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Communicative Photographic Objects and the Archive of the Self

Martin Lister’s fascinating article, “Overlooking, Rarely Looking, and Not Looking” problematizes the sheer mass of digital photography stored online and on hard drives of cell phones, cameras, and computers. Lister argues that we are “drowning” (15) in snapshot images that are boring, mediocre and generally never even looked at (5). These sprawling masses of .jpgs are polluting cyber and disk space.

Although I appreciate Lister’s acknowledgement of this issue, I am critical of media scholarship that points out a (seemingly obvious) phenomenon and does little to explain why we should care. Information overload has been an issue for a very long time, an argument that Ann Blair poses in her book Too Much to Know. The crushing weight of archival documents and photographs is not just a digital phenomenon, as evident from the overwhelming photo archives that were amassed as part of nineteenth century police documentation. This has been explored at length in Allan Sekula’s influential article “The Body and the Archive.”

Lister’s argument, fortunately, doesn’t just end at “here is the problem, now deal with it.” On the one hand, he implies that the billions of digital photos in existence may ultimately mean that photography has no edges or limits, resulting in the disquiet existence of being everywhere and nowhere at once (20). But he also notes that photography has gone through innovations and changes in the past and that this just means that the discipline is entering a “new media ecology” (16) that needs to be scrutinized.

My final project for this class will meditate on this changing photographic environment. My project highlights that photographs are communicative objects of information. Although Lister bemoans the “malaise of photography as information” (11), I think that we should embrace it, confront it head on and tackle its complexities and ambiguities. My project will reflect on the compulsion to document one’s existence (whether lived reality or embodied existence) in intricate, microscopic, yet entirely vast and all-encompassing detail. I will take a photo of every inch of my skin, and upload each photo to an online archive that I will build using Omeka. I will argue that these hundreds of carefully categorized, mundane photos of each inch of my skin allow me to explore each fragment of myself. I don’t intend to shy away from the problematic nature of this argument. But I do want to show that, for better or for worse, photographs are communicative objects that track the fragments that make up our lives and bodies. They are the tiny little pixels that allow us to document each trace we stencil onto the earth.

Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

Dijck, José Van. Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2007. Print.

Lister, Martin. “Overlooking, Rarely Looking, and Not Looking.” Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography. Eds. Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye. I.B. Taurus: New York, 2014. 1-23.Print.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (1986): 3. Web.

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