Every morning many of the technology-adapted human beings are woken up by a smart device (that has possibly been tracking their sleep), look at their social media feeds, tweets, run through ads, emails, friends’ photos and videos, updates on celebrities forcing their refurbished life ideals. All of that is presented in a variety of forms, but in general, visual is the strong front of most interfaces and contents.
Any achievement, important or trivial, needs to be immortalised and shared. It is an instant way to socialise and keep our network, as well as a way to try to self-actualise. Anything we want to explain, show or prove, we quickly find amongst our tools, or better to say our augmented body parts, being smart phones, smart watches, tablets, smart jewellery and soon-to-be pretty much everything around our living environments; from domestic appliances to lights, in a broader term called “home automation system” or, as probably more commonly used, smart houses.
One way to describe the use and relation to images through all of these platforms can be done with the term “image intimacy”. The present time is closer than ever before to the use of images in a particularly personal way, from a clear creation of self-image to the expression of emotion or ideas in communication and much, much more. To clarify the term image intimacy, it is not meaning the visual representation of our intimate relationships to each other, but I use it to describe the relationship we have towards images. Since we use them in such a way that they can describe us better than we can ourselves: observe our selfies, camera rolls, curated social media feeds, dating profiles, business profiles, and the use of emojis, gifs, memes and all other imagery we share in (more or less) private online conversations.
All of these elements include the digital circulated photograph, but not to be excluded are, as mentioned earlier, graphical elements and illustrations like emojis and memes, as long as they are used in communication. The interesting part of this image, be it vernacular, commercial, scientific or artistic, is that all have in common the online distribution, and are to a certain degree in the public domain. Because of their appropriating, transforming and deconstructing potential, they can all be defined as vernacular.
As defined by the Cambridge’s dictionary, intimacy is “a situation in which you have a close friendship or sexual relationship with someone”. It is primarily about the relations, closeness between two subjects, but I would argue a shift occurs when technology and media get in the way. Images started as aides for communication and memory, but they soon after became the main subject, beyond the connection to the source of the depicted, leading the way for what we see. The image in the internet era has become the centre of interest, the unavoidable vehicle for communication, either in the form of a photo-message, video-call, crying selfie, or more. Think of meticulously staged brunches on Instagram, Tinder mirror selfies, or pictures for mom to assure her that you are still alive. Early childhood memories under two years old are often recollections made from photographs, videos and stories others tell us, so in that way we are the ones shaping ourselves and our memories after the images.
Images are a part of us like they have never been before. They are often more present and more descriptive than we can be, knowing us more truly and subconsciously. With selected followings, targeted ads, and self-curated personas we develop our bubble of aesthetics and form a deep and complicated relationship with images, and an external observer might find out more about ourselves than we are aware of. We get invisibly categorised, judged, ranked, and our images become infused with metadata, that works as our echo – one that we might rarely hear.
Since the early stages of online communication, the wish for images and the visual has always been present. Today the widespread use of gifs and emojis is a clear indicator that we’ve become so involved in simple and shorthand texting, that there has been a lack of subtle emotional expression in our communication. Where only text can create confusion, since the tone of voice and facial expressions are removed, the use of images helps to get a clearer and more nuanced conversation. Our message-between-the-lines can become clearer, our frustration can be transmitted, or facial expression mimicked or exaggerated with the use of somebody else’s photograph. In that way images are becoming more and more important as means of communication, and even if sacrificing vocabulary, they can seemingly deliver a much clearer and refined message.
Of course, the same ability to share, multiply and create imagery can partially be to blame for the post-truth era, where images garner distorted meanings, false contexts, spreading fear and hate. There are numerous examples of such instances, and the wide-spread use of the word post-truth came about in 2016, at the time of the Brexit referendum and the USA’s presidential elections. Emotions and personal beliefs are held blindly above facts, and emotion can be stirred more strongly through images than text. It makes me think of a specific example in my own social sphere, when I got upset in one such case. It was a text-image combination shared by some friends and acquaintances on my Facebook feed just after the world wide youth climate strike on March 15th this year, where a larger protest took part in several Slovenian cities. The messages that circulated were blatant comments insinuating that school children are interested in nature just as far as skipping class and partying was involved. As “proof,” an image was accompanying the text, showing a public square covered in plastic cups and empty wine bottles. Not only did the square belonged to a different city than suggested, but also to a completely different occasion – the aftermath of the biggest celebration at the end of the winemaking season. It’s a holiday connected to St. Martin, believed to have turned must into wine, which turns into a massive open air party celebrated by drinking excessive amounts of wine followed by hordes of drunk drivers. The friend who shared the specific post and was critiqued for sharing false information, responded that the message still gets through. I’m not sure that he was aware of the power of the image presented, the transformability and adaptivity it had. Or maybe he just didn’t care.
It seems that for the majority of people outside of the photographic profession, the myth that what we see in a photograph is true is still largely believed, at least to a certain extent, and perhaps not for the younger generation who grew up with the digitalised image. If we simply put the visuals as the carrier of emotion, versus the written as the carrier of intellect, we can see a shift. Our close relation to images goes hand in hand with the post-truth politics’ ways of emotionally affecting the receiving end for the wanted result.
Before the widespread use of the internet, we used to linger on one photograph, the object that had a profound impact on us or at least had sparked our curiosity,whilst now images hastily move under our fingers, where we are creators, senders, receivers, consumers and more, all in one. We live them, express our thoughts and feelings through them, they take over communication and together with text work in new ways, expressing more also in these joint efforts.
John Cass, Lorna Goulden and Slava Kozlov write about intimate media in the context on ambient intelligence¹, imagining how to tailor our living space to adapt technology to our needs, and not vice versa. Intimate media,as they write, are material things that reinforce our perception of relationships and are connected with our experiences, having sentimental value. In the past this has been photographs or photo albums, written records like diaries or letters, souvenirs, et cetera. They trigger our memory processes, which in turn activate a whole range of emotions and stories from the starting point of an object.² However, this has been largely centralised with the introduction of digital media, with intimate media being linked to a device, a translating outlet, a screen. This makes us closer to the technological devices as well, since it is unavoidably the carrier of our most cherished “possessions”.
Drawing a hard line of “before and now” might be impossible, and some might argue that the emotional closeness to images was always present. But I hope that the presented descriptions and examples have shown the emotional shift that I believe have happened with the wide use of image as communication, on how photographs are us and we are them, how they are a language in itself, in a very organic formation happening right here and right now.
I’d like to finish this collection of thoughts by Flusser’s words from 1983, long before the advent of online culture as we know it, that still seem very relevant in the internet context:
“The dominant media are now the images and no longer the texts. A powerful counter-revolution of images against text is underway. However, it is necessary to discern that in this counter-revolution, it is a case of an entirely different type of image that never existed before. The images that program us are post-alphabetic and not pre-alphabetic, as are the images of the past.”³
He writes of the post-alphabetic images as when the technical images were invented and a new reading of these images had to be introduced, as different to viewing traditional images. However, I think the idea is even stronger and more evident today, since such learning takes a lot of time, but the circulated image online have accommodated, or the connected world forced it.
In his words I see many of the arguments as to why defining image intimacy is a way to observe our relation to images. The post-alphabetic image is charged with metadata, stereotypes, anger, entertainment, hate and affirmation. They aren’t intuitive, they don’t show any truth, but are dependent on us being immersed in their use.
1. J. Cass, L. Goulden and S. Kozlov, Intimate Media: Emotional Needs and Ambient Intelligence, in Aartsand Marzano, The New Everyday, Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 2003, p.218-223
2. ibid, p.218-223
3. V. Flusser, R. Novaes and S. Zielinski, Post-history(Flusser Archive Collection). Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Pub, 2013, p. 92