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VI.6 Nov.-Dec. 1999
Page: 26
Digital Citation

Social perspectives

Luc Pauwels

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Photographs are often the only biographical information a family produces throughout its lifetime. Sociologists used to consider such family pictures trite and meaningless, but they yield fascinating insights. Strict social rules dictate what can and cannot be photographed. Photos have always marked and celebrated important moments in life; marriage, birthdays, first communion. Happy moments. Family snapshots tend to idealize the family; they are meant to suggest to outsiders that this particular family is a happy, successful and well-integrated one.

A photo album sheds light on the social and moral values of the family. The importance of at least some of those life-events has declined. We take pictures more often, and young people tend to take pictures of their peer group rather than of their relatives. Teenagers use pictures to create their own identity. Even so, the fundamental rules have barely changed.

Now that we are able to digitally enhance our pictures, you might think that objectivity and truthfulness were about to disappear. But photographic truth has never been anything but artificial. Photos are always a manipulation of reality. A certain amount of manipulation takes place before every shot when the photographer decides what and who to include in the picture. Digital manipulation is just a different take on that, which can be applied afterwards.

In the early days of photography when our great-grandparents believed that pictures reflected reality, portrait studios used all kinds of props. The sitter could choose from various painted linen backdrops to create a setting—a wished-for situation perhaps, or even a fictitious past. Metal contraptions were used to support the sitter's arms and neck, for the subject had to be motionless for the 30 seconds or so the shutter was open. The consensus was that you shouldn't smile at the camera but keep a straight face. After all, the image had to last for generations: having your picture taken was a serious business.


The aesthetics of family photography are socially informative. Photographic skill is not an issue. Two things are important: (1) Who is in the picture? and (2) Are we able to recognize this person? Note, too, that important subjects are often located in the center of the photograph.


"Lomography" is a rebellious movement against formal photography. A "lomographer" is not required to focus or even look through the viewfinder. Spontaneous snapping is all that counts. I wouldn't be surprised if this is a short-lived trend. For a start, you can't be spontaneous on command—that would be a paradox. Lomography isn't rule-free—it just has rules of its own. Once again, information and identification, that's what people look for in photos. Here you find neither. Conversely, it can have a purpose in establishing a group identity.

The primary purpose of a photo may be to preserve an image, but there is more to it than that. You have to be able to hand the photo around and give it to other people. So you must be able to reproduce it. That's why the Polaroid instant camera has proved a commercial failure: reproducing a Polaroid photograph is expensive and time-consuming. What's more, it fades. That's disastrous.

"Photographic truth has never been anything but artificial"


I am partial to pictures, but some text will always be indispensable. Who are these people? We may think that we know what is going on here, but we don't. Are they lovers or relatives? Are they asleep or carsick? Images are hard to read because we have a limited "visual" language. In other words, we have a rather narrow vocabulary for discussing images, signs, and pictures. The recipient of this image will need additional information to understand what he or she is looking at.


Wedding photos are among the more public of our "private" images. Wouldn't it be fun to have an electronic photo album? You could plug it into the TV to view the treasured scenes. People also like to mount photos on the wall. I can imagine a demand for the "electronic picture frame" to which you can upload your favorite digital family pictures.

"A photo can comfort and reassure"


A photo the size of a business or credit card is nothing new. Photographic business cards were all the rage almost a century ago. There were cameras with special lenses, and photo albums with special cut-outs. We like to exchange pictures. People have always enjoyed it and it's still very common. Maybe we could consider the existence of a "pan-Kodak-culture," by which I mean a culture where all nationalities share the same visual values. Everybody takes the same pictures, because they have been subliminally trained by the same global commercial images.


These photos are extremely significant. This is what people do when they are traveling: they're not only telling us that they like this particular building, but they also need to prove they've been there for real. Pictures of this sort do serve a purpose, namely a social one. Relatives who haven't seen each other for a long time can check things like "Is she really healthy?" "Does she look happy?" Long-distance relationships benefit from the exchange. Photos like these can comfort and reassure.


Seeing a Web-camera in a kindergarten reminds me of the movie Peeping Tom, in which a father drives his son to a mental breakdown by constantly observing him and all his actions. Is this progress? I doubt it. Wouldn't a parent prefer to bring a photo album to the office, possibly an electronic one?


A display of family pride. This image makes fascinating research material. Compared to the traditional photo album, Web sites are a much more powerful medium for projecting a desired past and meeting the family's public relations needs. Most of us have both private and public pictures. There are pictures to keep in a secret drawer and pictures to show the world. But nowadays the private domain is under siege. Résumés, hobbies, interests, skills—what used to be considered personal is now willingly vaunted in the public domain. It may become common for a home page on the Internet to take the place of a family photo album. A home page can incorporate a perfect combination of pictures, text and sound. So why not add a sound-bite to the baby pictures?

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Luc Pauwels <> is a professor of Communication Science at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Pauwels has a special interest in "visual methodology" and has published on family photography, anthropological filmmaking, the visual essay and other modes of visual sociology.

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