Tag Archives: social media

The Changing Social History of the Photograph

I’m sure we’ve all heard it all before. This generation will be the lost generation, because so many of its photographs are treated differently, shared instantly through avenues such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, email, text message, Pinterest (and other avenues I can’t even name, let alone use) – and, if printed at all, are often printed on budget paper with cheap ink. A generation or two from now, who will be able to find grandma’s university graduation photos or aunty’s first birthday party pictures? Should we be thinking about these things?

Recently I’ve been finding myself thinking about the social history shown in collections of photographs. I’ve been trawling through the well-organised photo album collection of one of my aunts, ostensibly to locate photos of some of the family who celebrate ‘0’ birthdays this year, but finding myself thinking about everything in the background instead. With little money and plenty of ingenuity and inventiveness, the legends on the back of Christmas photos show how proud my grandfather was of his young family, and their joy and happiness is evident in their grins as they pose with their trinket shelves and books and tea sets on a sunny Christmas morning. 

Brothers and sisters pose alongside the birthday girl, with a homemade cake in pride of place on a small stool. The whole family lines up along the back of the house, dressed in school uniform, clutching suitcases and schoolbooks. An older sibling comes home from university, and the whole family gets together for a photo. A younger sibling marries, and there’s a photo of each older sibling’s family group with the bride or groom. The passport sized school photograph is distributed among the family, captured forever in the family album. Baby’s first photos are printed multiple times, mailed out to everyone in the family, preserved in albums with the appropriate age handwritten on the back.

When it came to my generation, there are photos of my brothers and me on the first day of school, or blowing out birthday candles, or dressed in cub or scout or guide uniforms. An anniversary means an endless parade of family group photos, each of them getting larger as the years go by. The weddings of my generation include the siblings (my aunts and uncles), or the mixture of cousins who attended.

And then, once we get to the age of the digital cameras, the collections I have access to both grow and shrink. In five years I think we have managed two photos with my siblings and I, one of them less than a month ago. In ten years – well, you might be able to add a couple more. 

Even the background of the photos tells you something. Fashions, in clothing, in food, in cars, in toys, even in advertisements, and road signs, and shop names and sign writing. The wedding or birthday cakes, the candles, the gifts, the buffet menu. The size of the photo, and the shape – whether square or oblong, or rounded corners. 3.5 by 5 inches, or 4 x 6. Even the fading of the colours and the albums they’re so proudly mounted in – all of it tells a story about a place and a time and a way of life.

Why did we stop posing as family groups, and move towards a parade of selfies and candid photos, and group shots with hidden faces and bunny ear fingers? Do we think we’re now invincible, or so completely documented that another photo isn’t necessary? I might remember the family weekend at the beach – but will my niece and nephew? Do we spend too much time in the here and now to look at and learn from our past, or provide a record for our future? Or do we simply not take the time to celebrate who we are and what we’re doing, moving on to the next big thing?

In fifty years, in a hundred years, what evidence will there be of our existence?

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Ratesjul is an avid reader (of almost anything) and keen amateur (emphasis on the amateur) photographer. She loves looking through collections of family photos and hearing family stories – and is in awe of her aunt’s collection of photo albums.

 

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Keeping YouTube celebrity in perspective

TRIGGER WARNING: The following blog post includes discussion of rape, sexual assault, and underage sexual behavior. Please be careful and read at your own discretion.

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Say “YouTube” and what comes to mind for most people are cat videos, grainy home footage of dads getting hit in the crotch with tennis balls and rakes, and comment sections populated by anonymous trolls who are most likely actual Neo-Nazis. What the average Joe doesn’t know, or knows only in passing, is that for nearly two million viewers, many of whom are teenaged girls, the name of the website brings to mind almost subconsciously the word “community,” tacked onto it like a shadow.

The community is comprised, on the one hand, of a group of people who make YouTube videos for a living (“content creators”), and, on the other, of the fans who tune in on a regular basis to keep up with their favorite artists. For these people, YouTube can be a refuge from ordinary life, and a place to make likeminded friends. Most of the time, the community is warm and inviting, and whole videos may go by with nary a racial slur.

In March of 2014, however, the YouTube community was shaken to its core when sexual assault and rape allegations against at least nine high-profile male YouTubers emerged on the blog-hosting site Tumblr. Fans’ reactions to the news typically fell on one of two very different sides of the fence: visceral horror and outrage on behalf of the victims, or a reflexive defense of the beloved YouTubers.

My own response to those defending the rapists and sexual harassers was disgust, and I wrote them off as young, impassioned teenagers who had completely missed the point. Caught up in their own feelings, they were reclassifying the perpetrators as victims in need of protection, instead of empathizing with the young women who experienced sexual assault at the hands of content creators who had age, experience, and celebrity all pulling to their advantage. I didn’t understand how so many responses could be lacking any sense of measured, thoughtful distance from the shocking news.

But then, allegations appeared targeting a YouTuber I followed. Alex Day is a 24-year old white British male, an irreverently funny entrepreneur whose vlogs amplify the comedic element of day-to-day minutiae. He is also, it turns out, an expert emotional manipulator who admitted to coercing young female fans into sexual behavior they had explicitly refused.

Until this past March, I had watched Day’s videos regularly since 2011. When the accusations came to light, I had to actively restrain myself from responding with pity for Day, and redirect my emotions to where I logically knew they belonged: with the victims. Yet I felt a personal sense of betrayal, hurt, anger, and disappointment, including, but going far beyond, a natural empathy and sadness for the young women who were stepping forward.

Why?

Handily enough, YouTuber Anthony D’Angelo uploaded a video in response to the sexual harassment scandal called “The Science and Dangers of YouTube Celebrity” explaining this very phenomenon, which discusses “para-social interaction” as a reason for the knee-jerk desire to defend our favorite celebrities against negative claims. Para-social interaction is a sociology term that can be defined as “one-sided intimacy, at a distance.” Mass media is rife with opportunity for one-sided intimacy to manifest, as it offers viewers at home frequent chances to develop a feeling of community with content creators. The nature of YouTube engenders a seemingly personal connection, blurring the line between performance and reality. YouTubers often vlog from their bedrooms on a weekly basis, and many don’t use scripts. While the intimacy is fictitious, it can feel incredibly realistic.

Over the course of three years of watching his videos, my brain constructed a pattern of fondness for Alex Day, developing something that is, chemically at least, very akin to friendship. I was therefore deeply resistant to the criminal allegations that upset my expected patterns of his behavior. Instead of immediately setting aside my enjoyment of Day’s work and writing him off, I felt both the urge to defend him and a sense of betrayed friendship.

These are false feelings that must be set aside in order to fully support and honor the victims and survivors in the community. As D’Angelo says in his video, the phenomenon of para-social interaction is especially common on YouTube, “which, by its connective and egalitarian nature, puts celebrities closer to fans than ever before.” Such closeness, however, is a fabrication. While we are eagerly watching someone whom our brain has counseled us to recognize as a “friend,” we must always remember that the person on the other side is merely staring into the impassive eye of a camera.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

 

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