Blissfully Ephemeral: a Genealogy of a Photographic Paradox

by Vian Paashuis

Institution: Leiden University
Year: 2015
Keywords: Snapchat; genealogy; paradox; memento; communication; vernacular photography; ephemeral
Record ID: 1267697
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1887/32124


This thesis is a genealogy of photography as a communicative object, one that goes against the grain of photography as a memento. The phenomenon that has triggered my interest is Snapchat, a smartphone app with which photographs can be exchanged that disappear almost immediately. My genealogical method, as inspired by Michel Foucault, is not one of looking for origins; I acknowledge the inconsistencies and vicissitudes of history. Rather, my aim is to establish how conditions were shaped in order for a phenomenon such as Snapchat to emerge. Throughout my research I assess how the paradox of the photograph as memento versus the photograph as communicative object has affected photography’s relation to terms such as memory and communication over the course of a number of decades. In order to establish productive analyses, I use examples from vernacular photography as well as art photography and conceptual art. The family photo album, Instagram, and Fiona Tan’s Vox Populi are the protagonists in the first chapter, in which I assess the altered relation between photography and memory. In the second chapter, On Kawara, the picture postcard, and Polaroid photograph serve to illustrate some characteristics of visual, photographic communication. The emphasis in such interactions is on the transfer of phatic messages, an exchange in which the photograph as an object plays a mere verificatory role; it helps the sender to tell the recipient that they are still alive. The third chapter centres on the disappearance of the photograph that is the consequence of Snapchat and other disappearing-photo-apps. At a time in which we amass daunting amounts of photographs, Snapchat has begun to relieve us somehow from the burden of remembrance and time-consuming structuring processes, but clearly, it does not operate without collateral damage. Certainly, the way in which photography functions as part of our daily life is rapidly altering. Snapchat’s wealth of ambiguities complicates straightforward interpretation, certainly at this stage in time when it is still relatively new. Could it be considered an inherent critique of the way in which we build our online identities, or is it inextricably part of the social media machine? Does it enable a renewed sense of intimacy, or is it the epitome of contemporary alienation? Through the continuous publicness of our private lives, much of the distinction between what used to be the private and the public has collapsed. Snapchat provides an answer to this situation in the sense that it offers its users a right to be forgotten, yet also, the consistent exposure and interaction it motivates leaves little room for privacy. And contrary to what many believe, this increased exposure does not seem to make us more visually literate, and it never ceases to overwhelm us. More than ever, Snapchat has made visual communication to be about its “here I am” value, and less and less about the photograph itself. Clearly, it is not an isolated phenomenon as such, rather, it is symptomatic for many widespread societal…