All media, newspapers, magazines, etc. could once have been described as “social media” in the sense that they were intended for consumption by a non-restricted audience with, in many cases, increased consumption equalling increased profits. Whilst such forms of media continue to exist and perform their function, the extent to which they do so has diminished greatly. Today, “social media” refers to computer-mediated technologies which facilitate the creating and sharing of information and ideas. This is differentiated from more traditional forms of media in that it is media-sharing with a social element – the people sharing the media are generally its authors and feel that they belong to one of various forms of networks or “communities”.
Barthes referred to the contexts in which images can be consumed as “channels of transmission” in a tripartite system where the authors of images he describes as the “source of emission” and viewers become the “point of reception” (Barthes, 1977, p. 15).
Barrett suggests that the “external context” is “the situation in which a photograph is presented or found”, this includes books, galleries, museums, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and classrooms (Barrett, 2005, pp. 106 – 111). Clearly for Barrett’s external context “situation” to exist in which images can be consumed, both Barthes “channel of transmission” and “point of reception” need to be present (it is given, therefore, that a “source of emission” has authored the image).
Barrett goes on to identify two other contexts: the internal, and the original contexts.
The “internal context” is appreciated by paying attention to the subject of photograph, the medium and form of the image, and the relationship between the three. The “original context” cannot be determined by an examination of the photograph itself as it is dependent upon a knowledge of art and the art world (ibid.).
Meaning is context base, as Price and Wells inform us “One determinant of the way in which we understand photographs, then, is the context within which we view them, and key institutions shape the nature of photography by the way they provide context” (Price and Wells, 2015, p. 61).
Media organisations exist to generate revenue (even not-for-profit organisations) and the sale of images or advertising space play a significant part in establishing that income. Organisations provide a specific context, a platform through which users can engage with the organisation and, in the case of social media, other users. Ultimately though, how the context is used, or able to be used, by users is determined by the culture of the organisation providing the context. For example, whilst there is a clear need for Facebook to safeguard against the dissemination of inappropriate images of minors, most people are familiar with the officious way in which Facebook quickly removes post-operative mastectomy images or images of breastfeeding mothers.
What, then, of the relationship between individuals and contexts?
Contemporary social media owes much of its popularity to its interactive nature where the community members are authors and contributors as much as they viewers and consumers. Images contributed to social media help individuals to define their online identity, where they “shape” the way in which others see them, where they portray themselves as they wish to be perceived, their “ideal”.
“A rapidly expanding system of networks, collectively known as the Internet, links millions of people in new spaces that are changing the way we think, the nature of our sexuality, the form of our communities, or very identities” (Truckle, 1995 p. 9).
In this virtual world of social media, image content is more important than any aesthetic quality, where images are distributed as a symbol of pseudo-status relating to the preferred ideal identity, where they act as a time-stamp confirming the author’s conspicuous-consumption as they “check in” to various social events, make us aware of those in their social circle (and those not), and share with us meals they are preparing to eat. These are the “casual” photographs referred to by Manovich (2016).
Additionally, social media provides individuals with a sense of being connected and belonging that is absent with other forms of media whilst organisations are able to take advantage of the larger audience which, in advertising terms, is accessible at a much-reduced cost.
Social media is a dialogic form of transmission, meaning that there are many sources of information and many users, or to put this in terms Barthes would recognise, there are both many sources of emission and many points of reception. This is opposed traditional forms of media which are monologic where the sources of emission are typically a very small number of powerful organisations delivering information to a wide audience.
Whilst social media offers an immediacy of dissemination, together with affording contributors a sense of belonging and an opportunity and means of assembling an online identity, there are negative aspects to this media form.
Images are, for example, subject to misappropriation, plagiarism and manipulation. Threats to which images placed into online galleries are equally prone if adequate safeguards are not put into place.
Additionally, citizen journalism is a double-edged sword, capable of both informing an audience but also provide an uninformed, unbalanced and biased view of events.
So, what of more traditional media forms?
Newspapers continue to play an important part in keeping us informed of world events because, quite simply, press photographers and journalists have a “journalistic privilege” which affords them access to contacts, news and locations which are beyond the reach of those outside the profession.
Magazines allow viewers to look at images in a way which is very much context based given that “feature” images in magazines work in one of two ways: either being supported by, or supporting text in an article.
Photobooks enable an audience to view, generally theme-based, images in a linear way. Unaccompanied by text, the clue being in the name, images are curated in order to provide their own narrative which takes the “reader” on a journey.
Advertisements on billboards provide a means for organisations to achieve purpose-specific mass-exposure and constitute part of the “out of home” marketing mix. This form of advertising makes use of “downtime” when consumers are engaged in other activities, for example, driving or waiting at train stations and consequently makes use of vivid colours, logos, simple copy and symbols in order to engage the audience and quickly, and effectively, implant the message in the viewer’s mind. The symbiotic relationship between newspapers and magazines who sell advertising space to advertisers, provides the same works on similar principles.
Almost irrespective of context, images can readily be assigned to new purposes, in other words, they are open to be being used in a context different to that originally intended. Sontag (1977, p.174) refers to “new meanings” which can be attached to images either purposefully or incidentally as a result of this “recycling”.
Price and Wells indicate that in such cases of “repurposing”, the original intent for the image can be forgotten “with the passage of time the original motive for the making of a photograph may disappear, leaving it accessible to being ‘re-framed’ within new contexts” (Price and Wells, 2015, p. 70).
It is widely cited that there is no such thing as bad publicity. That may or may not be the case. Whilst Protein World received some negative press for their “Beach Body Ready” ready advert, they no doubt also saw enormous benefit from the pursuant media coverage surrounding the advertisement’s negative connotations. For me, the real winner is the spoof SimplyBe campaign whose adverts cleverly rode on the back of, and benefitted from, the momentum of the “Beach Body Ready” campaign. Here advertisers saw an opportunity to make use of copy, a colour scheme and a subject which were already established in the mind of the audience. Additionally, they built on the consternation of public opinion, portraying themselves as the “good cop” to Protein World’s “bad cop”.
“Beach Body Ready” (Protein World, 2015)
Spoof Protest Advert (SimplyBe, 2015)
In terms of my commercial photographic practice, images are supplied to clients for use on business websites, in menus or for display in dining areas and these currently constitute the “point of reception” for my practice. Work is underway to develop other platforms for the consumption of my work including publication in books and magazines where my images will support text-based recipes.
The “channel of transmission” for this area of my practice will be a website in conjunction with appropriate forms of advertising literature (flyers, leaflets, and business cards).
In relation to my project, it is my intention to establish a dedicated online gallery. This mode of dissemination makes the project available to the widest possible audience, and range of audiences, whilst incurring least costs and is, therefore, the optimum context notwithstanding image safeguarding issues.
Looking beyond the project deadline, I intend to continue to work on the project, increasing the range of contexts through which audiences can view my work: the feasibility of an exhibition and a photobook are two options currently being explored.
Newspapers and magazines, especially local press in the early stages, will be appropriate contexts, or “channels of transmission” through which to make audiences aware of my project and any exhibitions, online or otherwise.
Barrett, T. (2005) Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. New York: McGraw-Hill pp. 106 – 111
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Price, D. and Wells, L. (2015) ‘Thinking about Photography’, in WELLS (ed.) Photography – A Critical Introduction. Oxon: Routledge
Manovich, L. (2016). Subjects and Styles in Instagram Photography. Manovich.net [Online]. http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/090-subjects-and-styles-in-instagram-photography-part-1/lm_instagram_article_part_1_final.pdf (Accessed: 28 February 2017)
Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Truckle, Sherry. (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks