Part 4: Digital identities

Project 4: Ex 4.4 Selfies

What does the phenomenon of the selfie tell us about how photography is popularly used nowadays? Illustrate your post with recent examples from the internet.

As this is solely an exercise I’m using it to throw down a few passing thoughts on positive aspects which I think can sometimes get overlooked in the light of stories in the media more often revealing some of the unpleasant aspects and effects.

I recently accessed a Post on the British Library blog writing about the tourist season in London and so many people with selfie sticks and smart phones – “…. It’s easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist”.  But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.” That’s if we extend OED dictionary definition of ‘photographic self-portraits’ to cover those made with pen and ink then selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. The earliest known surviving manuscript self-portrait was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988) in the 10th century and the blog post goes on to provide other examples, explaining that these often involved a different type of self-promotion – one focused on humility before the divine and saints.  There also looks to be a useful website here and Frances Borzello (1998) also provides fascinating example of the ways in which female artists were also able to include references to themselves in their work at a time when women artists were not usually recognized.

Fast forward to photography:-

According to Petapixel the earliest self-portrait made was by Robert Cornelius  , an amateur photographer and lamp-maker.

(Downloaded from

Written on the back is, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839”  no specific date though, so let’s say he was the first American photographer to create a selfie and leave the laurels with Hippolyte Bayard (June 1839)   creator of the first staged photograph Self Portrait as a Drowned Man pretending to have committed suicide because of lack of recognition of his own invention of a photographic process, in favour of Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype process.

Since photography’s origins in the late nineteenth century, artists have expressed the idea that the self-portrait is a form of performance. Kismaric states, “The photographer who attempts an investigation of his physiognomy or personality or who consciously or unconsciously projects an idea about himself enacts a role. The plasticity of photography allows the self-portraitist to experiment, to assume many identities; in self-portraiture the photographer can become the hero, the adventurer, the aesthete – or a neutral ground upon which artistic experiments are played out.” (Taken from a press-release for Self-Portrait: The Photographer’s Persona 1840-1985  an Exhibition at MOMA from 7th November, 1985 to 7th January, 1986.)

Cindy Sherman was one of the photographers included in that Exhibition and she is famous for her self-portraits commenting on traditional/stereotypical female roles. Sherman has also recently appeared on Instagram  with images that include weirdly distorted self-portraits.  I had almost reached the conclusion that this must be a different Cindy Sherman, but this was confirmed not to be the case by an article by Noah Becker which recently appeared in the Guardian  .  Thanks to my fellow student Sarah-Jane Field for alerting me to this article. Whilst I agree regarding the distorted shots and the mystery as to why Sherman is creating these portraits, I have thought further concerning Becker’s view that, “they hold up a dark mirror to our era of self-obsession”.

How is it that it’s okay for artists to continue using self-portraits to enact different roles and assume different identities but not okay for ‘the general public’ to do so with technology that is cheap, easily available and doesn’t require great photographic technique or talent?  The advent of cheaper cameras earlier in the 20th Century enabled those moving away from family to keep in touch in a more intimate way. Recent examples have been Facebook pages where those serving in the Armed Forces can do likewise. Adolescence is well-known as the time when many young people are struggling to answer the question, “Who am I?” and it’s not surprising that Facebook and Instagram have been seized upon by them so they can play out these versions of themselves.

Some artists have first become well-known through digital media. One such is Molly Soda, a digital performance artist who is best known for her book Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned from Instagram (see here) She began creating artwork in the webcam days of MySpace and Tumblr and her work has now expanded beyond the internet. Soda has a strong Instagram following  (68.9k followers at 4th January 2018) where her feed is composed just about entirely of photographs of herself – un-photo-shopped and au naturel which she believes makes her followers less self-conscious about themselves as well.  You can find out more about her by putting her name in the search box on and this also brings up other posts on how Instagram artists are changing our views on body image and breeding a new generation of idols.

Another fellow student, Nuala, has just drawn my attention (via Facebook) to an article in Lens Culture . The essay by J.H. Pearl concerns the discomforts caused by being photographed, using Roland Barthes’ writing on this topic as a focus.  One of the paragraphs seems most timely in stating

To grouse about the vanity of selfies is to forget they comprise networked conversations. People, not just celebrities, use them to connect. For Barthes, ‘The ‘private life’ is ….that zone of space where I am not an image, an object”; the camera, he believed, invaded that space. But selfies seem less like invasions than invitations. And they permit us to be subjects, as well as objects, taking our own pictures almost however we like.



Borzello, F (1998) Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.




Project 3: Exercise 4.3 – Memes

 ‘Memes” are units of cultural information, which are exchanged not within a ‘gene pool’ but within a ‘meme pool’. The former transferring biological information and the latter being imitated as it is passed along communication networks and also influencing the behaviour of the recipients. They occur in a variety of forms and it seems like a ‘meme’ can be just about anything –  so long as it’s transmitted, repeated over and over and intended to change people’s behaviour. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene and is a shortening of the ancient Greek word mimeme – imitated thing/to imitate.  The word may be relatively new but the process is not.James Gleick looks at What Defines a Meme in an article in Smithsonian Magazine  in May 2011.

I’ve been wondering whether the wall paintings that appeared in early churches could be counted as memes – they were similar in form, acting to give messages to those unable to read the Latin in bibles and would serve as emphasis to sermons. Move forward to Lord Kitchener’s posters recruitment poster WWI which remains instantly recognisable to many and is still regularly copied in advertising and used as a satirical motif in the media.

BBC News online magazine presented an interesting article about the poster here

There was another influential meme produced during WWII

(Cartoon by Fougasse (pseudonym of Punch editor Kenneth Bird) 1940-1042 approx)

The saying “walls have ears” appears to date back Centuries ago and variations of it are found in many languages. There’s an article concerning an interview, found in the media,  with Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, where Koum used the expression in referring to WhatsApp’s emphasis on privacy and what it was like growing up in the former Soviet Union. An interesting juxtaposition of influence and idea.

Memes and Digital Culture

Paul Frosh has referred to the propensity of digital technologies to “foreground the ‘memetic’ nature of much cultural production” (Frosh 2013:145) whereby the web and social media, “have enabled their multiplication as preferred modes of popular expression, while at the same time making visible memetic procedures of replication, mutation and dissemination”.

My Facebook feed usually contains a number of memes of different varieties – sometimes they make me laugh and sometimes they make me frown particularly those which include a piece of ‘fake news’ as a way of further ridiculing someone unpopular or attempting to persuade. I’m not being snobbish here as I occasionally post memes myself. Whilst they have been used for more altruistic purposes,  Internet memes can often  tend to focus on something ridiculous, that makes people look slightly foolish The example given being the ‘Crasher Squirrel” that then triggered ‘endless interpretations’.

On 11th December the Livewire site gives  “50 Internet Memes that Have Won Our Hearts” and, as I expected includes the famous Grumpy Cat (No. 4). During my research for this exercise I learned that photographing cats in in this way, including captions, goes back to the studios of Harry Pointer and Harry Frees in Victorian times and LOLspeak started in the 1830s in Boston newspapers – see here.

The list includes the  Spinning Ballerina Illusion which I hadn’t seen before. I saw her turning clockwise first, then anti-clockwise and so on. How about you?

In general, I’ve appreciated doing this exercise because it’s made me realise the extent of influence that apparently simple visual/textual captions can have a more lasting influence. The exercise requests me to create my own photographic response to an internet meme, something original or my own interpretation of an existing meme. It might be funny or profound, but it should make people want to look at it and share it. I’ll come back to this exercise when something has come to mind



Frosh (P) (2013) “Beyond the image bank: digital commercial photography” (2013) In:
Lister, M (Ed) (2013) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 131-148




Project 2: Exercise 4.2 How is Foucault’s theory of Panopticism relevant to digital culture

Summary of Foucault’s theory

See below:

Summary of Foucault’s Theory of Panopticism_Project 2

Comments on its relevance to digital culture

Foucault is certainly very positive of Bentham’s theories and I am also reminded of Bentham’s other concept of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ which permeates some of our political institutions. The emphasis upon information collection fits with our increasingly bureaucratic system of government and reliance on quantification and data collection as opposed to quality measures and person-centred evaluation.  The notion of psychological trickery is a good one; how many of us automatically slow down whilst driving when we see warnings of a speed camera, despite knowing that many of them do not operate due to financial constraints.

University College of London (UCL) ran a PanoptiCam Daily Time-lapse Project from Jeremy Bentham’s box there. The PanoptiCam was a tongue in cheek comment on Bentham’s “inspection house” but it also had a genuine research element ‘being used to test algorithms to count visitor numbers to museum exhibit cases using low cost webcam solutions”. See here

The concept can be applied to Facebook in terms of virtual surveillance – whilst each user becomes the centre of observation s/he can also control what is seen and not seen. Every action taken on Facebook is controlled and monitored by the site’s design and there is collection of data usage. Users have to be either male or female so fit into gender norms and the site’s rules and regulations help to control content.  Users self-regulate knowing that others are following them but they can also create ‘false’ profiles. We don’t know who is looking if posts are ‘public’ and I’ve been surprised by how many individual Users do maintain a public activity. The account doesn’t disappear when the User signs off so that also allows for constant surveillance. Here’s a peep into how the algorithms work

Currently, complaints about CCTV cameras and loss of privacy are also balanced by calls for more such surveillance of places such as hospital, nursing homes and schools to protect the vulnerable from harm. Drones can be used for humanitarian purposes as well as in remote surveillance or long-range missiles.

There are many opportunities for Artists/photographers take advantage of these types of surveillance/monitoring techniques. For example, I wrote about some of them here  in my review of the “A Handful of Dust” Exhibition. In his work A New American Picture .  Doug Rickard located American street scenes using Google Street View  and then re-photographed them on his computer screen  with a tripod-mounted camera, “freeing the image from its technological origins and re-presenting them on a new documentary plane”. Jon Rafman  is a Canadian artist whose work centres around the emotional, social and existential impact of technology on contemporary life (he also has a SecondLife persona).

Mishka Henner has sourced imagery through the internet, television and satellites to comment on activities which are usually ‘hidden’  – as here  . Broomberg & Chanarin  created their series Spirit is a Bone using a facial recognition system developed in Moscow for public security. The artists Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, amongst others, have created performance works  that draw attention to the potential for attacks by drones on civilians in combat zones.

Edmund Clark’s work  links together history, politics and representation, in recent years focussing on, “…… the hidden experiences and spaces of control and incarceration in the ‘Global War on Terror’. Such practices seem many steps beyond Foucault’s concept of mind over mind psychological trickery inculcating self-regulation to one of psychological torture/terror  (as in Guantanamo: If the light Goes out)   and remote control and surveillance (as in Control Order House. In many respects the idea of remotely tracking offenders’ movements can seem like a more humane method of curtailing sentenced offenders’ movements as an alternative to imprisonment but Clark offers a different viewpoint here in respect of returning detainees.   In Section 4 Part 20: One Day on a Saturday (2011) he also created an installation work putting together material emanating from the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay. An extract is below.

<p><a href=”″>Section 4 Part 20: One Day on a Saturday (2 min extract)</a> from <a href=”″>edmundclark</a&gt; on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>



Evans, J & Hall, S (1999 ) Visual Culture: The Reader, UK. SAGE Publications Ltd





Project 1 and Exercise 4.1 : Creation of false or alternative identities online

The Virtual World of Second Life

Second Life (SL) was originally conceived by Philip Rosedale who began working on the concept in 1991. At first it was more like a video game but then he and his team realised that users wished to create their own experiences. SL began beta testing in November 2002 and went live on 23rd June, 2003. It is an online virtual world created by Linden Lab where users create avatars (virtual representations of themselves) and have the ability to interact with other virtual avatars, places and objects. The objects are built by using 3D modelling tools based on simple geometric shapes and are able to interact through the use of Linden Scripting Language (a procedural scripting language) Sculpted prims, mesh, textures for clothing or other objects, animations, and gestures can be created using external software and imported and users retain copyright for any content they create.

Anyone can register, download, install and run SL but there is an optional monthly charge if one wishes to buy land, a house or purchase more complex avatars.  A monthly subscription includes a set amount of virtual Linden dollars to use for these purposes but more virtual dollars can also be obtained in exchange for additional ‘real’ currency. That’s the odd thing about it because people can actually make money by selling objects within SL.

The Terms of Service are quite comprehensive (see here)  and users have to agree to them before accessing/using SL and two Sections in particular are important to take into account. [i] [ii]  Although you can do ‘virtually’ anything you like, appear how you like, choose to be a different gender etc SL’s rules and Etiquette are listed on a notecard in every User’s Library, including six cardinal sins (“the Big Six” which are intolerance, harassment, assault, disclosure, indecency (unless on private land) and disturbing the peace. [iii]

I have only been able to find a 2008 version of the official guide to SL which does provide a comprehensive introduction to the way the site operates. Some real-life universities have set up a virtual branch there, as well as companies, well-known pop groups and a virtual art world.  In 2007 Richard Minsky, artist and entrepreneur, started a website and blog as a critical review and journal of art in SL, and there is information and a video here  where he gave a presentation at Location One.  This included him navigating SL in his avatar identity (blonde-haired woman) to show the variety of artists and art locations there which appear and disappear as time goes on. Having registered SLART as a trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office Minsky also threatened legal action against those who used the term to refer to art in SL, see here . In 2008 he filed a complaint against Linden Lab and an art gallery in SL operated by an avatar but litigation ended in January 2009 when a private settlement was reached. The SLART website no longer appears to exist but there is another site The ArtWorld Market Report which includes a blog – the last post being in June 2015.

I’ve noted the above information as it shows how we sometimes continue our propensity towards conflict into a virtual world despite the opportunities towards personal development. I want to return now, though, to  the emphasis on the opportunities for social interaction and self-development in SL.

“Your avatar choices say a lot about who you are; to the people you encounter in the SL world, your avatar is who you are. It’s true too – your avatar choices reflect your personality and mentality.” (M. Rymaszewski et al (2008), p.10).

Chapter 11 is titled “Considering your real-world self” and beings by asking readers to consider who they are offline.  Yes, it does seem odd to offer this virtual world where I can be anything and then to ask me, “Who are you?” That’s because,

“… rather than totally reinventing ourselves when we enter a world like Second Life , what we’re really doing is extending ourselves – our existing hopes, ambitions, and ideals – and adapting them within the newfound communities of people that the online space affords”. (ibid, p. 227).

“So before you discard yourself at the digital doors, remember that who you are inside of Second Life is part of who you want to become when you’re offline. Don’t reject it – embrace it! ” (ibid p. 228).

I’m sure many people desire to become a whole, new, different person in a virtual world so this struck me as quite a strong message that we can never entirely escape the effect of our culture, nature and upbringing, whilst acting as a reminder that change is possible. Examples are also provided by Robbie Cooper in his book Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators (2007).  Cooper, also known for his work looking at young video-game players  spent three years travelling the world and interviewing people who ‘played’ in the virtual world; placing their portraits next to their avatars whilst also looking at how we create our online personas in a way to transcend our physical existence. He looked at a number of players and game designers on a variety of sites, several of whom had SL presence as Users/Avatars; SL personnel; designers and/or research analysts. Of course there are some who have become so immersed in this virtual world that they spend inordinate amounts of time there but there are other hopeful stories about the way in which people who suffer from disabilities have been able to transcend them in SL, as can be seen in the video:-



Cooper, R et al, (2007) Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators
Rymaszewski et al (2008) second life: the official guide , Indiana. Wiley Publishing Inc



[i] Section 2.4 states “You grant certain Content licenses to other users by submitting your Content to publicly accessible areas of the Service”.

[ii] Section 2.5 states “You also grant Linden Lab and other users of the Service a license to use your Content in snapshots and machinima that is displayed in publicly accessible areas of the Service”

[iii] In fact from early 2007 to late 2008 there was a website/blog Virtually Blind  which covered legal issues that impacted virtual worlds.

Beginning – Thinking about the Digital Self

Thanks to my fellow student Julie  for introducing me to the phrase ‘digital native’ – used as early as 1996 and then popularized by Mark Prensky . Prensky’s view was that there is a distinction between the young ‘digital natives and older people, who he termed ‘Digital Immigrants’ .

“The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.”  (M. Prensky 2001).

According to this piece there are also ‘Digital Settlers’ – those there at the start and ‘Digital Immigrants’ who learned how to use e-mail and social networks late in life..

Prensky’s view was that young “digital natives’” brains have physically changed as a result of the digital revolution. I know much has been written about the negative effects of the digital revolution on young minds – unable to spell; short attention spans; needing information in short bites only;, unable to engage in a group because they are always checking their phones and shutting themselves off from ‘normal’ human intercourse; cyber-bullying etc. There are positives though, many children and adolescents learn to balance their use of digital media with both physical and interpersonal activities. One study, ”A Day in the Digital Life of Teenagers” spent a year of fieldwork  looking at the lives of 28 teenagers and the researcher was encouraged by how well they managed digital devices and content and concluded that these have become teenagers’ way of ‘asserting their agency’.

My eight year old grandson, a ‘digital native’ born into the age of digital – deep into the world of ‘Minecraft’. What I really noticed was, whereas I could only pretty much see large, blurry pixels, he was very engaged in building a world for himself; a non-competitive world at that, Whereas I would need an image, a sentence of description in a book – even a word, written or spoken, his brain has learned to build a world using a few pixels.  From there he will often move to his lego collections, building scenarios, creating animated videos. His use of the digital world is just one of his many other activities.

Photographer Wendy McMurdo’s project used photography, film and moving image to explore how the use of online building games impacted on identity formation in children and ‘to bring together the invisible world of data with the concrete world of ‘things’, through merging photography and 3D rendering techniques. I’ve kept thinking about ‘Minecraft’ and how, to me, those pixel blocks provide an external, visual representation of the networking of our brain cells as they manipulate data to form ideas and constructs. This reminds me of the theories of Marshall McCluhan in the 1960s and his writing on the effect of printing on the way people perceived their world.

McMurdo’s book The Skater (2009) was the outcome of a commission she was awarded by Ffotogallery to mark their 30th anniversary and she drew inspiration from a painting by Sir Henry Raeburn, Rev Walker Skating on Duddington Loch, 1784, to explore the theme of the way in which young skaters are used as models for realistic computer aided avatars., “I wanted to explore the more immersive environment of gaming for teenagers with the emphasis on highly developed role-play and interactions with virtual environments” (W. McMurdo (2009: 42) The project included exploration of the adolescent gamers themselves with portraits of them at play  and a parallel film The Loop (in collaboration with filmmaker Paul Holmes)  utilising split screens to follow a young girl as the mirrors the movements of a young figure skater on an adjacent screen.

A recent Aeon article refers to ’the extended mind’ whereby memories, thoughts, perceptions extend beyond the body to algorithmically mediated objects, databases and networks”. Our brains adapt just as they adapt to reading the symbols that comprise the alphabet, or music, or, in my case, learning shorthand. I don’t think of it as one thing or another but as an accretion of knowledge and skill.   Simon Jenkins wrote an article in The Guardian   (2 Feb 2017) noting that sales of old-fashioned vinyl records have soared to a 25 year peak (I should add that we have some and they are digitally re-mastered to provide enhanced sound), printed books are recovering ground from e-readers, plus there is more questioning of the negative effects of the internet. Jenkins suggests that we are now heading for ‘post-digital’, employing new technology as a servant and not as a master.

I was born into a world where few people had telephones and there was no television. News was from the radio, newspapers or Pathe News at cinema visits – obviously old. I consider myself to be a ‘digital settler’ being there at the start of the digital revolution and welcoming computers – maybe because I already knew how to type with all my fingers!  Also, to my mind, it maybe isn’t so much of an ‘age’ thing but the degree of  aptitude/orientation, i.e. some people are better at reading maps than others because their spatial skills are more developed. I’m writing this in hope because I still can’t follow those pixel blocks in ‘Minecraft’, let alone work my way building a website – yet!