“Networked images”. A conversation with Anne Beaulieu and Sarah de Rijcke´s paper

I just finished the reading of the paper Mediated ethnography and the study of networked images — or how to study ‘networked realism’ as visual knowing of Anne Beaulieu and Sarah de Rijcke, that they presented at the Visual Methods Conference. What I would try to do now is to relate some of their thoughts with my own work in the spirit of exchange and share. I’ll do it in a personal and reflexive way more than to establish an academic critic of their work (which I found fascinating and useful).

The relationship between STS studies and research in cultural domains seems to be a difficult and  it has not been more explored (cfr. Couldry). In my own work I have tried to set a link between cultural production and the role of technology in its shaping. While there seems to be several works from STS that relate photography with technology (de Rijcke, Meyer), they all are settled in institutional and organizational environments. Therefore, the changing and shaping of image technology seem to be goal oriented since this use is framed by the institutions whose borders are relatively easy to trace. On the other hand, there is a huge corpus of research in photography as a cultural object. Not only related to the aesthetics but also many works that are interested in the circulation and “institutionalization” of those images, for example in the art field (Becker, Bourdieu). There is also a third corpus that reflects on the “impact” of new photographical technologies in the changing of society (for example how the Kodak Brownie camera created a new form of photography: the snapshot). My trouble is that these three fields are disconnected from each other and I need elements of the three of them to explain my fieldwork. The first (STS) is very aware of the mutual shaping between technologies and practices but lacks to incorporate the content, meaning and aesthetics of the images in their analysis. And also, they don’t seem to be interested in how people put their desires and tastes in the creation and circulation of those images. The second corpus (that we could call cultural circulation or social uses of photography) is concern precisely with these elements in order to understand the creation of visual elites and power, but seems to have a naive approach to technologies that make this possible. The third one (Social impact), is too technological deterministic and barely useful in an ethnography of the mediations.

With the emergence of digital technology, a greatest “networked complexity” is added to the equation.

While Beaulieu and de Rijcke’s “networked image” strategy is very powerful (they study images with a three-element analysis: interface, infrastructure, and interaction), I personally need, for my work, another set of tools that combines: meaning, performance and identity. My first disagreement with their approach is their use of the concept of “database”. It presents problems for my own work since is too fixed. In their research, a database seems to be an organized set of images with a clear goal and “function” inside the institutions they are working with. In my case, a random and self-created group in flickr, doesn’t have that concept or “structure” (at least in the first place). For my group, photos (meaning the practice of getting together to take them, the actual production of them, the sharing and the commenting in each other’s) are not a way to achieve a common goal (empower a certain style or themselves as an aesthetic group, to sale pictures or even to improve their skills) or to have an organized “collective memory” or “visual taxonomy” of nothing. They just want to share a practice they enjoy with other people that enjoy it too (the interesting part is that, while they do this, in the end, there are several achievements completed, the most important of all perhaps could be the group identity).

Sarah and Anne, in their fieldwork, point that they feel like:

missing out on some of the practices that are going on. When we have been successful in engaging people as they sit behind their screen, we have at times felt incapable of taking down in our notes the richness and complexity of practices. We have also tried to do these interviews together, and also to take photos, but we came away from these experiences feeling like we had actually missed a lot. (p. 4)

One of the things that it is clear for me is that I wouldn’t be able to have access to the deepness and richness of my group’s practices if I didn’t became “one of them”. Just one example to set this: the extraordinarily complex relation and engagement between statistics (number of views, comments, favourites) which are a measure of social recognition and success and the visual shaping of photography. This is not only a matter of content (what is photographed and how) but of the tools used to create that content (lens, photoshop filters, framing, light, etc.), the way it is “advertised” (post it in several groups, in other sites, the use of tags, etc.) and the social interaction around that image. As we can see, there are not only humans/nonhumans, nor technological/societal. There are infrastructure, interaction, interfaces and also meanings and desires. Distributed and networked agency technologically mediated. Only with interviews, or only with “desk” or “screen” ethnography, the richness of these practices would have been lost. Albeit I definitely need the screen(s), the desk and the interviews, I think, at least for me, that I also needed the playing of the game.

The third thing that it doesn’t seem to fit in my work is their concept of “Knowledge practices” (that clearly comes from their STS background). What I need is more a study of Communication-interaction-connection-visual production-identity practices BUT, combined with with their analysis of the images: “in terms of their historical context, taking into account the technologies needed, the practices around the images, the institutions in which they are put to work, and how these images circulated” (p. 1)

3 thoughts on ““Networked images”. A conversation with Anne Beaulieu and Sarah de Rijcke´s paper

  1. Many thanks for your reading, and for these reflections. It’s a pleasure to hear more about your project too. Sarah has already expressed a couple of important points. I’ll add that
    Gender Studies and Media Studies are indeed much more likely to be useful as bodies of work in relation to issues of playful identity construction. In STS, identity tends to only come in in relation to status as experts/stakeholders, or socialisation into a scientist–which is rather narrow in terms of the phenomena you’re interested in.

    With regards to modes of engagement, indeed, prolonged participant-obervation can be a really rich and rewarding strategy. In this project, we have opted for a comparative set up, which means shorter fieldwork (about 3 months per site) and more use of interviews. But we hope that the contrasts will also be informative of the diversity of practices, by throwing each other into relief. And, of course, long ethnographic periods are one of the special pleasures of PhDs…

  2. Edgar, I think that one possible “bridge” between STS and media studies related to the production of identity and engagement is the work of Knorr-Cetina and her concept of object of Attachment and knowledge object. I think you have that paper! but sure, more has to be said about the engagement of the ethnographer with her or his object of study!

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