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Summary of “Digital Cameras and Domestic Photography”

In “Digital cameras and domestic photography: communication, agency and structure” Cobley and Haeffner expand the debate on the nature of communication in digital domestic photography. Seeing the rise of digital as inevitable, and rather than accepting the status of a digital democracy as inherently utopian, they deem it a “potential”, “as part of quotidian attempts to enhance communication” (124). They isolate the snapshot as the means in which power in the economy of signs has been unbalanced (125), particularly for the way in which previously professional techniques are made available to domestic photographers. Yet this shift has left a vacuum in critical analysis, and the authors invoke Douglas Nickel, who claims that “the snapshot remains by far the most populous class of photographic object we have, and it is as yet, without a theory” (126).

The authors elaborate their meaning of self-reflexivity in domestic photography to mean that the unparalleled level of agency has enabled new modes of expression. With the substantial increase in quality and affordability in taking photographs (127), digital cameras have led to an increase in digital and photographic literacy amongst domestic photographers. This shift has also enhanced the politics of self-representation by “encourag[ing] the making of basic choices about representation” (125). “As such,” the authors suggest, “domestic digital cameras harbor the potential to induce a more self-reflexive attitude towards media in general” (125). This is achieved through reliance on idiomatic genres, which fundamentally determine “the production, dissemination and consumption” of images (128). The authors refer to Benedikt Feldges’ four main “idiomatic genres” (128) and argue that although use of these idioms requires a degree of photographic literacy, they contend that “frequently absent is critical reflection on both the politics of representation and the referent” (133). They argue, for example, that the snapshot functions “overwhelmingly nonverbal[ly]” (144) and distinguish it according to Douglas Nickel’s description as “an object of sentiment” by design, which often precludes analysis (126).

Drawing on the theories of James Gibson, Donald Norman, and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, the authors suggest that ethnographic and communication research, including inquiry into the use of haptic technology in digital devices, could lead to a better understanding of the impact of domestic digital camera use in photographic production (136).

The new boundary to photographic literacy and dissemination, the authors suggest, will ultimately be between the people themselves, between the technologies available to photographers and their audiences (128, 144), and the various semiotic codes and idioms which are used (143).


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