Between Bodies and Machines

Eve Forrest, ‘Between Bodies and Machines: Photographers with Cameras, Photographers on Computers’, pp.105-122, in:

Rubenstein, D., Golding, J., Fisher, A., 2013. On the verge of photography: imaging beyond representation. Article Press, Birmingham, UK.


This discussion has two aims. The first is to move discourse on photography away from the dominant representational framework that often ignores the doings of the photographer.


[Ref Jonas Larson on the absence of ‘photographing’ from theory]

Whilst on the computer the body is also moving and interacting; ‘the image on a computer screen still demands levels of sensory and embodied engagement: the slight flicker of the screen, the tap of the keyboard, the physical movement of operating the mouse’.

Everyday habits associated with photography have undoubtedly been transformed by mobile phone technology. Nonetheless, arguably, the practice of taking photographs has not altered that much in its 150 year history.


Frustratingly, however, there’s been little research on what photographers actually do when they go out with their cameras.

There are many truisms about photography in circulation, especially in literature on the image itself. Perhaps the most enduring of these is that photography is all about capturing singular moment in time and is exhausted by a concern for stillness.

As a result, the importance of movement in photography has been frequently ignored. From the point of view of the image, movement is often seen as the enemy of photography. It leads to the unsightly smudging or blurring other photograph’s subject, for instance.

However, as practised, movement is integral to photography, whether one thinks of the micro-adjustments of hands and feet necessary to position a camera or of those whole-body movements, such as walking, which brings photographer and subject into proximity with one another.

We need to move away from discussing photography in visual terms the rely on such representational frameworks. An alternative philosophical approach is required in order to understand issues of practice, which place the body and movement at the height of photography.

Phenomenology offers a way of exploring photography and its associated practices by considering the way they are enacted and experienced in an everyday context.


In its broadest sense, the phenomenological approaches have been utilised to enrich our understanding of diverse practices such as hillwalking, driving and watching films.


However, no similar study into everyday photography practice and related areas such as movement, technology and the body has been conducted.

Three authors, informed in different ways by phenomenology, will be employed below to explore these issues in more depth: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the human geography David Seamon and the anthropologist Tim Ingold.

Both phenomenology and photography are bound up with complex issues of vision, seeing and movement

The work of Merleau-Ponty, with its focus on perception, embodiment and habit, is particularly useful when we considering photography and its relationships between body, camera and computer.

From a phenomenological perspective, the photographer becomes part of the visible landscape, but also needs distance to capture it, so he or she is simultaneously of the world and outside it. The phenomenon on on this dual relation to the world is recognised by Merleau-Ponty, he writes that as we ‘step back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from the fire; it’s lacking is the intentional threads which attached us to the world and thus brings them to notice’.

Photographers similarly step back from everyday entanglements in order to capture and reflect what others may not see, but of course they are always still firmly of and in the world.

Many photographers tend to take their camera out with them whether they intend to take pictures are not. This habit means that the camera becomes an extension of the body, an instrument that both extends the reach of vision and is incorporated into the wider body schema.


[REF Merleau-Ponty on typists and their bodily space]

Ingold vocabulary of wayfaring and path finding is also useful when considering the inherently nonlinear structure of online environments such as Flickr. This site continuously mutates and grows as users interact and connect, generating millions of multiple paths through their daily movements. For this reason, even if the user is familiar with Flickr, there is always the possibility of finding new areas and connections to follow.


David Seamon also places movement at the centre of his writing. His Geography of the Lifeworld studies the everyday complexities ‘and inescapable immersion in a geographical world’ via the ‘body ballet’ [now described by the author as body routine] – a set of integrated gestures, behaviours and actions that sustain a particular task or aim’.

Seamon also utilises the work of Merleau-Ponty to investigate everyday actions and he argues persuasively that our relationships with place and habitual routines are complex. They are not merely symptoms of automatic reinforcement no simply conditions bisect thought processes(as it is argued by cognitive and behaviourist theorists). Instead, seaman writes that everyday interaction and movement ‘arises from the body’, which is ‘at the root of habitual movement’.

Seamon’s ideas have recently been revived in diverse areas such as urban planning and media studies, but so far have never been applied to photography and visual studies.

What follows here is an attempt to show the potential of this phenomenological framework, and ultimately to take photography out of the still and into the world of movement.

What makes the connection between the photographer and their camera so distinctive? The findings of my study suggests is a combination of two things: the body and its habitual movements with the camera.

pp. 110–111

The movement at the heart of this close relationship means that during photographic process, body and machine become entwined, which can be understood in terms of Seamon’s claim that ‘phenomenology is as much a process as a product’.


The relationship between the body and the machine here is a complex process and the corporeal and sensual interaction between each part builds over time, forming a strong connection. Through repetitive use the camera becomes an extension of both the photographer’s hand and vision.

Throughout my study it became clear that the photographers use their bodies in multiple, unexpected ways with the camera. But it is not only in the taking of photographs that movement plays an important role. Other areas require the body to be fully engaged, such as posing and posturing in front of the camera when one’s picture is being taken or getting light spots in front of one’s eyes due to the brightness of the flash. Later still, whether uploading the images from the camera to the computer or even handling the paper copies and leafing through a photo album, the body is always fully engaged in and by doing photography and can be seen more widely as ‘the site of activity and engagement with the world’.

Going out with photographers as they use the cameras demonstrated to me that movement was an integral part photographic practice. Taking photographs can often feel like card work and it is potentially a very physically demanding pursuit.


Repetitive encounters with the camera are important in creating a rhythm that allows the photographer to immerse themselves and their environment, as they start to notice how and where they go.

The camera is a machine that becomes easily incorporated into the wider body schema, and this allowed to the photographers I observed new insights into their locale. The habit of taking the camera with them each time they ventured out guided the movement around the city.


The relationship between camera and photographer goes deeper than simply interacting with machine, it fundamentally changes the photographer’s movement with their body and ultimately, the way they view life.

Whilst it is vital to examine the physical and habitual character of taking photographs, for all of the participants in my study being on a computer was also an integral part of the practice.


The movement of the photographers also subtly changed as interacted with the site and, to use a metaphor of walking, shifted from a purposeful walk as they did the more administrative duties (checking messages in group sites and leaving feedback and comments) that developed later into a more explorative stroll around the site.

What I want to emphasise here is that the photography in front of the computer is not passive, they are actively using body combining the skills of movements and familiar gestures, and there are significant overlaps and similarities between movements online and off-line with the camera. In one example, when they like what they see outside with the camera, they press the shutter release; on Flickr they click with the touchpad or mouse on the pictures that the eye is drawn to.


Ingold believes that the dominance of the network model(really emphasis is put it on the connections between people and things) is flawed. Instead he insists our entanglement and habitation along the trails of everyday life is messier than a well ordered network diagram might suggest.

I believe it is the inherently explorative feel of Flickr has led to its global success. The language used throughout the site encourages users to find their way around place rather than simply logging on to another site, deliberately mimicking their wandering strategies off-line.