Nicholas Mirzoeff discusses how visual activism and social justice is increasingly taking place and gaining power on social media platforms
It’s a world of images today, from Tinder to Throwback Thursdays and Trump. As this last example shows, that’s not always such a great thing. From work to leisure and dating, there’s a screen involved somewhere for most people, most of the time. The average American spends 9.9 hours a day looking at screens, including phones, computers, and televisions. People are producing and viewing visual media objects like never before. When we study these interactions, which constitute our visual culture, we are engaged in making visual culture work. And as that work has taken an ever greater centrality in people’s lives, it has also become the contested space for making social change.
Changes in Visual Culture
After the fall of the Berlin Wall spelling the end of the Cold War in 1989, artists and academics imagined a new way of seeing the world. It involved questioning how people saw themselves and were seen by others, centring on popular culture, media images, and their influence on art. They called it visual culture, based on the term coined by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964). In New York City, a group of young postmodern photographers, including Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine, epitomised this shift. Their work concentrated on their own lives, in the case of Goldin whose circles experimented with social, sexual, and other identities. Cindy Sherman depicted herself wearing various costumes and disguises, whereas Sherry Levine appropriated the work of others. All asked us to think about the image-centred world in which we live. Their paramount question was the issue of representation, and so, they became known as the Pictures Generation.
Today there’s a new visual culture that we can call the Snapchat Generation. It’s user-generated and shared online, rather than claiming status in the art world. It utilises Instagram, Facebook, Imgur, Tumblr, Netflix, Hulu, Twitpic, YouTube, and an array of other apps. Some people become famous through this process, like YouTube stars PewDiePie, Michelle Phan, and Rhett & Link, whose millions of subscribers generate millions in advertising revenue (Berg 2015). Their work is highly orchestrated and produced, despite the appearance of being home-made. One such performer, nineteen-year-old Australian Essena O’Neill, deleted all her social media accounts in November 2015, claiming, ‘I was defined by something that was not real’ (Elgot 2015). Of course, a social media storm resulted, creating yet more revenue.
Snapchat epitomises this new circulation of images. It is a conversation app that allows users to share pictures, in the certainty that they will be deleted ten seconds after they are opened. At first it was used mostly for potentially controversial or sexually explicit imagery. Now it has become a dynamic visual conversation platform for the smartphone era. 166 million users generate an astonishing three billion ‘Snaps’ every day on an app that was launched only in 2011, even though it is still not permitted in China, the largest Internet market (Constine 2017). Snaps are intended to protect the privacy of users, and that is presumably troubling to the Chinese authorities. When it was launched as a public company, it was briefly valued at $32 billion, only to tumble when advertisers did not generate sufficient revenue for investors (Frier 2017).
The unusual nature of Snapchat signals a generational divide. While baby boomers and Gen Xers often see this visual conversation as self-indulgent narcissism, millennials consider it as much a part of everyday life as the phone call used to be. Forty-four per cent of millennials use their camera phone every day, with 76 per cent posting the results to social media (Meeker 2015). While many of these photos are trivial, some might capture incidents of police violence, protest, or other issues that are often excluded from mainstream media, but can now be seen as they happen. Today’s visual activism harnesses the energy and passion people have for social media and, almost simultaneously, turns them back into the world.
A New World
The unusual nature of Snapchat signals a generational divide. While baby boomers and Gen Xers often see this visual conversation as self-indulgent narcissism, millennials consider it as much a part of everyday life as the phone call used to be. Forty-four per cent of millennials use their camera phone every day, with 76 per cent posting the results to social media (Meeker 2015). While many of these photos are trivial, some might capture incidents of police violence, protest, or other issues that are often excluded from mainstream media but can now be seen as they happen. Today’s visual activism harnesses the energy and passion people have for social media and, almost simultaneously, turns them back into the world.
This moment is the product of a dramatically new set of global conditions. Since 2008, more people live in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. It’s an astonishing transformation. In Brazil, 85 per cent of the population—no fewer than 172 million people (CIA)—live in cities, exceeding the 81 per cent of US urban residents. Such density and expanse have radically reorganised the once clearly defined city space into flowing city regions, as geographers now call them, like São Paulo, whose towers seem to never end.
The new global majority is also young—under thirty worldwide, and often under twenty-one in the developing world (Boumphrey 2012). In Brazil, 24 per cent of the population is under fifteen years old (World Bank). In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 per cent of people are under thirty: the median age in Niger is fifteen. These children and young people do not remember the struggles for independence that defined their parents’ lives. In South Africa, the Born Free Generation—born since the fall of apartheid in 1994—has known nothing but majority rule, and is increasingly impatient with the government’s failure to deliver even basic services. Demands for shelter, food, clean air, potable water, and electricity have become the engine of social change.
What powers that change is the fact that this young urban majority is networked. Estimates are that, in 2015, 42 per cent of people had some kind of access to the Internet. Google predicts that by 2020, at least five billion people will be online, making the web the first universal medium. Brazil is now the fifth largest smartphone market in the world (IDC), while 48 per cent of Internet users are in Asia—a proportion that exceeds the Asian share of global population (Internet World Stats). Although the Internet audience has only just reached the same level as that of television, the difference is obvious and dramatic. On TV, you have to watch what someone else has programmed. Online, you can add and create content yourself. Not only can incidents like the Tianjin explosion or the floods in Chennai no longer be concealed by governments, but the Internet also allows average citizens to organise self-help networks to deal with such disasters.
For today’s young, networked urban life is far from idyllic. Services are a problem, from transport to electricity and water. Even the fundamental conditions of organic life cannot be taken for granted. Two hundred million people in China watched the documentary Under the Dome within just three days of its release in February 2015, mostly via the WeChat mobile-messaging platform. The film showed the staggering extent of urban pollution in major cities across the country. Such conditions are not limited to China. London exceeded the European Union air pollution limit for 2017 in the first six days of the year. The traditional solution to increased urban populations has long been more economic growth, but that would simply produce more emissions, making pollution still more pervasive. How, then, are the young people of the world to live?
Collectively, the young, urban, networked, and hot world amounts to a rupture in the modern ways of understanding both the organisation and the very purpose of human life. Even time has changed. Some live in a 24/7 world where time is said to be money, while many more find themselves asked to work ever longer hours for smaller return. The climate crisis has undone the nature of what geologists call the ‘deep time’ of the planet itself, because humans have created a new geological era (called the Anthropocene, or new human, era) in the course of one human lifetime—that is, since the 1950s, when the human impact on the Earth system became visible in geological form due to radiation in the atmosphere. Previous geological eras are measured in millions of years.
One way to understand the explosion of time-based media, such as photography and video, is to regard it as a response to the anxiety about changed global conditions in general and time in particular. Americans take more photographs every two minutes than were taken worldwide in the entire nineteenth century. Four hundred hours of YouTube videos are uploaded every minute. In 2014, at least one trillion photographs are estimated to have been taken. That’s over a quarter of all previously existing photos.
Many experience this rupture as a crisis. For others, it is an opportunity. French philosopher Jacques Rancière characterises rupture as a moment in which ‘one does not defeat the enemy, but ceases to live in the world that this enemy has constructed for you’. That is to say, there are new possibilities for ordinary people to shape their lives in ways that are not dictated to them, whether by employers or governments. Pictures of all kinds both depict the rupture and present possible alternative worlds.
The first signature format of this new visual culture is the now-infamous selfie. The selfie is the culmination of a long democratisation of the self-portrait. Photography expanded the field of self-portraiture almost as soon as it was invented. The combination of smartphones with front-facing cameras and social media has made selfies ubiquitous since 2010. The selfie is the first visual form of the new young, urban, networked majority. ‘Selfie’ was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2013, used 17,000 per cent more often than the year before. Google estimates that thirty billion selfies were taken in 2014. The website SelfieCity has shown that most selfies are taken by women—as many as 82 per cent in Moscow—to be shared primarily with other women. The selfie, then, is a challenge to the ‘male gaze’ identified by film scholar Laura Mulvey in 1975 as an inherent component of narrative cinema. Perhaps that accounts for some of the hostility towards it. Already a cliché, the selfie is not important in itself. But it shows us that the new majority is inventing new ways to see itself.
For those of us engaged in the formal study of visual culture, the transformation in attitudes towards images brought on and propelled by social media presents challenges and opportunities. One of the first definitions of visual culture characterised it as the effort to create a ‘history of images’ (Bryson, Holly, and Moxey 1994). At that time, the authors did not mean all images everywhere. They were interested in how popular imagery and works of art combined to create modes of ‘representation’ ranging from questions of identity to politics and feminism. In the two decades since, these ideas have transformed everything from art exhibitions to queer politics. Today, we have to take that effort a step further. Just as the first wave of visual culture studies was, in fact, quite selective in its choice of images to analyse, today’s energy centres on the interpretation of visualised media in the moment of globalisation. Certain key images and types of imagery seem best able to help us in this visual work—namely the attempt to document, describe, and define the experience of rupture in the disjointed global present and recent past.
The Right to Look
Among the floods of digital imagery today, some forms are simply an attempt to keep pace with what is happening and to make a record of personal experience. There are also new possibilities to shape what is now self-evidently a visual culture into the practice of freedom. Taking its cue from global social movements (such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, Occupy Wall Street in the US, or Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa), this work questions the centrality of representation, from politics to visual imagery, and searches instead for instances of what I have called ‘the right to look’ (Mirzoeff 2011).
This ‘right’ is not one that is contained in law codes but rather is brought into being when people exchange looks, such as the look into each other’s eyes that we know from friendship, trust, and love. In this exchange, no one dominates and a common space emerges between us that is the foundation for a common experience. First of all, those encountering each other listen to what the other has to say, even when they do not speak. This familiar personal experience can become collective in certain moments, such as when Tahrir Square was occupied, forming a visual commons. The visual commons does not produce common economic or political conditions, but it is the indispensable precursor to those possibilities. For unless we can see—in the broadest sense of the term—each other and allow ourselves to be seen, so it is that the other then invents us, rather than the other way around; no progress can be made.
Such commons have existed in the past. The civil rights movement in the United States produced an understanding that segregation was wrong by placing bodies in spaces where they were not supposed to be and letting what happened to them be seen. Televised events, such as fire hoses being turned on marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, convinced President Kennedy of the need for the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. For the commons invents the future—or at least one possible future—rather than illustrating past or present situations. As such, it is always changing and always in need of interpretation. The ongoing moment of rupture is a new opportunity to create and shape the visual commons above and beyond questions of representation. These processes together are what I mean by visual activism.
The idea that visual culture might be a space in which to make change and shape the world, rather than merely reflect or represent it, stems from a shift in the understanding of what we still call ‘the image’, the building block of visual culture. In his 1972 classic Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger defined the image as a ‘sight which has been recreated or reproduced’. His declaration was a radical one at the time. By grouping fine art, photography, and popular imagery into the same analytical category of ‘the image’, Berger made the concept of visual culture possible.
Today, however, everything we see on screens is a computation. A camera is a data collection method, requiring processing in a computer, whether for still or moving images. Many of the most striking examples of present-day imagery do not even involve light. The sonograms that people keep as the first ‘photograph’ of a child in utero are produced by sound waves. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) pictures of the inside of the human body are created by placing the body in a strong magnetic field, causing it to emit radio waves that are recorded and then converted into images. But what they depict is never literally seen by anybody.
Indeed, even our understanding of the human senses has changed dramatically due to the influx of digital imagery. The elegant straight lines of the classic vision diagram showing light refracting into the eye have been replaced by a complex set of feedback loops and data streams. There are now thought to be two forms of vision. One deals with perception, the other with action. Over eighty locations in the brain process vision, connected by at least twelve parallel processing pathways. Today’s expanded visual media is producing a human generation with better peripheral and central vision than their parents, which they have developed from playing video games. Scientists call this ‘probabilistic inference’, meaning decision-making based on incomplete information—the choices we make when driving a car, for example.
Formerly, we were trained to concentrate on one task at a time, like a factory worker on an assembly line. Mostly, if not exclusively, we did. Now we are supposed to pay attention to such distractions as email notifications, and mostly, if not exclusively, we do.
People tend to think of seeing as a sort of high-definition video. It turns out it is more like a pencil sketch in black and white (Felleman 2011). The brain completes what it has perceived based on previous experience and what it anticipates. Perhaps this is why visual culture seems like an arena where we can effect change: if what we see is always an ‘assemblage’, to use the term created by philosopher Gilles Deleuze, then it can be put together in different ways if we so choose.
The Visual Community
There is a new ‘us’ on the Internet, and it’s using the Internet to share all these images. This ‘us’ is different from any that print or media culture has experienced before. Anthropologist Benedict Anderson famously described how print culture created ‘imagined communities’ (2006). Readers of a specific newspaper, for example, felt they had something in common with other readers they had never met. Most notably, modern nations were shaped as imagined communities. From the new feminisms to the idea of the 99 per cent disseminated by the Occupy movement, the Snapchat Generation is reimagining how they belong, to what they belong, and what that looks like in the moment of rupture. There is a global visual community that can come together at specific moments, usually in a crisis such as a natural disaster. Specific communities are forming and shaping events constantly, sometimes mapping older communities in different ways and sometimes fostering new possibilities, from Tahrir Square to Rhodes Must Fall and the Confederate statue controversy in the United States.
New visual media is helping to create new forms of social change worldwide. Beginning with the Arab Spring, social media has expanded the scope of politics. But it has done so unevenly. The Facebook page ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ received 300,000 ‘likes’ in January 2011, setting the path to the Tahrir Square uprising. But the 2013 army coup in Egypt pushed back against such interaction, shutting down social media and activism alike. When students took to the streets of Hong Kong to Occupy Central with Love and Peace in October 2014, they created multiple outlets for live-streamed video, photographs, social media, and artwork. The goal was both to make police violence visible and to share their cause with the world. Their identifying yellow umbrellas were even exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, while the occupation was happening. In 2016, media phenomenon Donald Trump became president of the United States, in significant part as a result of the combination of his prominence on the reality TV show The Apprentice, free media coverage in the news, and his millions of Twitter followers. Trump has redefined mainstream politics in social media. As president, his constant tweets drive the US political and media agenda and create a sense that everything centers around him.
One of the most striking examples of our transformative moment has been the activism surrounding the recent wave of police killings of African American men as documented on smartphone videos and shared online. For the first time, it has been possible to compare police accounts of their actions with independent visual documentation of what happened. Some 85 per cent of African Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine own a smartphone—several points higher than their white counterparts. At first, the effects of this ownership were internal to the black community, as exemplified by the rise of what has been called ‘Black Twitter’, a social media niche specific to African Americans. But in July 2014, a policeman employing an illegal chokehold killed Eric Garner, an African American man in Staten Island, New York, even though Garner was already restrained by several other police officers and stated repeatedly, ‘I can’t breathe.’ The incident was documented on smartphone video and shared online. A few weeks later, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Although there was no video of the event, online reactions brought national attention to it.
When grand juries believed police accounts and did not indict police officers for any crime in either case, Internet users used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to demonstrate their outrage and share their photographs and videos. The hashtag evolved into a fullblown movement, developing into mass protests. It took both visual documentation and media-worthy street protests to make the nascent movement have national impact. Such intersections of the young urban majority with social media have created a shift from recording change to making change.
Such change is rarely permanent. Consider one of the most powerful images of 2015, the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Kurdish refugee whose drowned body was discovered on a beach by a Turkish policeman. Nilufer Demir, a Reuters stringer working for the Turkish Dogan News Agency, took a photograph of the retrieval of the deceased boy that seemed to change global attitudes, if temporarily (Mirzoeff 2015). In mainstream and social media, people began to refer to Syrian ‘refugees’ rather than ‘migrants’. Countries like Canada and Germany opened their doors to more of them. Demir’s photograph had such impact because it reminds us of images we already know well. The posture of the policeman, Sergeant Mehmet Ciplak, who carried Alan’s body, subconsciously echoed one of the key icons of Western art. Known as the Pietà, meaning ‘pity’, it depicts the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. Perhaps the best known example is Michelangelo’s 1499 sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica. Such iconic images carry the power of the sacred.
That subconscious recognition, regardless of our religious beliefs, allows the photograph to get past the deflecting shell we have all developed in today’s image-dominated world. First identified by German critic Walter Benjamin in the 1930s, this shell allows us to survive both the constant stream of ads and the endless depictions of suffering that confront us every day. The horrific spectacle of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, however, produced another effect, inciting widespread hostility towards refugees in both Europe and the United States. In 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union, influenced by hostile depictions of migrants. No one image, or set of images, in and of itself is going to achieve social change. To be sustainable, change requires engagement that may be mobilised by images but has to be carried out in other ways—including, of course, the ongoing use of visual materials.
One of the best-known proponents of the concept of visual activism is South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Muholi uses her work to claim the right to call herself a black lesbian. She is caught between the renowned ‘rainbow constitution’ of her country, which formally guarantees rights to LGBTQ people, and the daily reality of violence and sexual assault against them in the townships. Her work came to global prominence with a 2015 solo exhibition entitled Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
At the same time, visual activism was spreading across South Africa. Using the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, a 2015 student movement demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town campus. Rhodes, an inveterate imperialist, was deemed to be an inappropriate representative of the post-apartheid nation. Despite the objections of some art historians, the statue was removed to a museum. Some have complained that warehousing such symbols is the equivalent of rewriting history, but that is precisely what historians do, year in and year out. #RhodesMustFall opened up a debate about the extent to which South Africa had truly set aside the legacies of apartheid. The students mobilised that debate into #FeesMustFall, a successful call for the cancellation of planned tuition increases. Demonstrations ended the year with the more controversial demand #ZumaMustFall, referring to the South African president. What had begun as a debate over public art led to a change in government policy, followed by a challenge to the government itself.
The debate over statues of past heroes has spread first to the United States and now to Australia and the UK. Following the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, statues commemorating the Confederacy became controversial across the United States. Many cities have removed prominent statues, from New Orleans to Brooklyn. Debate has spread to statues of Columbus and other colonial figures. Hoping to benefit from a white backlash, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia made such statues into a campaign issue for the November 2017 election, only to lose heavily. Visual activism in the new global context is a key means to explore how the new majority wishes to be seen by themselves and by others, when the state will not, or cannot, represent them. Keep looking.
This essay is based on material in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s book How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies and More (2016). All these ideas are developed at greater length therein. This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, is one of the founders of the academic field of visual culture. His work includes An Introduction to Visual Culture (Routledge, 1999/2009), The Visual Culture Reader (Routledge, 1998/2002/2012), The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Duke University Press, 2011), and How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More (Basic Books, 2016). In 2014, he launched the open writing project After Occupy: What We Learned. He is currently working on a project entitled The Visual Commons: #BlackLivesMatter.
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