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How is the internet and instantaneous nature of media changing the photography industry? Gem Fletcher investigates.

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With insight from Omar Kholeif, Charlotte Cotton and Charlie Engman, the implications of the evolving nature and speed of image-making and sharing are considered.

The great potential of photography is its ability to shape-shift. To reveal, mirror and disrupt our expectations. In the last two decades, the collision of photography and technology – specifically the internet and social media – has accelerated the medium’s multiplicity. Every facet of it has been reworked, reimagined and reconfigured. Early concerns about the integrity of digital photography, the porous boundary between amateur and professional, and the appropriation of commercial image-making, now feel relatively insignificant as we grapple with how technologies have affected our humanity. Indeed, a set of social practices has emerged in this fragile space between humans and technology which has changed how we see, think and understand ourselves, and subsequently the practice of image-making itself. 

We exist within the unregulated internet economy. We are all commodity mechanisms that fuel a global machine and technology continues to advance quicker than we can assimilate it. Amid all of this, several questions are emerging: what constitutes a photograph? How is the participatory nature of instantaneous media informing artistic production? And most importantly, how has the internet altered our consciousness?

Steel Face Concrete Bend (Bryce Canyon Hoodoos), 2018 © Letha Wilson.

“There are no easy answers here,” says Dr Omar Kholeif, writer, cultural historian and senior curator at Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, who has spent their career interrogating the intersection of emerging technologies and how it shapes and impacts humanity. “The way that we ‘see’ is continually shifting,” says Kholeif. “The bigger shift is not in the image itself; it is in the proliferation and volume of images, the speed in which they accelerate, and the manner in which humans consume them. This metabolic process creates a way of looking that can simultaneously be more voyeuristic as it is distanced, leaving different kinds of meaning and interpretation subject to exploration.”

“Our gaze is codified through algorithmic culture; through narratives that are not necessarily our own, but which may have been constructed or fabricated to feel like our own”

Omar Kholeif

Kholeif is one of the leading curators examining the internet’s impact on our cultural and artistic landscape. Through a variety of frameworks, including exhibitions and books, they bring context to these complex shifts – issues so enmeshed in the fabric of our lives we often struggle to comprehend their full consequences. Kholeif is persistent in creating a nuanced understanding of the post-digital condition. Their writing blends memoir and critical analysis to strike at sensate human experiences. In the book Goodbye, World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age (2018), they trace the birth of a culture propagated and consumed by a digitised network. They collate the work of artists like Jill Magid and Hito Steyerl, who offer survival strategies as we confront how the internet has altered our field of perception and decision-making.

Mom © Charlie Engman.

In Kholeif’s latest exhibition at the Foundation, Art in the Age of Anxiety, over 30 artists, including Douglas Coupland, Cao Fei, Joshua Nathanson and Katja Novitskova, explore how commonplace devices, technologies and digital networks have altered our collective consciousness. They illuminate the ‘post-internet condition’ (a term used by Marisa Olson in 2008 to describe the influence of the internet on everyday life and art practice), animating a debate about image culture and mediation as well as aesthetics and distribution. “Our gaze is codified through algorithmic culture; through narratives that are not necessarily our own, but which may have been constructed or fabricated to feel like our own,” Kholeif explains. “So looking at a picture and being able to respond to it from a guttural and affective perspective becomes more complicated. A deeper searching or interrogation must occur.”

The companion publication, created during lockdown and published by MIT Press, took these ideas a step further by layering the additional anxiety and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Kholeif’s initial inquiry. The result resembles a real-time user guide that offers insight and comfort by acknowledging the chaos we find ourselves in. “I think there is an illusion sometimes that the digital sphere sutures us, when it cannot. I see this space as a tool, an aid, an alterscape that layers onto reality,” Kholeif says. “Yet, in 2020, many individuals in the developed world amid the global pandemic, believed that their isolation could be resolved through staying constantly connected. But as research reveals, this act simply manifests as a form of [Guy Debord’s] Society of the Spectacle, whereby individuals become ‘performing phantasms’ manifesting their lives through endless screen-based conversations; looking in a perpetual mirror; hyper-scheduling their life and refusing to give in to it.

Kholeif is keen to reject a purely dystopian way of thinking about these ideas. They consider themselves a “digital centrist” and believe the pivotal question that lies ahead is: “How will we reintegrate into society? I think, for the time being, we should accept our interdependence with technology while being wary of how we use it.”

Visual language

Technology has immersed us in a world of images. Beyond interrogating how these have affected our consciousness, informing how we discern everything from beauty to value, tech has also shifted the meaning of what a photograph is. The constituent parts of analogue photography are based upon a specific process, situated around a singular format and author.

While many photographers continue to hold ground on this type of practice, the photographic now represents something much messier and expansive. It encompasses a range of ways of thinking about imagery while connecting the dots between all the people who come together to make an image. Photography is a shared, public and potent language, and arguably what constitutes an image in the current environment is so fluid that attempting to tether it feels reductive.

Film_Electric © Brea Souders.

“Asha Schechter defines what makes a photograph in the 21st century as ‘everything between capture and rendering’,” curator Charlotte Cotton tells me. “And that’s it. In terms of what pictures are for us emotionally, culturally, economically and behaviourally, my starting point would not be to separate the aesthetics or the purported or historical function of a photograph. It’s what you do with it between capture – whether it’s your capture or a found capture – and the final proposal.”

Cotton has spent the last decade creating an ecosystem that pragmatically examines how photography is shifting in the context of a wider matrix of online behaviour and social codes. In Public, Private, Secret – On Photography and the Configuration of Self (2018), she draws together a spectrum of ideas, addressing the complex intersection between visual culture and personal privacy. Photography is Magic (2015) explores the work of artists, including Letha Wilson, Brea Souders and Rachel de Joode, who are thinking about digital tools, the materiality of photography, the ways we read images and disrupting the automation of those processes. The work of these artists marks an important moment in photography’s ongoing evolution. They are embracing a route that isn’t mapped out, responding to endless possibilities in a way that is both freeing and highly considered.

Heightened by social media, this culture of visibility has also affected what it means to be a photographer, with both empowering and challenging realities. “I get the sense of the positivity of this particular moment,” Cotton shares. “The most astounding thing to think about is this idea that you are not alone. The platforms give us the right to see and be seen. The algorithmic pressures and consequences of that are other things entirely. The rapidity with which those things are commodified and manipulated obviously has to be in the back of our minds. But on a real baseline level, the idea of being able to find your audience and create your structures excites me because that is a new paradigm.”

Delaware (2016) © Douglas Coupland

Online personality

By now, it’s clear that where and how we locate ourselves in regard to these networks is an inherently messy experience. It’s not surprising that celebrity culture and the notion of reality TV have infiltrated the photo industry. What is surprising is how it has taken hold – both on photographers and the industry at large. Cotton’s essay Process, Content and Dissemination: Photography and Music from Words without Pictures (2008) was prophetic in its argument that photography was on a similar trajectory to the music industry when it came to its reformation. Arguably the photographer and their persona are often considered more valuable than their actual photographs. Social media presence now plays a deciding factor in commissioning, both editorially and commercially, often leading to photographers investing more time in mastering the PR cycle than their work itself. Of course, artists throughout history have sought notoriety, but social media has accelerated this. Let’s be clear: photographers are largely beholden to this new world order and, right or wrong, this is how the industry functions in the present. However, we are already witnessing the repercussions of this as the industry grows more homogenous. 

“Social media has turned up the volume on this by making it quantifiable,” the photographer Charlie Engman tells me. “It was always a competition in a way, but now there is a scorecard. It forces people to move in ways that are not natural – people are biochemically addicted to the score sheet. It’s induced some more repugnant aspects of self-branding or self-mythologising –that everyone does. That’s where the internet’s difficulty really lies – people are so orientated towards attention, profit and productivity, it makes everything feel pressurised in a way that is unnecessary and unhelpful.” 

Collina Strada © Charlie Engman.

The New York-based artist is known for his art and fashion work that pushes at the boundaries of what an image is and can be. Engman believes his career exists “because of the internet” and has navigated everything the platform brings with an attuned sensitivity. “Everyone is just trying to figure it out and react to the context in which you find yourself. I’m constantly thinking about online engagement and how it works. It affects me aesthetically and emotionally.” He adds, “It’s also my main source of reference. I settle for it by thinking less about its value in an abstract sense and more about who is finding value in it.”

In Art in the Age of Anxiety, the artist and writer Douglas Coupland opens with a provocation: “The future used to be in the future, but for years we’ve been getting closer and closer to it, and now the present and the future have become the same thing.” Wrestling with the ways in which the networks alter our consciousness is something we have to reckon with for the foreseeable future as individuals making and experiencing work. To some degree, the ideas, messages and values we want to share are in our hands. While images remain a valuable asset in these spaces, photographers are uniquely positioned to imagine new worlds, new ways of being and to unite us in collective struggle.

Picture 049 (Cardboard Box, Autumn Leaf Red, Funky Monkeys) © Asha Schechter.

It is difficult to divorce ourselves from this pressure to participate. It’s perpetuated by the industry but masterminded by the tech giants who want to keep us online. Among the chaos, the proximity of the audience often now informs the creative process from context to concept. “There are a lot of conciliatory fractures in this idea of a shared reality,” Engman explains. “On the one hand, people assume that everyone has the same opinions and that there is this kind of amorphous correctness that everyone is aware of and supposed to be striving towards. At the same time, everyone is hyper individuated and doesn’t trust anyone else. There is no room in the middle for some kind of nuance or idea that might be contradictory – and that contradiction might be the whole point.”

Like many photographers, Engman’s projects have sparked debate, giving him pause to reflect on his intentions and positioning with his work. “It can feel like some people have the world view that art is moral,” he says. “And not only that it is moral, but that there is a correct type of moral. I think that is the death of art. The world we live in is proof that we stand on uncommon ground. It becomes complicated when a lot of people imagine photography or art as the battleground for that conversation.”

In Art in the Age of Anxiety, the artist and writer Douglas Coupland opens with a provocation: “The future used to be in the future, but for years we’ve been getting closer and closer to it, and now the present and the future have become the same thing.” Wrestling with the ways in which the networks alter our consciousness is something we have to reckon with for the foreseeable future as individuals making and experiencing work. To some degree, the ideas, messages and values we want to share are in our hands. While images remain a valuable asset in these spaces, photographers are uniquely positioned to imagine new worlds, new ways of being and to unite us in collective struggle.

Untitled, from the series Flatness © Annie MacDonell. Courtesy Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art, New York and Toronto.
Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.

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