I was fortunate to attend some of the presentations at this year’s International Visual Methods Conference held in Brighton, from the 16th to the 18th of September. As well as the panel featuring my colleagues at the Visual Social Media Lab — entitled “Visual Digital Methods: Developing Approaches for the Analysis of Twitter Images”  — I also attended three panels on the theme of Narrative and Visual Methods. In this blog post, I will discuss the points raised in some of these papers — namely those that relate to the theme of social media photography — and how they might be of use to my own research.

Roswitha Breckner: Visible Life Stories on Facebook? Biographical Implications of a New Form of Communication

Breckner talked us through her research into the connection between biography and photographs on Facebook. She outlined the ways in which she primarily focused on one respondent — a young woman named Judith — and the hundreds of images in Judith’s Facebook photo albums. A technique of particular relevance here was visual segment analysis, in which significant elements of the image were identified and interpreted. Breckner discussed the ways in which Judith’s images entitled ‘me’ tended to feature herself with others. Socially situating the self on social media, through photographs, is a practice that has been identified by other researchers, such as Papacharissi (2010). Similarly, the differences between ‘traditional’ photograph albums and online photographic collections is well known, and Judith’s images follow a similar pattern for young people of depicting friends, but not family or her childhood.

Breckner considers one image in detail, breaking it up into various components to consider what she terms the ‘visual impression’. In this image, Judith poses in front of her friends, without being too close to any of them. The segment analysis approach highlighted the pairs of figures present in the image:

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Coupled with a discussion of the comments under the image, this approach to analysing single images was interesting, in that it considered the display and maintenance of relationships both within, and through, photographs.

Maria Schreiber: Interface/Identities. Analysing pictorial practices in social media contexts

This paper addressed the visual conventions of different photo sharing sites, and the inter-connection between personal photographs, technology (in terms of hardware / software) and the knowledge and habitus of the individual. Schreiber’s approach is to access these different dimensions through a combination of different datasets, using images, screenshots and interviews. Her focus is on teenagers and their use of different platforms to share images. This presents a number of problems, not least of which is the number of images, and the question of what is most relevant to study. I found her emphasis on relating images and practices to be very helpful, as it is problematic to separate the image from the context in which it was produced, and the way in which this was done. Images alone, after all, tell us very little.

Using a framework of platforms: practices: elements of expression, Schreiber outlined some of her findings from her interviews regarding the different habits present on different platforms.

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On Instagram, for instance, one user stated that the app was for “only the most beautiful pictures”. WhatsApp, in contrast, facilitated the creation of many varieties of private publics, in which finely differentiated groups could be formed for the circulation of text and image based messages. Lastly, Snapchat was reported as a place for ‘ugly pics’, in that the app’s infrastructure — deleting images after a few seconds — enabled an ephemerality that was manifested as pictures that were felt to be somehow unattractive.

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In this way, Schreiber outlined the processual, dynamic and collaborative nature of online self identities, in which different platforms can be used to express different facets of one’s self, through the segregation of specific private / public audiences.

Joanna Kedra: Interpretation of journalistic photographs as a tool for visual literacy education

Kendra’s paper looked at some of the ways in which journalistic images can be used as a tool for teaching visual literacy. Although this paper was not specifically concerned with social media, Kendra outlined a framework for looking at images as a series of stages and questions:

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I find it interesting to observe how aspects of visual rhetoric, composition and semiotics are being taught to students, as the questions they are prompted to consider are also of relevance to researchers, regarding what is in the image, and what is says to us. Having recently build a rather complex code frame for the images related to the lab’s Death of Thatcher on Social Media project, I am particularly aware of the need to train oneself to look at photographs in the kind of way Kendra describes, which can feel artificially slow and methodical, but that is necessary in order to produce something more than a superficial impression.

Karin Becker: Visual Icons of Protest in the News

This next paper discussed research from the project Screening Protest, which seeks to ‘analyse the representations of protest in the media, in particular the televisual narratives that frame them’. The project looks at news coverage of protests between 2008 and 20018, from Al-Jazeera English, BBC World, CNN and Russia Today. Citing Simon Faulkner’s paper on the connection between images and protest (2013), Becker outlined how her analysis focuses on the ways in which particular ‘iconic’ images are transferred and transformed across the landscape of international news.

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Using examples of images such as Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’, and the photograph of ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener, Becker showed how certain themes re-appear and migrate (Belting, 2011: 21), forming a common visual lexicon. In particular, Becker asked how images come to have an agency of their own, in which they act upon and produce other images, and how this influences the news in terms of defining certain ‘scenes’ that television news channels are looking for. One aspect of Becker’s research that I found interesting was her comparison between the World Press Photo award winners for each year she was studying, and the television news coverage of the same events. She described the ways in which the single photographs not only told a different story, but also one that she regarded as being more ‘condensed’: a point that demonstrates the importance of looking at photographs as capable of doing something markedly different from other kinds of visual media.

Holly Steel: Violence on a Loop: The ethics of researching graphic content from conflict zones

Steel’s paper considered not just her area of research — namely the curation of social media by news organisations — but also the impact upon researchers of looking at certain materials intensively, and over a sustained period of time.

Additionally, her research considers how journalists make decisions about what materials from conflict zones to reproduce, according to criteria such as being ‘exceptional’ or ‘common’. Steel reflected on some of these images by asking how these decisions are made, and how one should ethically represent subjects located within conflicts. Her own approach advocated the use of images in long-shot, that do not identify specific individuals, or text-based descriptions of content deemed too graphic to reproduce. This consideration of the ethical approach to using images of conflict overlaps with issues I am working through myself, relating to how social media research can develop frameworks that emphasise respect and consent in the representation of others.

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Steel concluded by discussing the notion of vicarious trauma, in which media workers and researchers are impacted by the material they are exposed to. In particular, she emphasised the need for researchers to manage the effect that this material would have on others — by considering the context in which their research was to be presented — and on themselves, through using the ‘toolbox’ of university support facilities available.

Anna Pechurina: Participatory (visual) Ethnography: How much authorship is enough?

Ethical issues of representation were also central to Pechurina’s paper on Russian migrants and their experiences of home life. Through photographs and interviews, Pechurina explored the ways in which respondents’ domestic spaces reflected their relationship with their new country of residence. Although she maintained that a visual dimension was of particular importance, and that this was well recorded on photographs, she herself felt uncomfortable about taking photographs. Even when using images taken by her subjects, ethical questions still remained, regarding representation, anonymisation and ownership:

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Again, all of these points are relevant to my own research, which considers images as being situated within a subject’s personal narrative and sense of self. Therefore it is not just that personal photographs must be approached in an ethical and considerate manner (which of course they must) but that doing so improves the attendant research. As Pechurina emphasises, personal photographs — and photographs of the intensely personal — are resistant to being decontextualized, by offering only a comparative paucity of information to the observer. Fortunately the ethnographic approach employed in my research seeks to avoid this, by focusing on photographic practices as being situated within the social context and personal life narrative of the subject themselves.

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.