Today, our lives are increasingly digitally mediated. It shows up in our image posts and status updates. What we do and think passes through electronic appliances: digital cameras, cell phones, texts, voice mail, email and so forth.
Cameras, storage media and computing devices have shrunk, and the words and images they send us has expanded the shear magnitude of information streaming across our consciousness. Data moves laterally and horizontally. Piles of information tower before us.
How do we curate, not just as image creators, but as viewers or consumers of those images and receivers of visual data that just may outpace verbal data? How do viewers take the chaos of visual data and bring order to it? What does it mean to be a critical, discerning viewer and not just a fawning or cynical one?
We need strategies for organizing and categorizing those piles of data, to sift and sort, to curate our experiences. To edit, not just what comes from others but ourselves. How many shots do we take? How do we backup, organize, and find our images? How do we select an image to post, edit or share? Why do we decide to save what we do? What do we delete? Are we afraid to delete, either on camera, hard drives or on image-sharing networks?
To curate is to organize.
In the arts, we may think of a museum or gallery curator, a person that sifts, sorts and pulls together content for presentation. Curators take what may seem disconnected or disparate, and forge cohesion and sense from it all. When successful, all those parts fit the whole through a kind of architecture, a design of content and the form in which content is experienced.
I’m curious how our viewing and understanding of visual data is changing in response to the increased immediacy, volume and ease of sharing images facilitated by image-sharing networks and take-anywhere, always-available cell phone cameras. How are we modifying our practices and habits of viewing, deciphering, decoding and making sense of the visual language that inundates us? I think it’s often too simple and reactive to say all of the new visual imagery is weak, poor or in some way compromising the importance or value of photography or other visual arts.
Framing your photographs
Photographers curate observations when we choose to include specific content within a frame and exclude all else, from among the whole world of experience that stimulates our desire to record what we see. The relationship of elements within the frame is designed through composition. Composition and framing make apparent alignment, proximity and repetition among elements in the frame. The frame creates a personal kind of order from the chaos of experiencing those same details as they are in the world: scattered and incongruent. It’s the eye that sees the frame before the photo does, and the eye does this as it becomes sensitized to stimuli of aesthetic, narrative or conceptual detail. The frame imposes design, sorts information and categorizes. The frame is important to the architecture of a photograph -- and how to read it.
The frame is an expression of my personal curation, when I photograph and when I consume photography. An ethic is at work: the choice to photograph and the choice not to. The choice to see and not see. Judgment about exclusion and inclusion is an important component of framing and of curation.
These choices hold true for viewing others’ photographs and images, too. In fact, it’s the frame with which we view image-sharing networks themselves that determine our experiences of them and our judgments of what we find: our pleasure or disappointment about what they contribute to contemporary visual culture. Whether we rail or praise can be informed by the frame, so it’s important to think about what goes into the building of our personal frames with which we view others’ images and the networks that house them.
Curation within social networks
To be clear, I just don’t believe that all images taken with a smart phone camera and shared on social networks are stupid or vapid. Also, not all images are strong or brilliant or great, despite what comments say. I’m skeptical of wide-reaching generalizations; it’s kind of a frameless way to view details. It takes work to see well when I photograph; it takes work to see well when I’m a viewer, too. I work at being a good viewer. I work to find images that speak to me in ways that matter to me or inspire or motivate me to create myself. This is true in the real world and in my digitally inhabited one, too. The work is an attitude of curation, it’s the work of sorting and distilling, and of discernment.
Exchanging images and regularly talking about them in image-sharing networks can forge human connections through the communicative powers of visual language: it’s immediate, accessible and relatable across linguistic heritage, nationality, ethnicity and culture. The experiences of viewing a steady stream of images from particular people over a period of time can synthesize a sense of community through familiarity and the intimacy that can come from seeing the world through another’s eyes, whatever our evaluation of the merit or quality of the image itself as “art.”
The degree to which someone experiences this digitally mediated kind of “knowing” of another may just depend on one’s sensitivities and patience. It is an application of personal curation. Value comes from choosing what images to see or not see, people to follow, or a kind of cultivation of tolerance for the ambiguity that can exist between seeing an image as a representation of life as an aesthetic experience and seeing it as a transmission of information: a personal “status” provided through a visual depictions.
Just as we can bask in community, we could just as easily experience digital isolation when all that surrounds us is information we don’t care about, don’t like, have no use for or grow impatient with. Whether I experience containment or community can be influenced by my take on personal curation.
I’m certain that side-stepping or ignoring the need to design an architecture for how we consume visual data, beyond what any social networking application provides us, is important, if we are to transform information from an accumulation of static data to meaningful content. There is, too, a desire for me, as a photographer, to take responsibility for my contribution to the waste pile of images accumulating before me. I cannot ignore that emphasizing constant image production contributes to a visual environment marked by vapid consumption and an ecology of creativity that neither sustains nor inspires community, culture, or aesthetic commentary.
Why do we share the images we do?
Social media and digital image-making are closely tethered. We’re also tethered to our tools of connection via the ritual of posting, responding and sharing. This happens by instilling new habits (or addictions) built by the stimuli and reward of instant feedback and the psychology of affirmation (likes) and accumulation (follows). They form a loop that keeps us circling back and around the concept of “status,” our own and those of others.
The status update is the nexus around which all of our words and images circle and why we generate and share them. In short, the reasons are simple: to improve and be affirmed of our social or professional standing among others, like our unlike ourselves.
It’s important to ask deep-seeded questions, and to explore the frame that contains our actions and motivations. Why do we share the images we do? For ourselves? For others? What’s the motivation for providing a visual or verbal status, sharing it far and wide to some we know, many we don’t -- and do it so regularly?
When I am unable to think about and authentically answer these questions for myself, my photography does fall into the world of production rather than creation. In that case, I build another kind of architecture of viewership for myself. I build a curation that omits the role and value of selectivity, discernment and exclusion as means of constructing, and not just transmitting, meaning through visual language. Less is more, and more, well it’s just more.
Star Rush, @starrush360, is Seattle-based a photographer, writer, and educator. Her photography has been exhibited in the United States and Europe, and published in photography magazines Actual Colors May Vary, Camerpixo, Dodho.com Magazine, among others. Rush is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. She teaches composition and rhetoric, and literature at Cornish College of the Arts.