Why Material Visual Practices?

Asko Lehmuskallio and Edgar Gómez Cruz, ‘Why Material Visual Practices?’, pp.1-16, in:

Gómez Cruz, E., Lehmuskallio, A. (Eds.), 2016. Digital photography and everyday life: empirical studies on material visual practices. Routledge, London; New York.


The way we understand the camera, as part of a technology and as a tool, plays a crucial role in our understanding of photography.

Although a variety of differences can be found, many photo practices tend to continue along well-paved paths.

Of all the features taken can be shared over vast distances, shown on publicly available websites are used for a variety of other purposes, not all engage in the possibilities that digital photography affords. But importantly many do.

Arguably, the success of networked camera devices is tied to the connected interactions that they allow for business meetings, family gatherings, travels, weddings and online dating are only some of the potential instances where these connected interactions, mediated by camera devices and online services.

In many cases, network camera devices allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies, letting us share a space mediated by computing networks and telecommunication infrastructures, in ways that exceed the narrow range of symbolic cues known from early computing interfaces.


By being able to provide, translate and transform these connected interactions, commercial service providers and manufacturers of digital camera devices play a crucial and powerful role in suggesting how people connect and interact with each other. Media scholars have long pointed to this connection, often maintaining the multinational companies distort social relations, while at times suggesting that these relations are based on calculations of exploitation (Fuchs, 2011).

These multinational companies are only one of many actors within the connected into actions that we deal with in our everyday lives: and something unexpected and terrifying happens, the digital data collected to enable the sharing of important emotional moments are family life might become part of forensic databases.

Important academic work on photography has often focused on photographs as particular kinds of images, thinking, for example, about how photographic images relate to questions of journalistic evidence or artistic expression. In this book we propose to take a broader perspective on photography and to study it, empirically, as part of practices, ranging from the seemingly mundane ways in which families use digital photography to keep in touch to the politically unpredictable ways in which vernacular photography becomes part of forensic databases. Here, digital photography in everyday life is entangled with the variety of ways of being in the world, where neither the everyday nor photography can take clearly definable boundaries.


We suggest that photography is tied to both ways of seeing and representing, as well as to ways of acting and performing. Photographic practices allow for different kinds of communicative actions from, for instance, text, speech or music, but they also offer a different ways of experiencing the world. Photographic theory, engaging with photography as representation, is to be complimented with practice-based assessments, especially as photographic technologies have become more complex.

Most of the texts in this volume are related to photography but they discuss it in relation to something else: to experience of everyday life, the body, economic cultures, imagination, algorithmic cultures, surveillance, grief, communication, etc. This, indeed, signal something relevant in our discussion regarding photography, namely that we cannot speak, any more, about a single main use of vernacular photography, a ‘Kodak Culture’, which Richard Chalfen (1987) identified as a particular cultural form of home-mode communication.


Whereas some time to think of practice theory as a single, shared theoretical movements, it is important to emphasise the practice theories do not have one shared understanding of practice, or of agency within practices, for example.


Often, visual representations are of particular importance for understanding why they have been created and what kind of forums of attention they might suggest. A focus on material practices should not let us forget that people use pictures because they continue to express and articulate relations in different ways from other modes of address.

Careful visual analysis continues to be important for understanding our visual worlds. Practice-based assessments of digital photography are, more often than not, both material and visual, instead of only one or the other.


Automation processes, algorithmic photography, metadata and big data are only some of the keywords recently used for describing changes in photography, and these need to be localised and situated.


The complex sociotechnical assemblages that photography is part of is still in the process of stabilisation, and might always remain unstable and restless.