The social semiotics of photography in marketing materials – historical, multimodal and ideological perspectives
Start of fieldwork: October 2019 – September 2020
Faculty of Humanities (Graduate School of Art & Walter Benjamin College)
PhD (phil. hist.) at Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Switzerland
This PhD project seeks to make a theoretical, analytical, innovative contribution to the field of critical discourse studies, and media anthropology. The project aims to investigate the language of amateur photography through Social Semiotics. In particular, it aims to explore the gender and postcolonial aspects embedded in the imaging tools of daily life. This PhD will examine seven amateur cameras, which have fundamentally changed the practice of photography and its social impact, by case study; from the first amateur camera ever invented (1901) to the photo drone (2014). Since the democratization of photography in 1888 (Kodak), the practice of amateur photography has become highly automated through technological developments(1). It has increasingly developed into a more 'progressive practice’: The camera has become an 'image production machine' (Azoulay, 2015: 21). Donna Haraway described this evolution as a ‘technological feast of visualization’, associated with scopic regimes (Haraway, 1991: 188). My hypothesis is that since the invention of the amateur camera (Kodak, 1888), the economic incentives for the technical aspects have been particularly relevant, while ethical and social aspects have mostly been ignored. The closer focus of the analysis is the camera instruction manual, which is an empirically and ideologically intriguing document. It has been completely overlooked in social science, discourse studies and media anthropology. I will analyze and contextualize it in relation to conventional marketing materials. The camera instruction manual is a seemingly harmless, behind-the-scenes text, but is an integral marketing tool, in which the social meanings of both photography and photographer are produced and circulated. The instruction manual conveys information explicitly within their legal, technical and economic capacity and implicitly in their social and ethical capacity. It is designed for smooth interaction between the camera and user, with the aim of incorporating these instructions into their habits, thus shaping their image practice. I will critically analyze a set of textual and visual data (camera manual, handbook, sales brochure, add, video, interface), within a discourse-ethnographic framework and from a gender and postcolonial perspective, in order to understand how the gaze of the camera sold by the photography industry is translated and transmitted and how the social meanings are articulated through the practice and form of visuality.
(1) The European Photography Industry Federation estimated 1,138 trillion photographs (Trendreport, 2016). The number of drones sold worldwide is set to increase more than 10-fold to $ 67.9 million between 2015 and 2021 (Trendreport, 2017). The photo industry has announced the ‘smart’ camera, which will be controlled by artificial intelligence.
A greatful thank you to my PhD advisors:
Professor Dr. Michaela Schäuble (Social & Media Anthropology)
Professor Dr. Crispin Thurlow (Chair of English Department)
Dr. Andi Schoon (Co-director of Institute Y, and cultural and media scientist in intermediality and interdisciplinary issues)