The Social Photo: On Photography & Social Media

Pre module reading is by Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography & Social Media, with the task to post a critical response on any specific ideas or quotes that were of interest. Overall, the book is useful and insightful; I have always found social photographs difficult to place, but lacked any informed arguments on why to think about them differently. Rather than artistic endeavours, we can view them as a form of expressive communication. Nathan is a bit light on explaining where social media apps play a role in social photography, having previously worked for Snapchat the expectation was this would be examined in some detail. The social media app works as a driver, designed to draw users in and hook them on the platform, to what extent does this influence and steer social photography.

Two ideas stood out in positioning the social photograph and in understanding their purpose. The first of a stream or flow of images and how that works to create a sense of awareness of others:

Opposed to the scene is this stream, the commonplace flow of images, each perhaps trivial in its own but important in aggregate, providing us a type of intimate and ambient awareness of the other. (Jurgenson 2020: p. 14)

Each image of the mundane or trivial simply another insight into the world of someone else, not a deep insight or understanding but a self chosen image that expresses a unique point in time they want to share. There may not be much direct contact with the person, but there is this sense of what’s going on around them, an ‘ambient awareness’. This neatly captures a platform like Facebook, you have this rough idea of where people are and their present circumstances, it’s a very low cost way of keeping in touch by not keeping in touch.

The idea of individual images as a means of communicating an experience rather than something artistic or informational seems to be a good fit for many of the images seen on social media, but are they really that different a form of expression than images taken prior to social media & sharing platforms?

Photography is social photography to the degree thats it central use is more expressive that informational, when the recording of reality is not its own end but a means for communicating an experience. (Jurgenson 2020: p. 17)

What makes the social photograph more of an experience than its film or early digital predecessor, the immediacy, instant feedback, a receptive audience, or is it the context of where and when it is used? This aspect of social photography is more difficult to place as a unique identifier than the idea of the stream. Although taken together, they form a persuasive argument on the meaning and interpretation of social photographs.

The discussion around video and where the social photograph sits in relation is interesting; the video demanding more time (relative to a still image) to convey a story, whereas the photograph you can spend as long or as little time as desired and freely roam around the image, the narrative more open-ended. Within the context of social photography, the decision on whether to use still or video may in future be a choice of which effect is most appropriate.

Question for Nathan

Social media apps by design encourage or hard-code features, ephemeral images, filters, face tuning for example. In some respects these choices by the application designer funnel the user experience and content that they create.

To what extent do you consider that social media applications, Instagram, Snapchat etc. have been influential in creating social photography?

My social photo

For my social photo I went for the poor form lunch shot…


JURGENSON, Nathan. 2019. Social Photo: On photography and social media. Verso.

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