures and conditions of their appearance. It tries to reconstruct internal social contents, manifest and latent interpretation- and orientation-advices. These contents are analyzed regardless of possible intentions of their producers or forms of reception in contexts.
A ›recipient orientated approach‹ is interested in the interaction and interplay of picture observation and cognition, for example depending on education, social membership, class or group. This accentuation characterizes the process of looking at a picture as an individual one, that is determined by knowledge and profession and could be described as a process of co-ordination between an actual experience and the habitus.
Besides these media- and recipient-centred perspectives on private photography, which try to find out objective structures of sense and latent contents of meaning, processes of ascription, forms of contextualization and communicative connections of internalisation and therefore work with already produced private pictures, a ›practical approach‹ and a Visual Sociology are looking for a more active and alternative way of picture research. Pictures are not only objects of research or data for questions, interviews or discussions.
A praxeological approach analyses ways of production, distribution and reception of private photography through field research and participant observation as an object of demonstration and analysis of social practice and combines the results with more general research questions.
Visual Sociology uses photo cameras and other photographic techniques as research instruments for empirical research, the data acquisition and data analysis. The collected pictures are classified as independent and rich data for a systematic and image-orientated analysis. When using image-supported and –conducted methodology pictures play a central role in the process of interpretation and in the presentation of research results as a combination of picture and text.
With this procedure a praxeological approach and also studies of Visual Sociology proclaim ›doing photography‹ observation and production of own pictures as an active mode of image research. By highlighting the production of pictures as an active mode of research and of the field itself they try to make clear that sociologically orientated image research at first has to analyse cultural practices. Following this argumentation pictures are in the end made by and in practices of production, interpretation and use. Not till then pictures become pictures.
In this sense the active preoccupation with photography points out the dependence of pictures from contexts or rather the dialogue between practice and culture. Moreover, every practice contains some kind of materiality in dependence to bodies and artefacts, within the practice is formed between routine and contingency. Therefore private photographic culture first of all is dynamic and ›in action‹ and mainly observable in processes of conversion and transformation. Private photographic culture is made by human beings and therefore more than a cluster of meanings but activity, conservation, continuation and creative reinterpretation. Through the practice of private photography photographic culture is hold steady and new cultural patterns are always formed. In this context Pierre Bourdieu refers to the activity of humans as habitus and cultural practice and points out the interdependence of culture as the condition of practice and practice as an active moment of representing culture.
In terms of a sociological research of private photography this means that private images are produced by context, forms of knowledge and practice. The result of this production is the photographic picture with its own logic. Both dimensions influence each other and lead to more or less predictable, contingent situations and visualisations and in this way to social, technical and medial change – new functions, social uses and manifestations at first irritating and bewildering and at second sight just normal and familiar. Thomas Abel