What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture?


Who are photographs for? Who are photographs by? Increasingly, the answer to both questions is, more or less, machine: images are captured by autonomous, or semi-autonomous devices in the act of gathering data for artificial intelligences.

Reading the world of the internet through human eyes, this devolved, machinic image-capture seems ubiquitous. Whether tracking down a building through Street View, reading an academic text on Google Books or locating an artwork through a search engine, there is little sense of authorship to the photos we consume online. For all our sophisticated understanding of image manipulation – from Snapchat bunny filters to movie special effects – we are remarkably trusting of many of these apparently unauthored images, as if the question of intent or agenda was removed alongside human agency.


What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture? - 摄影师在一个日益自动化的图像文化中扮演什么角色?

Stephanie Kneissl and Maximilian Lackner, Stop The Algorithm, 2017. Courtesy: The Photographers Gallery, London。

In ‘All I Know Is What’s On The Internet’ – an exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, ominously titled after a Donald Trump quote – artists mine online content for evidence of human intervention. These often present themselves as glitches of one form or another. Winnie Soon’s video Unerasable Images (2018) shows how heavy-handed censorship causes even a Lego rendering of the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing to pop in and out of visibility on online platforms in China.

Andrew Norman Wilson’s Scanops prints (2012–ongoing) reproduce lone images found among Google’s Books pages that unwittingly reveal the role of human beings in the data extraction process. Fingers and hands wearing latex anti-contamination gloves are seen holding pages flat for scanning. A series of goofy, mangled, circular portraits by Emilio Vavarella – The Google Trilogy 3: The Driver and the Cameras(2012) – turn out to be accidental shots harvested from Google Streetview, capturing the drivers adjusting the cameras on their vehicles

Eva and Franco Mattes’s series Dark Content(2016) explores the covert role of content moderators – the humans performing the role of censors commonly attributed to algorithms – some working freelance for social media, others for the comments section of news sites. All participate in the videos anonymously, their voices and likenesses transferred to generic avatars. A moderator hired by a third party for a social media site worries that, after blocking a video containing child pornography, the censure might go no further. Will anyone help the child? Will the video be reported to the police? Caught in the web of the automated service economy, she can find no way of contacting the client company to check. Moderators for the news sites are horribly disturbed by suicide videos, and likewise haunted by unanswerable questions about how the footage made its way to them online.

What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture? - 摄影师在一个日益自动化的图像文化中扮演什么角色?

Degoutin & Wagon, World Brain, 2015, HD Video. Courtesy: The Photographers Gallery, London。

Sebastian Schmieg and Silvio Lorusso’s suite of leporellos Five Years of Captured Captchas (2017) are a reminder that more often than we realize, the humans caught in that web are us. ‘Captcha’ puzzles (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) used on online forms serve a double function: having identified us as non-robot, we are offered text or images that are troubling the optical character recognition tasked with digitizing them. Unbeknownst to us, our human eyes and brain become harvesting tools for non-human intelligence.

The artists point out that Google was once slapped with an (unsuccessful) class action lawsuit for this unpaid labour. The ethics are certainly twisty. On the one hand, what harm is there in crowdsourcing interpretation of documents and images that become sources of public information? On the other, if they are the property of Google – a global for-profit company that extends its post-national stance to its attitude to taxation – how public are they, really? And why do it covertly?

This vision of humankind as sentient servants of a giant artificial intelligence is extended in Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon’s World Brain (2015). A feature-length film work split between scenes in giant data centres, and a neo-survivalist forest camp populated by tech intellectuals, World Brain suggests that external observers of our present earth would see a planet colonized by a super brain that we are collectively dedicated to nurturing. The internet is presented as a highly successful superorganism, within which we all live, both virtually – the details of our day-to-day captured as data – and physically, surrounded by the cables, wires and transmissions of its infrastructure.

What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture? - 摄影师在一个日益自动化的图像文化中扮演什么角色?

Andrew Norman Wilson, Scanops The INsland Printer, 2018. Courtesy: The Photographers Gallery, London。

While not directly referenced in the exhibition, the spirit of James Bridle’s recent book The New Dark Age hovers over ‘All I Know …’ The exhibition brings illustrative focus to many of the issues raised by Bridle. The visual economy with which these works raise complex questions about control, surveillance, trauma, manipulation and agency is, in itself, a sharp reminder of the power of the image in relation to the word.

If an artificial intelligence learns what kinds of pictures you favour, why should it not assist you in optimizing photographs of your family? If an algorithm can predict what pleases you in an image feed, why should it not boost your happiness by showing you more of them? If cameraphones are already ubiquitous in conflict zones, why do we need war photographers? If we’re already broadcasting ourselves all of the time, what’s the point of documentary filmmakers? Is it wrong to have content moderators removing images intended to traumatise us? For the Photographers’ Gallery – an institution hitherto dedicated to images transmitting the vision of one human eye to another – these enquiries are pressing. They carry in their wake deeper questions about who a ‘photographer’ is, and what their role might be in an increasingly automated image culture.

‘All I Know Is What’s On The Internet’ runs at the The Photographers’ Gallery, London until 24 February 2019.

Main image: Miao Ying Lan, Love Poem, 2014-15. Courtesy: The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Hettie Judah

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London.

通过人类的眼睛阅读互联网世界,这种潜移默化的机器图像捕捉似乎无处不在。无论是通过街景追踪建筑物,阅读Google Books上的学术文章,还是通过搜索引擎查找艺术品,我们在网络上消费的照片几乎没有作者感。尽管我们对于图像处理——从兔子女郎滤镜到电影特技——有深入的理解,但我们非常信任这些明显未经授权的大多数图像,就好像意图或议程的问题和人类机构一起被删除了一样。
What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture? - 摄影师在一个日益自动化的图像文化中扮演什么角色?
Stephanie Kneissl and Maximilian Lackner,停止算法 Stop The Algorithm, 2017. 图片源自: The Photographers Gallery, London.
安德鲁诺曼威尔逊的Scanops版画(2012年正在进行中)重现了谷歌图书页面中发现的孤立图像,这些图像无意中揭示了人类在数据提取过程中的作用。戴着乳胶防沾污手套的手指和手被看见保持平页用于扫描。埃米利奥·瓦瓦雷拉(Emilio Vavarella)的一系列愚蠢、扭曲、圆形的肖像——《Google三部曲:司机和照相机》(2012)——最终被证明是从Google街景拍摄到的意外照片,捕捉到了司机调整他们车上的照相机的镜头——艾娃和弗朗哥·马特斯的《黑暗》系列。Content(2016)探索了内容主持人的隐蔽角色——执行通常归因于算法的审查员的角色——一些为社交媒体工作的自由职业者,另一些为新闻网站的评论部分。所有人都匿名参与视频,他们的声音和喜好转移到一般化身。一位被第三方聘请到社交媒体网站的主持人担心,在封锁了包含儿童色情内容的视频之后,这种指责可能不会再继续下去。有人会帮助孩子吗?视频会向警方报告吗?在自动化服务经济网中,她找不到联系客户公司的方法。新闻网站的主持人被自杀视频吓得心烦意乱,同样被那些无法回答的问题所困扰,这些问题是关于视频是如何在网上传到他们的。
What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture? - 摄影师在一个日益自动化的图像文化中扮演什么角色? Degoutin&Wa., World Brain, 2015, HD视频。礼貌:摄影师画廊,伦敦,塞巴斯蒂安·施密格和西尔维奥·洛鲁索的麻风病五年捕捉(2017年)套间提醒我们,比我们意识到的更经常的是,被困在网络中的人是我们。在线表格中使用的“Captcha”拼图(完全自动化公共图灵测试,告诉计算机和人类“分开”)具有双重功能:识别出我们是非机器人后,我们就会得到文本或图像,这些文本或图像会困扰光学字符识别,并负责将它们数字化。不知不觉,我们的眼睛和大脑变成了收集非人类智力的工具。艺术家们指出,谷歌曾因这种无报酬的劳动而受到(不成功)集体诉讼的打击。伦理当然是曲折的。一方面,对于成为公共信息源的文档和图像的众包解释有什么危害?另一方面,如果它们是谷歌的财产——谷歌是一家全球性的盈利性公司,其后国家立场延伸到其对税收的态度——那么它们到底有多公开?为什么会隐瞒呢?Stéphane Degoutin和Gwenola Wagon的《世界大脑》(2015)扩展了人类作为巨大人工智能的有知觉的仆人的愿景。《世界大脑》是一部分镜头的电影作品,分镜头拍摄于巨型数据中心的场景和由科技知识分子居住的新生存主义森林营地,它暗示,我们现今地球的外部观察者将看到一个被超级大脑殖民的行星,我们共同致力于培育这个星球。互联网被描绘成一个非常成功的超级有机体,我们所有人都生活在这个超级有机体中,无论是从实质上还是从物理上讲,它都被电缆、电线及其基础设施的传输所包围。
What Role do Photographers Play in an Increasingly Automated Image Culture? - 摄影师在一个日益自动化的图像文化中扮演什么角色?
Andrew Norman Wilson,扫描INsland打印机,2018。礼貌:伦敦摄影师画廊。
虽然在展览中没有直接提及,但詹姆斯·布莱德最近出版的书《新黑暗时代》的精神仍然笼罩在“我所知道的一切”之上。这些作品所运用的视觉经济提出了关于控制、监视、创伤、操纵和代理的复杂问题,这本身就尖锐地提醒了我们图像相对于世界的力量。OT有助于优化你家人的照片吗?如果一个算法能够预测在图像提要中令你满意的内容,那么它为什么不通过向你展示更多的图片来提升你的幸福感呢?如果摄影师在冲突地区已经无处不在,为什么我们需要战争摄影师?如果我们一直在广播自己,纪录片制片人有什么意义呢?内容版主删除那些会给我们带来创伤的图片是错误的吗?对于摄影师画廊——一个迄今为止致力于将人眼视觉传递到另一只眼睛的图像机构——来说,这些询问是迫在眉睫的。他们带着一个更深的问题:谁是“摄影师”,在日益自动化的图像文化中,他们的角色是什么。“我所知道的是互联网上的什么”在伦敦的摄影师画廊运行,直到2019年2月24日。主要形象:苗苗兰,爱情诗,2014-15。礼貌:伦敦摄影师画廊,Hettie Judah,Hettie Judah,驻伦敦作家。摄影师与画廊摄影

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