Networked Lenses

According to a recent article The New Crisis of Connected Cameras, we are in danger, in crisis specifically. The ubiquity of smartphones, or more generally, any device connected to a network with a lens, so-called “networked lenses,” has led us into a strange and information rich place which we don’t know how to navigate quite yet.

Photographs are posted online recording events as they unfold. We are witnesses to groups of people making Nazi salutes following the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, or to a protest against working conditions for makers of the latest consumer electronics device, or to the violence directed against Gaza and its people during Israel’s most recent assault on its neighbour in July 2014.

Palestinian medic tries to comfort a wounded boy at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, early Friday, July 18, 2014 © Ezz al-Zanoun
Palestinian medic tries to comfort a wounded boy at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, early Friday, July 18, 2014 © Ezz al-Zanoun

Networked lenses and the changing nature of our news feeds to be more visual means that these images are curated for us and imposed upon us by our networks. A question present in the current crisis asks, what should you share? Or, what should we show, what should we not publish?

A related and less obvious question is, what can’t you share? What is not available to be shared in the first place?

On 1 September 2014, Edwin Chota was murdered. The remote location of his murder, in the Peruvian Amazon near the border with Brazil, meant that wider news of his death was delayed by several days.

Villagers, including Chota’s now widow, travelled for six days to the regional capital in Pucallpa to report the crime.

Edwin Chota © Alex Webb
Edwin Chota © Alex Webb

Chota was a leader of the Ashéninka indigenous community of Saweto and an outspoken opponent of the illegal logging taking place in the Peruvian Amazon region (see the Red Gold Rush).

For ten years, he had been seeking legal title for the land of Saweto as a step towards getting rid of the illegal loggers operating within his community’s forests. With legal title to the land, Chota would be able to create, and to protect, a reserve for his people where they could live sustainably.

News of Chota’s murder came to me through Twitter. He was one of four people murdered on that day, a shocking quadruple homicide inflicted upon the community of Saweto. No photographs were filed with the news story, it was a written report only of the emerging details.

In the following days, subsequent reports would supply archive photographs of Chota, of saw-milled logs, and of logs in transit down the Ucayali River.

Photography is an overtly selective medium, in that what is recorded is dependent upon choices made by the photographer. Although ‘selection’ is certainly not limited to photography as a form of communication, it is perhaps more obvious than say in writing.

A consequence of this selection is to make important what is selected, framed and presented, and to make less important what is not selected. As Susan Sontag has pointed out, “whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.”

In a time of networked lenses, the problem of selection, and importance and less importance, becomes more pronounced.

Networked lenses give us experience of events happening now, so the selection becomes additionally temporal in kind and dependent upon the network for its transfer. This phenomenon has led writer Craig Mod to re-phrase Sontag’s observation as, “today, it turns out, it’s whatever can’t be networked that becomes less important.

For people without networked lenses. For communities fighting against illegal deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, despite threats being made on their lives, they are of course not less important. And so photography must find ways to counteract the two selective forces of framing and the network.

As both selective forces have their origin in photography understood as a technology, i.e. the limitations of the camera frame and the network, perhaps a counter-force answer lies in the cultural practices of photography, and that cultural practices must find openings where technology closes.