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On Digital Photography

Words by Destiny Montoya

“Pictures are not a world language, rather a language of the world. As modest, independent linguistic elements they should be considered more like poems, but linked to many social and artistic contexts. Thus the function of the picture is neither to affirm nor to negate, but as a network it basically represents an infinite relativity” - Walter Seitter.

In the exhibition catalog for Painting Pictures: Painting and Media in the Digital Age –debuted in 2003 at The Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg–  Walter Seitter describes pictures as a network that represents an infinite relativity. This infinite relativity is expanded further through our use of Instagram. To share a photo, there are steps that need to be taken till that photo is shared. An image is captured through the essence of its creator’s eye, said photo(s) are then looked over and chosen specifically to serve the intent of communicating a message to its viewer.  I could conclude then that every photo uploaded on Instagram had to have some level of consideration and intention.

On an app where pictures are the main component of its function, digital photos have the ability over time to shape or represent parts of our identity. Our identity can be reshaped and evolve through the specific images that we choose. Whether said identity is a true reflection of self is up to you to decide. How many photos are on your own personal Instagram account? How about in your camera roll?  I, for example, have twenty-eight thousand, five hundred and thirty-two photos in my camera roll and sixty photos on my personal Instagram profile. You may have a different number of images than myself that represent your life and who you are. However ultimately, we exist on this platform through the images we share. About ninety-five million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day. The stories feature on Instagram is used by five hundred million people every day. In my opinion, Instagram stories might be used to share more than photos uploaded to one’s personal profile. Perhaps the usage of Instagram stories functions further to contribute to projections of self.

Instagram interests me because of its ability to project millions of personalities and souls. Within this vast network of images, we individually curate projections of ourselves and despite our individuality and when acknowledging the chance for repetition, the things we’ve photographed have the tendency to be repeated by others. In The Work of Art in The Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin writes “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.” I associate this relationship of replication to the repetition of objects photographed. The situation in which these objects are reached by a recipient is through the apparatus of Instagram. Actualization occurs simply through the ephemeral  process of releasing a photo into a digital space where its ambience will remain captured. An object can be photographed in a million different ways through the lens of a living person with a lifetime of previous experiences. The moment when a person views a subject with admiration and chooses to photograph it, the essence of that environment is contained forever within a frame of an image. Considering the infinite reproducibility of the digital image I’ve come to the observation that images can be re-interpreted and arranged through the process of collage to create new identities and provide spaces for conversation.


(Unfinished/Untitled) current collage I am working on.

“The poignant commonality of our eyes. The world individually mesmerizes us toward reiteration.” - Teju Cole.

I am fascinated by the images we choose to share and this intimacy held within those images. This realization has influenced me enough that I’ve decided to shift my creative processes within my collage work. Previously, I only allowed myself to create from physical material e.g. magazines. I chose to implement this restriction because I believed that sentimentality only came from images that went through a process of selection that were then printed to be physical material. I saw value in the process of images being taken, looked over, and chosen specifically for a purpose. I am biased toward collage work made with physical materials. Yes, that hinders my perception of collages made strictly in digital spaces. I consider my view on digital collages contradictory to my own since my work lives in a digital space, although they were created with physical photos. Excuse me, for my thoughts regarding the processes of taking digital photos and reproducing them to physicality, are still inchoated. Regardless, I am writing this statement to announce my shift from working strictly with physical materials to integrating a new system of photos I’ve taken from various people’s Instagram accounts. Why do I have the desire to share this decision with you? Because it is important enough to me that this be communicated considering the recent shift in my artistic processes. Because I believe there is something to be examined within the platform and I am interested in observing the sentiments of the eye. What I enjoy most about this environment is that in the grand scheme, the reason for sharing a photo does not matter. Once uploaded the image exists in this bubble of other images, yours is lost among the cosmos of this infinite digital space.

Teju Cole writes

“Instagram, like any other wildly successful social-media platform, is by turns creative, tedious, fun, and ridiculous. If you follow the wrong people, it can easily become a millstone around your neck. (There can be mild, but real, social costs to following and then unfollowing.) But the activity of individual photographers is an area in which it can be revelatory - not for the stunning individual image but for the new seams of insight it reveals…Instagram, at it’s best, can replicate aspects of this directness; it can be a conversation that unfolds gradually, over weeks and months. We see how an obsession develops and not simply what it looks like once it is on the walls of a museum or between the pages of a book. One part of the thrill is knowing that it is not happening anywhere else with such intimacy or immediacy. Another is the bittersweet fact of its evanescence: Like all conversation, it happens when it happens, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Cole admires the further notion behind the platform. He is interested in not just the photos that are shared but the sentiment behind them– even more so the processes that can be examined and the intimacies revealed overtime. He speaks on some of these intimacies in his most notable work, Blind Spot, a book that presents images taken from around the world paired with select texts he wrote on his interactions with the photos. Below are the first two pages in Blind Spot.

I admire how Teju Cole intersects prose with imagery as a means to convey the reader through written and visual imagery. Cole’s affinity for the mundane is reflected within the images he captures which often focus on light, shadow, form, and composition to reflect on the poignant relativity of life.

Speaking on images in the Youtube video

“I was hungry for images that would resemble me”, Frida Orupabo claims “I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty when I started to do that [referring to her artistic practice] … but I didn’t have a knowledge about what I was doing, as like a thing that helped me to sort things and to place ideas, questions. It was very intuitive. It still is very intuitive. But I think the reflections started when I started to exhibit my work, when I started to get questions about my work, then I was actually forced to reflect on the things of why am I working with the things I’m working with, why am I spending hours in front of this screen finding things, storing things, and then manipulating, cutting up, putting things together again. I think this search for images was a type of hunger, I was hungry to see images that resemble me because I was not used to that.”

Orupabo’s use of imagery to establish identity continues to reveal itself in visceral ways through her work and on her Instagram account (@nemiepeba). The photos she shares are without context and only provide source information. She will usually upload images in bursts once or twice every other month. Within the select set of images she shares she explores themes of identity, displacement, and systematic exclusion. Within her work she deconstructs images of the body and reconstructs new figures to include representations of Black women with a sense of disquietude. It was through her experience of exhibiting her work in person that she was able to actualize and form her foundations of her creation. However she still uses her Instagram to document her artistic practices and in doing so she shares intimate details through the photos she chooses to share. Frida Orupabo is a visual artist and Teju Cole is a photographer, but both artists work with images to present and interpret them in different ways and with their own intentions. Teju Cole might argue that digital images are able to impact the viewer in the same way as viewing physical photos does, while Frida Orupabo admits that she was able to actualize her work once she began receiving inquiry about the themes she presented in a gallery space. The vehicle through which a photo is perceived can affect interpretation, and is up to the viewer to decide where and if the image will hold relevance.

What can be said about the physical act of taking a stanger's photo and rearranging it next to other photos taken by strangers? What if that photo was taken from an online platform such as Instagram where millions of photos live, and contain attachments to the sentiments of a real person with a living soul? I consider the process of my work a sanctified act that involves attentive care and consideration for the content

held in a single image. Relating this notion back to the processes of selection for a photo, I argue that every photo shared had to have some level of consideration and care. Personal aesthetics coincide here and I cannot control my own aesthetic eye. I share this similar hunger for images, though my intentions differ from Frida Orupabo– in no comparison, just as a fact that my intentions within my work are separate from hers. There are classifications I adopt to the content held within images, and I plan on investigating the ties within this categorization of photos to create conversations surrounding woman-hood, sex, relationships, and identity through visual aesthetics and environments.

What is yours is mine and ours.

(Photos of images I’ve collected for future works)
ENVY Magazine