My article deals with the changing photographic environment today, but it also raises wider questions about the transformations that our geo- and biosphere are currently undergoing, and about the imaging practices used to capture those transformations. By way of introducing its key points, I want to present a project launched at the beginning of the twenty-first century by a professional photographer with an interest in environmental issues called James Balog. Balog intended to record glacier retreat, a phenomenon that is considered the most visible indicator of climate change in the world today. To realize his project, he invested in a number of Nikon DSLR cameras, which he subsequently customized with microcomputers in order to enable them to capture images over a period of several years, in different weather conditions. The cameras were then installed in high-resistance cases and soldered onto rocks. Exposed to extremely harsh weather in Iceland, Alaska, and the Arctic, these cameras recorded, for years on end, the transformations of the geo- and hydrosphere. On retrieving them, Balog uploaded the data from the cameras onto his computer, and then edited the still images into time-lapse videos that illustrated the progressive ice loss from glaciers. Subsequently developed into the award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice (2012), the project has been promoted worldwide via a series of events under the umbrella of “the Anthropocene”: i.e., the present time interval, going back to at least the times of the Industrial Revolution, in which the human has been recognized as a geological agent who has had irreversible impact upon the world.
Balog’s film encapsulates all the key issues I am concerned with in my current work, conducted under the umbrella of “nonhuman photography” (which is also the title of my latest book).1 On the one hand, the production process involved in shooting the multi-year collection of images of glaciers from high vantage points in extreme weather conditions signals that today, in the age of CCTV, drone media, photogrammetry, and satellite imaging, photography is increasingly decoupled from human agency and human vision. Yet, for me, even those images that are produced by the human, be they artist or amateur, entail a nonhuman, mechanical element. By this I mean that they involve the execution of technical and cultural algorithms that shape our image-making devices as well as our viewing practices. On the other hand, the story about the glacier project demonstrates how photography is increasingly mobilized to document the precariousness of the human habitat, and also how—through advertising, campaign posters, and Instagram—it is tasked with helping us imagine a better tomorrow and a better life for ourselves. In its conjoined human-nonhuman agency and vision, photography thus functions as both a form of control and a life-shaping force.
All-encompassing in the workings of traffic control cameras, smart phones, and Google Earth, photography can therefore be described as a technology of life: it not only represents life but also shapes and regulates it—while also documenting or even envisaging its demise. Thanks to the proliferation of digital and portable media as well as broadband connectivity, photography has become pervasive and ubiquitous today: we could go so far as to say that our very sense of existence is shaped by it. In the words of Susan Sontag, “To live is to be photographed.”2 This altered role and agency of the photographic medium calls for a new understanding of photography, I suggest, beyond its traditional humanist frameworks and perceptions. The notion of “nonhuman photography” analyzes this new ontological—and political—conjuncture, as well as possible ways of negotiating it, while also refusing to submit to the conventional “human vs. machine” narrative.
There are good reasons why a new conceptual framework for understanding photography as part of a wider media context may be needed. Even though photography has become embedded in our everyday lives on so many different levels, the traditional academic and curatorial way of discussing this medium still maintains a relatively narrow set of human-centric frameworks and discourses on the topic: where photography is seen either as art (that is, as something undertaken by artists and exhibited in galleries, magazines, or on billboards), or as social practice (that is, as something done by so-called amateurs). My project of nonhuman photography adopts a different: that of posthumanist media theory. By this I mean a media-theoretical framework that combines insights from media and cultural studies as well as philosophy, while also raising questions about the human subject as the anchor and main reference point of analysis. In other words, I see photography first and foremost as a medium, one that is subject to dynamic and ongoing processes of mediation—only some of which involve humans. As a theorist-practitioner, I incorporate various photographic projects by myself as accompaniments to (rather than just illustrations of) the idea of nonhuman photography, in order to stage a different mode of thinking about and with media, one that involves the simultaneous production of media. My argument is both affirmative and critical: in analyzing “nonhuman photography” as a cultural condition in which visual enhancement, algorithmic logic, and mediated perception enable different modes of visuality and self-identification, I also raise ethico-political questions about the camera eye’s inhumane or even anti-human interventions. The notion of “nonhuman photography” proposed by me therefore encapsulates three different yet interconnected conceptual planes:
(1) the rather frequently encountered yet often uncanny-looking photographs that are not of the human (depopulated expansive landscapes, say);
(2) photographs that are not by the human (contemporary high-tech images produced by traffic control cameras, microphotography, and Google Street View, but also outcomes of deep-time “impressioning” processes, such as fossils);
(3) photographs that are not for the human (from QR codes and other algorithmic modes of machine communication that rely on photographic technology through to perhaps still rather cryptic-sounding photography “after the human”).
The link between photography and the Anthropocene—and, more broadly, between photography, biology, and geology—I posit highlights the interweaving of the matter (and materiality) of chemistry, minerals, fossil fuels, and the sun, but also of us humans, with this particular medium.
In the introduction to The Nonhuman Turn, Richard Grusin identifies this eponymous “turn” with a decentering of the human as the datum point of the humanities, and with a shift of attention toward questions concerning our human engagement—as well as material entanglement—with nonhuman entities and issues: “from climate change, drought, and famine; to biology, intellectual property, and privacy; to genocide, terrorism, and war.”3 In a similar vein, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse have recently postulated something called “the geological turn.”4 By this they mean an increasingly widespread turn toward the geologic as a source of explanation and inspiration for cultural responses to conditions of the present moment. All these authors intimate that the recognition of the vital role played by nonhuman agents in the life our planetary system needs to shape our understanding of the radical changes brought on by the modern way of life.
What are these changes? As Elizabeth Kolbert has explained in the by now well-known article in National Geographic titled “Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man,” “Probably the most significant change, from a geological perspective, is one that’s invisible to us—the change in the composition of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions are colorless, odorless, and in an immediate sense harmless. But their warming effects could easily push global temperatures to levels that have not been seen for millions of years.”5 We could thus say that there is something in the air at the moment—and this something is a mixture of cosmic dust and human-induced pollution. In other words, the Anthropocene describes the changing condition of photography and photomedia because it becomes visible to us through altered light—and through the particulate matter that is reflected in it. But the Anthropocene also serves as an articulator of a new crisis: a crisis of life itself, both as a biological and social phenomenon.
One of the main reasons I propose to link the light of photography and the shadow of the Anthropocene is that, as the receding glacier story presented earlier demonstrates, many responses to the planetary crisis signaled by that latter term have been visual. As well as science-led projects such as the one by Balog, we can also mention here large-scale art photographs of the damaged environment by Andreas Gursky or Edward Burtynsky, the critical photographic project The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, or the many visual works included in Grain Vapor Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene published by the MIT Press in 2015. I am indeed interested in the representations and visualizations of the climate change and ecological disasters—which I approach via the trope of “posthuman landscapes.” But I also aim to expand this “representationalist”6 approach to suggest that the concept of “nonhuman photography” can help us see and understand, in a new way, both the photographic medium and ourselves as partly constituted by this medium.
My claim about photography’s vital importance in the age of the global crisis of life at various levels thus constitutes the project’s philosophical axis. As stated earlier, I claim that photography is a formative practice of life not only because it represents our lives in various ways but also because it actually shapes life. It does so through images but also through various kinds of material impressions it activates—and also through the forms of perception it generates. In a philosophical gesture akin to the one made by Siegfried Zielinski in Deep Time of the Media,7 my argument here expands the notion of photography beyond “things that humans do with cameras” to embrace imaging processes from which the human is absent—microphotography, space photography, drone-mounted cameras, CCTV. Yet, by way of a conceptual experiment, I also want to take a step further to read human cultural practices as only one section of longer-term processes occurring across “naturecultures.” This will allow us to see photography as occurring precisely across what Zielinski calls “deep time,” as forms of stabilized perception and impression that occur across various media, such as stone, clay, wax, or even skin in tanning—and to consider photographs in terms of fossils. The recognition of the formative role of light across different time periods (in fossils, imprints, photograms, analogue film frames, digital snapshots) will also help us shift the debate on photography beyond the analogue-digital binary. It is this moment of temporary stabilization which signals a cut in time that differentiates photography from moving media, such as film or video, for me—and that, notwithstanding its kinship with other photomedia, points to photography’s ontological singularity.
There are some interesting predecessors to this nonhuman mode of thinking in media, communications and cultural studies—all disciplines on which current photography theory draws: for example, in the work of Canadian scholar Harold Innis, where railroads and trade routes were being read as part of the wider communications system.8 We could also look to Welshman Raymond Williams’ linking of culture to cultivation, that is the transformation of substance at the biological level, beyond the control or even influence of the human.9 Last but not least, communications scholar John Durham Peters’ 2015 book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, argues that “media theory is about environments and infrastructures as much as about messages and content” and that we need “to think of the media as environmental, as part of the habitat.”10 But the interdisciplinary conjuncture of media, communications, and cultural studies can also remind us why it makes sense for embodied humans of the early twenty-first century to zoom in on this sliver of geological unfolding we call “history” to try and make sense of it, using the conceptual and material tools at our disposal. It can therefore help us recalibrate the human in relation to the geological scales, without losing sight of the significance of that narrow stretch of temporality we call “culture”—and of how we have arrived at it. Indeed, it is the question of seeing—and unseeing—things we take for granted that is of primary interest to me in this project. I thus offer the notion of “nonhuman vision” as an alternative vantage point from which to understand ourselves and what we humans have called “the world,” in all its nonhuman entanglements. With this, my project responds to Nicholas Mirzoeff’s injunction to “recognize how deeply embedded in our very sensorium and modern ways of seeing the Anthropocene-aesthetic-capitalist complex of modern visuality has become.”11
A visual work of mine titled iEarth12 embraces such a nonhuman vision in an attempt to unsee ourselves from where we currently stand, while also remaining suspicious of the god’s eye vision from nowhere. The project offers a view of natural spaces that are actually (wo)man-made while also bearing an imprint of a technological tool. Manufactured from a children’s diorama kit, these “unnatural landscapes” dazzle with color and lushness, displaying the kind of greenery that is more associated with media representations of nature than with “nature itself.” The bird’s eye view of the landscapes evokes the perspective of satellite images of different locations, both remote and familiar, which we associate with Google Earth or Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. This particular perspective has a double function: it denaturalizes the familiar while also creating an illusion of immediacy, proximity, and visual mastery.
The “now you see it, now you don’t” aspect introduced by the pixelation and gif animation, coupled with what may look like excessive acceleration or even computer error, is aimed to push the viewer to engage with these images physically, through squinted eyes. The aesthetics of iEarth thus issues an injunction: the viewer has to become actively involved in the process of seeing by moving her head, blinking, or even looking away from the dizziness of this pseudo-sublime, one we can associate with the oft-frustrating and jaggy visuality of the early Internet. The homonymy between the “I” and the “eye” in iEarth is a commentary on our practices of looking at the world but also on our narcissism when engaging with it. The brand-like title is to remind us that “nature” has become a commodity, a product we fetishize and yearn for. Just like Vertov’s kino-eye, iEarth also foregrounds the technical process of the production of the world through biological and photographic vision. Through this it can perhaps help us look at the Earth, and at ourselves on this Earth, with a different eye.
Seeing our planet from afar has by now become a familiar device for creating an illusion of telluric unity (aka “globalization”). We can think here of two iconic images: the 1968 Earthrise and the 1972 Blue Marble. In his illuminating article “Earth Imaging: Photograph, Pixel, Program,” Chris Russill explains how these two photographs were implemented by Stuart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth catalog—a countercultural magazine-cum-product review manifesting a unique mix of West Coast environmentalism and West Coast entrepreneurship—to conjure up a particular image of both present and future. Brand’s incorporation of the two images into his publication was aimed at creating a collective vision of humanity while also allowing this humanity to see “itself from outside”: a vision which was intended to evoke a sense of responsibility for this “delicate jewel in vast immensities of hard-vacuum space.” “Suddenly humans had a planet to tend to,” declared Brand.13 Russill is particularly intrigued by the visual mechanisms involved in conveying this message, arguing that Brand “rooted earth imaging in a narrow history dominated by the episodic adventures of the space exploration paradigm.”14 He goes on to show that this view from above that is supposed to establish a commonality actually ends up being what I term, with some help from Donna Haraway,15 a “view from nowhere.” Indeed, not a single astronaut on Apollo 17, from whom the image originated, did actually see the Earth as depicted in the Blue Marble image, as they were unable to position their bodies close enough to the window to look out: instead, the images captured had been shot “from the hip.”16 More interestingly, they all subsequently claimed individual authorship of that image. There was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of technical manipulation involved in the production of the two photographs. On receiving the raw data from the space cameras, the image processors at NASA labs adjusted and “reoriented” the copies obtained; they also chose the color scheme “to align with cultural expectations for popular consumption.”17 While the evenly lit Earth in the Blue Marble is the result of the adjustment of lights and shadows as well as tight cropping, Earthrise-as-we-know-it has been shifted from a portrait to a landscape orientation in order to create an illusion of the Earth “rising” over the Moon, with a view to subjugating the nonhuman eye of the space camera to the visual mastery of the human.
The rationale behind these manipulations, as argued by Russill, was to repress “the strangeness and difficulty in seeing the earth,”18 a perceptual shift that was supposed to help promote the environmental agenda. Even though we cannot actually see environmental damage or climate change—to really “see” them we would need to capture electromagnetic radiation which is illegible to the human, or map the rise in ocean temperatures over a prolonged period of time, and then translate the data streams obtained into diagrams, graphs, and other kinds of visualizations—images like Earthrise and the Blue Marble constitute the Earth as a graspable object while issuing a veiled threat of “it” being taken away from “us.”19
The “pixel image” of the Earth included in Al Gore’s consciousness-raising environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and adopted from astronomer Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” visualization of our planet as an insignificant blurry square captured by Voyager 1 from the distance of around 6 billion kilometers is a case in point, even though, through its non-representational aspect, it seemingly stands in contrast to the two photographs discussed above. As Russill highlights, “The ‘whole earth’ fills most of the frame and suggests the priority of the global in understanding our earthly condition. Sagan’s dot, on the other hand, hints at a cosmic zoom by adopting a perspective of an interstellar machine probe.”20 Yet the fantasy of the human grasp of “the object” (be it the Earth or climate change) is manifested both by the photos and the pixel, reduced in scale to allow us to see this “it,” and take control. All three images adopt nonhuman vision only as an attempt at visual mastery, thus repressing the strangeness of what is being perceived, while reducing what is being perceived to an object of perception—and hence also possession, (technical and biological) manipulation, and, ultimately, human-charged salvation. Yet what the actual standpoint for this salvation is and how we should go about embarking upon it remains unknown: in images like this, reduced to our human scale and viewpoint, the human ends up enlarging himself as an occupier and owner of the actual, non-ironic “iEarth.” The proto-Anthropocene sensibility is thus already reduced to a belief that, as Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests, “somehow the war against nature that Western society has been waging for centuries is not only right; it is beautiful and it can be won”21—because, at the end of the day, we can hold the Earth in our hand, or shrink it to a pale blue dot. The somewhat excessive pixelation of my (definitely ironic) iEarth can therefore perhaps be an invitation to look otherwise: not from close up or far away but rather (from) askew. It can also signal an attempt to re-cut and reframe Al Gore’s “pixel as family portrait,” to use Russill’s apt phrase, in non-humanist terms in order to open up a less masterful and less self-aggrandizing visuality of the Anthropocene, with its unequal distribution of shadows and lights.
Photography as philosophy
iEarth and its more serious visual predecessors are not meant to serve as direct illustrations of the concept of nonhuman photography I outline in this article. However, they do lead us to a wider problematic of human-nonhuman relations, raising at the same time the politico-ethical question about our human responsibility in the world in which the agency of the majority of actants—such as wind, meteorite, rain, or earthquake—goes beyond that of human decision or will, even if it may be influenced by human action. The question of human responsibility in the universe which is quintessentially entangled, on both a cellular and cosmic level, is an important one. Even if, unlike Stuart Brand, we cannot be entirely sure what this fragile human “we” actually stands for, the responsibility to face, and give an account of, the unfoldings of this world—which is made up of human and nonhuman entities and relations—belongs to us humans in a singular way.22
To explain what I mean by this, let me discuss another image-based project. In the summer of 2016, a news item caught my eye reporting the discovery of an extensive pre-industrial urban settlement in Cambodia that far exceeded the familiar boundaries of the Angkor Wat temple complex. By “firing lasers to the ground from a helicopter,” archaeologists ended up producing “extremely detailed imagery of the Earth’s surface,”23 while revealing in the process a highly sophisticated water management system at work in the Angkorian Empire. The report was of interest to me not only because the discovery of the latent imagistic and material layer underneath the Cambodian jungle was accomplished by the mobilization of the techniques and methods of “nonhuman photography,” but also because it offered an actual dispatch from the end of the world—a trace of a civilization long gone, whose presence nevertheless revealed itself to the nonhuman vision of an airborne laser scanner. Where the human eye, both in its flat and elevated positions, could only see thick vegetation, the so-called lidar survey’s eye – where Lidar stands for light detection and ranging – was able to penetrate through the surface to identify the geometric patterns of earth mounds that archaeologists could subsequently read as the early Khmer society’s urban infrastructure.
The ability of laser imaging technology to penetrate through thick jungle and uncover traces of past societies allowed archaeologists to revisit their prior theories about the rise and decline of civilizations, while also revealing “long term patterns of human-environment interactions at the regional scale.”24 We could thus conclude that nonhuman photography lets us humans see the nonhuman shaping of civilizations: the role of water and other resources, the impact of surrounding ecologies on the development of those civilizations. More interestingly, the images also offer an imagistic record of the premodern traces of the Anthropocene. Early Khmer societies seem to have been actively involved in the profound and repeated transformation of “the landscapes in which they lived and inherited from their predecessors,” a process that “took place over millennia at a regional scale.” High-resolution airborne laser scanning is capable of “showing that the extent of anthropogenic changes to ‘natural’ landscapes during the past few thousand years has so far been substantially underestimated.”25
The actual technology involved in the lidar survey is also worth looking at: it is a combination of various photomedia devices, including the aforementioned airborne laser scanner (Leica ALS70 HP) and a digital camera (60 megapixel Leica), as well as sophisticated modeling software used in postproduction to interpret the data obtained. The scanner, mounted to a helicopter skid pad, pulses the terrain at regular intervals during flight. Nonhuman photography here is therefore very much dependent on the human element: engineers, photographers, pilots, coders, archaeologists, data scientists. This human-nonhuman assemblage has permeated and shaped photography since its very beginning—as evidenced in the examples such as fossils, seen by photographer and geologist William Jerome Harrison as early photographs,26 or in the photo of Lacock Abbey, about which its owner WH Fox Talbot said that it was the first building “that was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture.”27 But this human-nonhuman coupling is foregrounded much more explicitly in those kinds of high-resolution, software-driven photomediations. In the lidar process, laser scanning technology that emits light comes together with photography that captures that light to create a new field called photogrammetry: a science of making measurements from photographs. As well as involving the capture of light reflected from various surfaces, this technology entails 3D modeling on the basis of the data acquired from the laser and the camera. Transcending in its mode of operation the analog-digital binary, the lidar survey at the same time raises an important question: are we still dealing with photography here, or have we perhaps arrived at something that could be termed postphotography?
The concept of postphotography has made an appearance in recent years in an attempt to capture the transformations of the medium “in the age of the Internet and mobile phone.”28 We can mention here the catalogue-book published on the occasion of the “postphotography” exhibition, From Here On,29 held at Recontres d’Arles in 2013, or the 2014 photo-book Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera by journalist Robert Shore, which has gathered the work of fifty artists working with photography in ways other than just taking pictures. Shore’s artists are rather “metaphotographers who can make sense of the billions of images being made.”30 Yet rather than follow any such linear shift towards a supposed post-medium condition, I am more inclined to side with Edgar Gómez Cruz, who, while remaining aware of the radical changes the photographic medium and its context are undergoing, nevertheless favors an expansion of the definition of photography and not its overcoming. For Gómez Cruz it makes sense to retain an ontological continuity with the photographic medium’s earlier incarnations, provided we are prepared to challenge the rather limiting representationalist understanding of photography and focus instead on its creative, interfacial role in both making marks and establishing connections. “By understanding photography as an assemblage of ‘surface-marking technologies’ we move away from a semiotic/indexical understanding of images and could increasingly relate everyday photography with other kinds of image-processes, for example scientific imagery,”31 he suggests. The reconceptualization of photography in algorithmic and computational terms in the early twenty-first century invites us to see the photographic image as first of all a node in the networked sequence of human-nonhuman processes of connection, identification, translation, and, last but not least, invention. However, if we are prepared to accept that photography since its early days has been both inventive (as evidenced, for instance, in its monochromatic legacy that entailed a process of creative translation) and nonhuman (with the first image in the history of photography, Niepce’s Le Gras, having taken eight hours to be made and hence presenting a distinctly nonhuman vision and nonhuman agency – as evidenced in shadows on both sides of the image), then the current developments merely foreground its original nonhuman entanglement and kinship—to be seen in fossils, analogue snapshots, and lidar-produced photomaps. The algorithm-, computer-, and network-based photography merely intensifies this condition, while also opening up some new questions and new possibilities.
The possibility of seeing both into the past and into the future—of seeing life before and after the human (including before and after particular groups of humans), but also before and after our nonhuman counterparts (glaciers, forests, empires)—is also an instance when nonhuman visuality turns into a human-centric responsibility. As a practice of the incision, photography can help us redistribute and re-cize the human sensible to see other traces, connections, and affordances—to let us humans perceive and experience the world otherwise. Nonhuman photography can allow us to unsee ourselves from our parochial human-centered anchoring, and encourage a different vision of both ourselves and what we call the world. Adam Brenthel poignantly highlights that “We do not really need to artificially produce realistic images of storm surges and the drowning of a world because we already saw first hand the effects that Hurricane Katrina had on to the streets of Louisiana.”32 Rather than in representing, the transformative role of nonhuman photography may thus perhaps lie first and foremost in foregrounding the flow of duration (which for philosopher Henri Bergson, and for Gilles Deleuze after him, stands for life itself), while also showing us the cuts and incisions through which things stabilize in the world. Photography is therefore never just about cuts: it is also about reconnecting us to the current of life—and about making us feel alive, over and over again.
Roberto Huarcaya’s Amazograms—90 metres of Bahuaja Sonene project channels this very sentiment. Originally made in 2014, I saw it displayed in the Peruvian pavilion during the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale two years later. The display consisted of long sequences of photosensitive paper onto which, in a manner evocative of the early photograms of Talbot, the Amazonian forest had been contact-printed directly, with the help of a small flash light and the full moon. The long paper strips had subsequently been developed in the water of the nearby river, with the contaminated liquid taken back to Lima in order to dispose of it safely. Huarcaya’s Amazograms, images of the forest that has taken its own picture, carry a trace of life in that fundamental biological sense: as vegetation, oxygen, light, and water. They are a form of impermanent fossil which offers a deep-time link between the ancient world of the Amazon with its indigenous knowledges, and its modern function as a frontier, a resource—and a task. This ninety meter-long “undulating ribbon in fragile equilibrium”33 can serve as a lifeline, as well as a marker of the time lost. In Amazograms photography reveals itself as a nonhuman mode of geological tracing with light, across different time scales. But it also comes to the fore as a human-centric practice that has the potential to re-energize us by encouraging us to look at the sun and the moon—and to sense, embrace, and rethink our sources of energy and light.