In Thinking photography beyond the visual?, Elizabeth Edwards argues that the role of photographs goes beyond that of the image object. She describes a sensory approach to understanding photographs that emphasizes the impact that the material culture has on the complex ecology of social interaction. She says, “…there is a cultural desire for the material object to fulfill specific social functions” (Edwards33). The combination of the visual, oral, and tactile experience during the viewing of photographs creates an environment that has the potential to reconnect people, history, and image. This posits the photograph as an empowering entity, rather than an objectifying one.
However, Edwards’ argument focuses on the material photograph. She states, “…materiality precisely emphasizes the relational qualities of a photograph…” (Edwards 33). Does this mean that digital images are to remain silent and objectifying? That they are separated from the social ecology created by oral and tactile experience?
Despite the drastic differences in medium and function from material photographs, digital images can create an equally dynamic social ecology through sensory experience. Anthropologist Christopher Pinney states, “…In these last strategies—which emphasize the sensory, material and embodied aspects—the problem of observational ‘externality’ is resolved by re-integrating photography into the social practice of being observed” (Pinney 150). While digital images behave differently than material images, their roles in social practice have similarities, and opportunities for bodily enactment.
Seeing, discussing, and touching digital images causes the same interaction between image/medium/body as it does with analog photographs (Edwards 35). Edwards argues that “…this matrix becomes the agent through which meaning is transmitted which turns on the photo as social object and body as perceiver” (Edwards 35). When a group of people are looking at a digital image on a device, whether it be a phone or a laptop, they are engaged in this matrix of social practice. They are still enacting the photograph.
For example, looking at Awkward Family Photos, one will still make paralinguistic vocalizations, and engage in similar tactile processes as when viewing material images. A digital image of a little girl soaking in a glucose bath will make you laugh. Or cringe. Or both. Probably both.
Despite the ample opportunities available on the internet to view photographs in isolation, digital photographs still involve what Pinney describes as corpothetics– the sensory embrace of images, or a bodily engagement (Edwards 36). The social practice of digital photographs remain connected to real sensory experience, and are not trapped in visual silence.
Edwards, E. (2009) Thinking photography beyond the visual? In: Long, J. J., Noble, A. and Welch, E., (eds.) Photography : theoretical snapshots. Abingdon : Routledge.
Pinney, Christopher. “Epilogue: The Holograph.” Exposures: Photography and Anthropology. London: Reaktion, 2011. Print.