Minor media strategies for photography on the Internet

Essay from 2000 by Andreas Broeckmann about activist use of photography on the internet.

Painting was declared dead by Paul Delaroche in 1839, after he had seen one of the first Daguerreotypes. In analogy, William J. Mitchell claimed in 1992 that the advent of the digital image had killed, "or, more precisely, radically and permanently displaced" photography.

This displacement meant little more than a further weakening of the status of photographs as "truthful images", a myth that has been challenged throughout the history of photography and has never been as powerful as some critics maintain. Aware of the multiple forms of manipulability of the photographic images, people have always had their doubts about photographic realism. And even in these times of the alleged demise of photography, photographic images are more prevalent and more easily available than at any time in the past. Even if Television is today playing a dominant role for the construction and presentation of images of the world, photography remains a powerful and prolific medium that crystallises public attention and that can catalyse public opinion. There is a growing awareness that images cannot be trusted in the age of their digital production and reproduction, something that is not only true of photographs, but of video images and sounds as well.

The Internet, a medium that is playing a growing role for the perception and construction of images of the world, has until today mainly affected the role of photography by offering photographers and agencies a channel for presenting and distributing their images. In a low-resolution digital format, photographs can be presented for downloading on the World Wide Web, and high-resolution, print-quality scans of photographs can be transferred as data files across the Internet at increasing speeds.

In its project for the Rotterdam Fotobiennale 2000, V2_ presents a selection of Internet projects that are centrally concerned with photography, that make use of the distributed structure of the Net and that exploit the particularities of the medium, such as its global accessibility, communication facilities, and its ability to construct new forms of publics. Following the theme of the biennial, "Engagement", the selection focuses on projects that have a social, cultural or political intention. They illustrate the possibilities of combining the medium of photography with that of the Internet, and they are exemplary for an effective application of inter-medial strategies.

New social movements and political grassroot initiatives are discovering the Net as a means of swiftly distributing information and creating public awareness for current affairs of particular concern. These topics may not always make the headlines and the evening news, but in instances like the resistance struggle in Chiapas against the Mexican government, the actions of the opposition in Yugoslavia, or the recent protest movement against the right-wing government in Austria, the online campaigns have been able to publicise reliable information, photographs and video material which had a significant effect on the international perception of those issues. Particularly effective has been the international group Across the Border/Nobody is Illegal that has staged several actions against the treatment of migrants in Europe, and against the border and immigration regimes of the countries which are part of the Schengen agreement and which form the new "Fortress Europe". Through wireless modem connections, reports and photographs of demonstrations can be uploaded onto the Internet almost instantly, even while the campaigns are taking place, and can thus be made available for journalists and online media coverage. The Internet is thus used as an instant-publishing medium.

A more reflective approach was taken by the French photo journalist Gilles Peress who went to Sarajevo in 1995 and who later arranged the photographs that he brought back in an "interactive", or rather, hypermedia photo-essay, Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace, which was made available on the Internet site of the commissioning newspaper, the New York Times. The photographs are arranged in a variety of different interlinked stories and can be perused by the Internet user, creating a richly layered visual narrative about the situation in Sarajevo at the end of the siege. Connected to this photo-essay were online discussion forums in which visitors could comment and discuss the photographs and their theme, and an extensive collection of resources that helped to provide an historical and geographical context for the images. Peress" project thus realised a complexity of content, and a communicative quality, which a regular printed photo-essay in the newspaper would not have been able to achieve.

What the Internet can provide very effectively is a channel for publishing image, sound and text material, disregarding whether it fits the dominant moulds of media coverage. The Bangladesh-based photography agency DRIK is the initiative of a number of South-Asian photographers who are using the Internet for distributing photographs independent from the major photo agencies. The photographers belonging to DRIK very consciously seek to create a visual discourse about the "Third World" that offers an alternative view to that frequently portrayed in the international media.

Such presentations need not be meant for a wider public, but can also be prepared as a low-key, semi-private initiative. Many people maintain homepages on the Internet where they present material which concerns them individually, material that can be personal and intimate or, like in the case of the Gaza Checkpoint project by Horit Herman-Peled, material that offers a personal view of an issue of public concern. Gaza Checkpoint is a photo-essay that deals with the division between the Palestinian and Jewish territories in Israel, by way of a number of minute observations of the people and their belongings at one of the border crossing points. An online publishing project like this can be done at very little cost and with very little technical knowhow, and the question whether or not it gets seen is purely based on the degree to which it gets mentioned and linked to from other websites - something that is the case for any online project.

The Internet is, however, not only a current affairs medium, but it can also act as a repository and zone of reflexion for individual and collective memories. A powerful example of this is the online project aka KURDISTAN, initiated by Susan Meiselas. aka KURDISTAN collects photographs and stories from members of the world-wide Kurdish diaspora, presents them online and initiates a process of communal remembrance. People are asked to submit historical photographs which can help to reconstruct the political and social history of the Kurds, and to contribute stories and information that they or their relatives may have about photographs that have been submitted by others. Thus, an ever-growing, personal and collective archive is built up of a people that has no country and that for centuries has experienced suppression and exile. The site creates a plane for communication and exchange and provides hope by building and binding together all those loose, individual threads into a joint historical experience.

Possibly the most particular visual media format that the Internet has brought about is the web-cam, i.e. a video camera which is connected to an Internet server and that sends a current image of a particular scene to that server every few seconds, so that it is possible to view that scene from any online computer in the world. There are thousands of these web-cams, some show coffee machines, others the sky at a certain place, and yet others specific spots in cities and towns. The web-cam provides a genuinely new layer of media images and might be closest to a unique Internet photography format.

Like the other Internet applications presented here, the web-cam is no more than a minor intervention into the cacophony of mediated images, yet, the proliferation of such minor media interventions means that there is an increasing amount of publicised alternative views of our social reality, creating the potential for a growing diversity of approaches and voices in the public domain. Minor media practices are characterised by small, diverse, distributed networks of operators who make use of the new, digital means of production and distribution. Minor media operations grow out of the networked activities of passionate individuals and groups working in local and translocal contexts and using such media as magazines, record labels, websites, mailing lists, etc. As the presented examples show, minor media practices act in horizontal rather than vertical configurations, and accept the processuality and continuous transformation of communication, context and practice through media.

2000, Andreas Broeckmann



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