Friday essay: the uncanny melancholy of empty photographs in the time of coronavirus


Cherine Fahd, University of Technology Sydney and Sara Oscar, University of Technology Sydney

Over the last few weeks, photographs in the news and on social media have documented our behaviour in response to COVID-19.

Panic buying of pasta, rice and, surprisingly, toilet paper is represented in empty shelf after empty shelf.

That’s not all that is empty.

Images of empty public spaces – from the streets of Ginza, to soccer stadiums, to the Venice canals, to lone masked travellers on buses, trains and trams – evoke a sense of apocalyptic films and the end of days.

Photographs of empty public spaces are increasingly filling our news feeds, documenting our response to a worldwide pandemic.

While these pictures point to a frightening situation, we can’t help being drawn into the otherworldly and unfamiliar scenes. They make us stop, look and linger as we try to comprehend what these places without people are saying.

Our attraction to images of the world without us reveals a collective fascination for the apocalypse or, perhaps, extinction.

Take the Instagram feed Beautiful Abandoned Places and its 1.2 million followers. These photographs show buildings in ruins or overgrown with weeds; old tourist sites now empty.

The images are “ruin porn”: when we take voyeuristic pleasure or delight in the sight of architectural decay or dilapidation.

The appeal comes from looking at a scene that could cause discomfort (or estrangement, or isolation) but doesn’t. The viewer is looking at a representation of the scene, not the scene itself, from a position of far-off comfort.

But another definition of ruin porn, a moral definition, is gaining pleasure from someone else’s failure, as seen through these architectural ruins.

Morally compromised as outsiders, we aestheticise a picture of another’s decline while looking away from factors that contribute to crisis.

The images in our current news feeds – despite what they say about coronavirus – offer similarly compelling visuals. We take delight in the formal composition of these images, which fall into tropes of the photographic picturesque.

The absence of people provides us with the ability to see into the distance with endless visual perspective. We feel as though we are alone in the landscape, a heroic adventurer.

Why is our absence from the world so fascinating to view in photographs?

In the early era of photography, anything moving would be rendered invisible, while architecture (or a corpse) was the perfect still subject. Take for instance Daguerre’s 1839 photograph of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, a bustling city street.

Louis Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple, photographed in 1839.

In this photograph, the street appears empty – with the exception of two figures who have stood still long enough to be captured by the exposure time required to portray the scene.

Photographs have always provided us with an alternative view of the world without us.

Contemporary fine art photographer Candida Höfer has made a successful career out of photographing large-scale empty spaces like public libraries, museums, theatres and cathedrals. Thomas Struth’s empty street photographs make German cities look like ghost towns.

These artists demonstrate a longstanding fascination with photographing architecture devoid of human subjects.

This fascination may be due to what architectural historian Anthony Vidler described as “the architectural uncanny”. Abandoned and deserted spaces, he said, make our familiar spaces become unfamiliar.

For Vidler, this estrangement from space hinges on visual representation such as in photography.

These photographs of empty public spaces capture a departure from our everyday and instead visualise this uncanniness: an alternative reality emptied of our presence.

The uncanny, wrote Vidler:

Would be sinister, disturbing, suspect, strange; it would be characterised better as “dread” than terror, deriving its force from its very inexplicability, its sense of lurking unease, rather than from any clearly defined source of fear – an uncomfortable sense of haunting rather than a present apparition.

While we hide away and quarantine ourselves indoors, the world outside is captured in the collective imaginary as eerily without us. What we thought we knew of public spaces is instead evoking the sensation of being alone in a haunted house.

In images where we expect to see hundreds or thousands of people, we find instead a few lonely figures presented to us by a single observer: the camera.

Pictorial urban life emptied of its citizens produces an assortment of emotional responses: estrangement, social alienation, melancholy.

The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico captured this in his 1913 painting Melancholy of a Beautiful Day where an ominous figure stands alone in an empty town street accompanied only by his shadow and a Roman statue in the distance.

Made over a century ago, de Chirico’s painting surprisingly resonates with the photographs we are seeing in the news today. While it offers a historical example of the surrealist fascination with psychological dream states, it is also prescient of our current reality.

The images being captured by news photographers point to our fear of the pandemic and, fundamentally, of each other.

The photographs expose how swiftly we can become estranged from our everyday lives, how our surroundings can suddenly become something other – something fragile and tenuous.

The empty shelves, the empty restaurants, the grounded planes, the empty airports, the depopulated Mecca without worshippers, Trafalgar Square without tourists: these are all signals of the slowing of progress.

Photography is so good at capturing this because it is an unmediated mechanical eye that confronts our all-too-human eye. In these instances, the camera is able to be where we cannot be.

The mechanical eye is further exaggerated in the photographs which provide us with a distinctly nonhuman view of open, empty spaces.

Drone images give us an aerial perspective not readily available to the human eye. When viewed in the context of a global health crisis, there is no mistaking that we are – somewhat strangely – bearing witness to our own erasure.

We are accustomed to seeing images of crisis represented by fires, floods, bombs, warfare. The photographs we see as a result of COVID-19 are an emptying out and a slowing down.

This is a different sort of crisis, one that is mirrored in the uncertainty and slowing down of our financial markets and the need for government stimulus packages.

As cultural historian, Frederic Jameson said:

it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Perhaps this is precisely what these photographs are showing us: how the pandemic paradigm of “social distancing”, which isolates us physically from each other, disrupts and stops our lifestyles.

The pausing or end of our gathering in public, in airports and hotels, at tourist sites and sporting matches, in shopping malls, museums and bars, signals a rupture to the flow of everyday life.

Photographs of empty public spaces unmask the illusion that we are integral to existence. Even without a camera operator, optical technology will linger on and capture scenes of the world without presence.

Who can say whether that operator is human, or nonhuman, like a satellite from outer space that is still programmed to picture our buildings even if we aren’t in them? The Conversation

Cherine Fahd, Director Photography, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney and Sara Oscar, Lecturer in Photography, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires



Use the slider tool in the images below to see before and after NASA satellite images of Australia’s fire and drought effects.
NASA

Molly Glassey, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

Editor’s note: We pulled four before-and-after-images from NASA’s Worldview application, and asked bushfire researcher Grant Williamson to reflect on the story they tell. Here’s what he told us:


I’ve been studying fires for more than a decade. I use satellite data to try to understand the global and regional patterns in fire – what drives it and how it will shift in the future as our climate and land use patterns change.

When I look at these images I think: this is a crisis we have seen coming for years. It’s something I have been watching unfold.

Look at the sheer scale of it. Seeing this much fire in the landscape in such a broad area, seeing so much severe fire at once, this quantity and concentration of smoke – it is astonishing. I haven’t seen it like this before.

November 1, 2019 and January 3, 2020

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In this comparison, you can see November last year versus now. In the present picture (on the right hand side) you can see a vast quantity of intense fires currently burning right down the eastern seaboard and a huge amount of smoke. It’s been blowing out across toward New Zealand for weeks now.

The scale of the current fires is definitely unusual. In a typical year, you might see, for example, a large fire in the alps (near Mount Kosciuszko) or in the Blue Mountains – but they would be isolated events.

What’s striking here is that there is so much going on at once. I have never seen it like this before.

Black Saturday smoke, Feburary 8, 2009 and the 2019-2020 bushfires smoke, January 3, 2020

This one is comparing two smoke events: one from Black Saturday and one from the current fires. In both cases, huge quantities of smoke was released. Both times, the sort of forest burning is very dense, there is a lot of wet eucalypt forest here which naturally has a high fuel load and that’s creating all that smoke. This type of forest only burns during extreme weather conditions.

Simply due to the scale of it and the fact that it’s been going on so long, I would say the current event is worse than Black Saturday, in terms of the quantity of smoke.

East Australia, 10 years ago vs today

In this image, we can the impact of drought. A decade ago, on the left hand side, it was clearly quite green along eastern Australia. That green shows there is a lot of growing vegetation there: pasture crops, grasses and a very wet environment.

If you compare that to the current year, on the right hand side, you can see it’s now extremely brown and extremely dry. There’s not much in the way of vegetation. That’s a result of drought and high temperatures.

Kangaroo Island, 2 months ago vs today

In this image, you can see Kangaroo Island two months ago on the left hand side, versus today.

The main thing I note here is the drying. The “before” image is so much greener than the “after” image. So there’s a real lack of rainfall that’s driving fire severity in this area. You can really see how much the island has dried out.


This has been an extraordinary year for climate and weather, and that’s manifesting now in these unprecedented bushfires. It’s not over yet.

But what’s important is the lessons we draw from this crisis and doing as much as we can to reduce the risk in future.


Grant Williamson is a Tasmania-based researcher with the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub.The Conversation

Molly Glassey, Digital Editor, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What’s not to like? Instagram’s trial to hide the number of ‘likes’ could save users’ self-esteem



Not enough likes? Not a nice feeling.
Shutterstock.com

Joanne Orlando, Western Sydney University

Instagram is running a social media experiment in Australia and elsewhere to see what happens when it hides the number of likes on photos and other posts.

If you have an Instagram account, you’ll get to see the numbers but your followers won’t – at least, not automatically. They will be able to click and see who liked your post, but will have to count the list of names themselves.

The trial is taking place right now in six countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand. Canada has just finished its trial.

It’s a bold move by Instagram, but arguably a necessary one. There is growing concern about the effect of social media on young people’s mental health and self–esteem.




Read more:
Women can build positive body image by controlling what they view on social media


Instagram explained:

We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.

Likes, and their public tallying, have become the heart of Instagram and many other social media platforms. By hiding them, does Instagram risk devaluing a crucial currency?

Receiving loads of likes can feel like getting a gold star. It’s a public affirmation that you’re doing good work – a useful bit of quantitative feedback on your photographic skills or creativity. Under the new trial you’ll still get the gold star, but in private, and without broader recognition.

Nevertheless, the mental health repercussions of counting likes cannot be ignored. The design of social media promotes social comparison. You don’t have to spend long on Instagram to find a plethora of people who are evidently better-looking, more successful, and more glamorous than you.

As a result, young people can be left feeling inadequate and unworthy. Teens report that social media makes them feel closer to friends (78%), more informed (49%), and connected to family (42%). Yet many teens also report feeling pressure to always show the best versions of themselves (15%), overloaded with information (10%), overwhelmed (9%), or the dreaded “fear of missing out” (9%). These positive and negative reactions can see-saw, depending on a person’s particular mindset at the time.

Will comments become the new likes?

Without a public tally of likes, it is likely that comments will become an even stronger indicator of how people are interacting with a particular Instagram post.

Of course, comments can consist of anything from an emoji to an essay, and are therefore much more varied and adaptable than likes. Yet they can still affect users’ emotions and self-worth, particularly because (unlike likes), comments can be negative as well as positive.




Read more:
Fairy-tale social media fantasies can demolish your confidence, but it’s not all bad


The reaction among Australian Instagram users has so far been mixed. Many are disgruntled about the change, feel manipulated by the platform, and argue that the change will reduce Instagram’s appeal, particularly among those who use it to support their business.

But others have applauded the move on mental health grounds, while others still have reported that they are already feeling the difference that the experiment is designed to deliver.

Nevertheless, people could potentially move away from Instagram if they don’t feel it benefits them in the way they want. This could conceivably leave the market open for new social media platforms that unabashedly count likes for all to see.

Finally, there is the question of whether this is nothing but a PR stunt by a global mega-brand.

It’s perhaps natural to be sceptical where the social media industry is concerned. But if this is a genuine move by Instagram to ameliorate the negative mental health effects of social media, then it’s a valuable experiment, and the results may be very beneficial for some. Let’s hope so.The Conversation

Joanne Orlando, Researcher: Children and Technology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Living with Ebola


The link below is to an article (with photos) that looks at what life is like living with Ebola in West Africa.

For more visit:
http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/bigpicture/2014/10/08/living-with-ebola-west-africa/vTCGB1bQTSbQitjUkSsTWI/story.html

Iraq Through the Lens


The link below is to an article that looks at the current situation in Iraq through the camera lens – well worth a look.

For more visit:
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2014/a-lens-to-the-front/

Australia: NSW – Bushfire Blog


The link below is to a link on the Guardian Australia website which contains a rolling Blog of the bushfire crisis in NSW.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/17/bushfires-rage-in-nsw-as-emergency-warnings-issued-live-blog

The link below is to a photo gallery of the bushfires in NSW.

For more visit:
http://www.theherald.com.au/story/1847953/mega-gallery-the-nsw-bushfires/