Image Hunting: Travel Photography in Digital Age

Published: Masters of Media, University of Amsterdam

It won’t be a shocking discovery if I say that digital technology dramatically changed the art of photography. Travel photography gained (or lost?) the most, since digital equipment freed this art form from being a domain of experts. Now every traveler becomes an author of potential artworks, and has the means to publish them on social media platforms and photography communities’ websites. Such a transformation from analog to digital photography and its wide accessibility online provides many interesting points for discussion. Spending a few months in South Africa made me wonder about one question in particular: what does digitization of photography mean for the relationship between a traveler and a local community?

Hunting for the exotic

Exotic, faraway places have always been the most tempting ones. Since the beginning of colonization era, or even before that, travelers romanticized discovering places nobody has ever been to. To lift the veil of mystery they brought back local objects, lengthy descriptions in their notebooks, artworks, samples of unusual plants, and even local people. Nowadays we don’t need to bring a suitcase full of rocks (although we sometimes still do) or drag a few local children back with us on a plane. Thousands of photographs piled up on a hard disc are our proof that we’ve been there, and our way of showing the exoticism of those places to those who stayed. Thus, it comes as no surprise that online and offline collections of travel photographs are filled with the photos of African, Hindu and South American locals, often depicting their poverty, suffering, and hunger. For those interested in the topic photography, travelling and images in general, Susan Sontag’s essays are a must-read. Here she provides an explanation for our fascination for images from third-world countries:

The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying. Thus post-colonial Africa exists in the consciousness of the general public in the rich world- besides through its sexy music- mainly as a succession of unforgettable photographs of large-eyed victims. (Sontag, 2004; 63)

And the locals are not the only focus of those photographs. The internet is filled with pictures of travelers posing with the locals, especially with children. If those pictures are a documentation of a Westerner’s voluntary work in third-world countries, such images fit well into a cliché narrative of a European missionary helping poor, indigenous children.

Image Hunting

Let’s now move on to my own experience with photographing poverty. My hunt for the exotic began the moment I stepped out of the Cape Town International airport, but it wasn’t until my visit to a Kayamandi township that I started feeling uncomfortable with my camera. Poverty, lack of running water, and provisional shacks made a huge impression, even though life conditions in Kayamandi are considered one of the best among all South African townships. Me and my friend were walking the dusty roads with two local, 14 year old girls from the after school program. Even with them we drove much attention because of the color of our skin.

Photo: Sonia Kolasinska
Kayamandi, South Africa

While my friend was taking pictures of everything and everyone around her, I was hiding my camera and taking pictures only by sticking the lens out of my bag just a tiny bit. I wasn’t afraid of it being stolen. I was more concerned that by taking a photo of a woman sitting in front of her shack I would acknowledge that she and her house are merely a tourist attraction for me. That the color of her skin with the shabby surrounding make up a nice, picturesque image that I, the white tourist evidently displaced in this neighborhood, would take home and show proudly to my friends. I would admit that her misery is a perfect subject of my indifferent photographic exploration.

Safe Image Safari

After I came back home, my grandmother, having browsed through my photos from South Africa on facebook (yes, my grandmother on facebook!), asked me “where are all the photos of the locals? And the children?!” Travelling the way she does, in a touristic bus to Egypt or Greece, makes it easy to photograph whatever and whomever she likes. Not only are the locals used to touristic masses looking at them through the lenses of their Canons, but the tourists themselves are also safely hidden behind bus windows. This spacial distance and the clear tourist-local division make it possible to take a picture without feeling guilty. And even if you do, a second later a photographed person will disappear behind a bus anyway.

Photo: Sonia Kolasinska
Kayamandi, South Africa
I feel that in South Africa it is much different. Not only am I not protected by a window of a touristic bus, having to face people directly if I want to steal their souls, but racial issues in South Africa create tension so tangible that I feel embarrassed taking my camera out. The racial inequality and a still very recent history of apartheid adds another, nasty, hierarchical dimension to the relationship between a photographer and the subject. That does not count for children, though. Those still innocent creatures were running happy around us, holding our hands and laughing in front of the cameras. Apparently, seeing their faces on a small LCD screen on the photo camera was a pure joy for them. Only in this case I felt that digital technology has a potential to facilitate non-verbal communication between a traveler and a local, instead of creating a barrier between them.

References: Sontag, Susan (2004). Regarding the pain of others. London: Penguin Books Inc.

Memories: Dosage and Side Effects

This weekend I finally decided to organize my photo library. I have to admit, I’m far behind the digital revolution and I still haven’t migrated all my files to the cloud. It’s not a surprise, given that I get a mild panic attack every time my Samsung uploads photos from my phone to the online account. Almost fainting, I need to compulsively check the privacy settings of my photo albums to make sure they’re not for all two of my Google+ followers to see.

So my digital spring cleaning was happening on my hard drive, and flipping through countless folders, sub-folders and files was a nightmare. I discovered thousands of photographs from my four months trip to South Africa that I haven’t even properly looked into, random Skype snapshots, inappropriate selfies with ex-boyfriends, imported WhatsApp photos that somehow found their way to my folders…. I felt like all my life in images is trapped in this little black device, never having seen the light of my Facebook Wall and never having felt the flattering tickling of other Facebookers’ likes.

Since I was a little girl an idea of a scrapbook enticed me very much. A possibility of choosing a selection of images that best reflect the milestones in your life, briefly sum up the biggest achievements and show off the greatest adventures. This would be a kind of collection of highlights that Facebook automatically (and randomly) pulls from your profile at the end of each calendar year and composes a neat sideshow that your friends would then eagerly comment on.

Scrap booking in itself is a soothing practice. There is something therapeutic about going through memories, selecting the ones dearest to your heart, and imprinting them forever on colorful pages (given that a scrap book does not fall victim of a natural disaster of some sort, be it fire, flood or just plain human forgetfulness). Decorating the photo with drawings, descriptions, and quotations gives it a more multi-dimensional aesthetic quality. The picture then merges with the written word, with literature or tradition, and by doing so grounds your memory in history, imprints it in the flow of time.

But I never made a scrap book. Or, rather, I started many but could never keep on pasting fresh memories onto the blank pages. Doing so has a certain finality to it. Acknowledging something as a memory paralyzes a still living, vivid experience. I could never bring myself to lock my memory between two covers and, literally, close a chapter of my life for good, admitting that from now on it can only lend itself to nostalgic reminiscing.

I much rather collect bits and pieces of my memories in form of cinema tickets, bills from bars with too many wine glasses mercilessly printed on them, and cards from restaurants in which I would end up by pure chance. I would then place all of those pieces of paper in random places only to come across them months later between book pages, in my calendar, or in a pocket of my summer coat, and suddenly be entirely overtaken by this one specific memory.

Watching a scrap book, a photo album, or an entire slide show from holidays past is like getting drunk on memories. You just down all of them at once, only to find yourself in a state of melancholic hangover of the soul afterwards. Moderate dosage of memories, re-living one of them one day, reminiscing another one a week after, is much healthier. It keeps your emotions alive among your daily routines and can brighten many of your ordinary days.

Midnight Birds

colcandyflycatcherIt’s almost midnight. I have to wake up in six hours, but instead I’m laying in bed and listening to the birds singing outside my window.

They, just like me, seem confused and awake at the wrong time of the day. The sound of morning birds singing while I’m not asleep yet always make me sad. That clear-cut, delicate song in a silent city reminds me that I have just stolen a couple of hours from the darkness of the night, and now I’m stealing a few moments of sleep while the rest of the city is slowly awakening.

Humanities Going Digital

The celebrations of the School of Humanities Lustrum at Tilburg University were not merely entertaining. They painted a picture of achievements, but also challenges that the discipline currently faces.  What does the future hold for the humanities?

Impossible made possible

Imagine a set of millions books written in the course of centuries.  Reading only English language books from the year 2000 alone without interruptions for food or sleep would take you 80 years. But a computer can read and analyze them much quicker. Using computers and internet as tools in humanities research opens up previously unthinkable opportunities. So called e-Humanities, also known as digital humanities, combines methods from traditional disciplines, such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies with tools provided by computer science. What does this digitalization mean for the future of the humanities in general?

This question was tackled during one of the lectures on e-Humanities organized by the lustrum committee. For Rens Bod, professor of Computational and Digital Humanities at the University of Amsterdam, the development of e-Humanities gives a chance for scholars to increase their cooperation with private companies. According to him, such collaboration shows that the humanities studies do not merely train critical minds, but also contribute greatly to the economy and industry. “E-Humanities is a next big step in Information Technology. Companies are increasingly interested in using data from the humanities for their investments, for example mobile applications or digital maps,” says Bod. Thus, the process of digitalization brings the humanities outside of the confines of the university and connects the scholars with private companies. Also, thanks to digital data visualization programs, research results can be made publically available in a more comprehensible, almost entertaining form.

But are digital methods just a way to sell the results of traditional research? According to Jan Scholtes, professor of Text Mining at Maastricht University, digital methods allow for much more than previously thought, for they help to discover previously unknown, or hidden, phenomena in culture. For example, they have a potential to show new patterns in language use, visualize sentiments and opinions in society, structure the unstructured data and map complicated social relationships.

Therefore, e-Humanities discipline is not only concerned with studying the internet but the society and culture as a whole. As prof. Richard Rogers, a Web epistemologist form the University of Amsterdam writes in his book The End of the Virtual. Digital Methods, “the Internet is employed as a site of research for far more than just online culture. The issue no longer is how much of society and culture is online, but rather how to diagnose cultural change and societal conditions using the Internet. The conceptual point of departure for the research program is the recognition that the Internet is not only an object of study, but also a source.” However, viewing internet as a source of data about society is not without problems.

A Drop in the Ocean

Rens Bod speaking during the e-Humanities lecture seemed to be overly enthusiastic about e-Humanities as an emerging discipline: “Humanists can be proud about their impact and valorization, but they could sell it better. They should make as many digital researches as possible, and send press releases one after the other. We should promote e-Humanities more!” The internet is not, however, the alpha and omega. Why is that? Because humanities scholars rely heavily on records, whether they are newspapers, photographs, letters, diaries, books, articles and other records of human experiences. If they start using digital methods for their research, they encounter a problem of the availability of cultural objects online. The majority of books, articles in printed journals and newspapers published throughout centuries can be found only in library catalogues and archives. Only about 15 million books have been digitized, which makes for 12% of all books ever published. It is true that there are many digitalizing projects, but they have a hard time translating materials being printed currently and those printed in the past. Unless we believe that in the nearest future the publishing industry will go entirely online, the digitalization process might never catch up.

We also have to keep in mind that books that have been translated from print to the online sphere are, to a big extent, only the canonical works representing just a tiny part of culture that was considered significant enough by our cultural institutions. According to Richard Rogers, if the researchers want to understand the changes and developments in society, they cannot just analyze “cultural sentences spoken by a few ‘great man’ but the patterns in all cultural sentences spoken by everybody else.”

With the Speed of Internet

The speed in which the news websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook are updated and refreshed is definitely an advantage for users, but not for researchers. Humanities scholars are facing the problem of how to capture instable and ever-changing online data so that it becomes permanent and possible to analyze. It is a challenge to not only track changes online but to record them. Much of the content online, once it disappears or changes, leaves no trace and is not archived anywhere. Researchers looking into online communities or social media are also faced with changing rules, privacy setting, and interfaces. A relevant research can be made irrelevant only by an online platform changing its settings or design. It is also difficult to get online data from the past. For example, if you’re late with gathering public opinion data for your research on the American elections, you might never get tweets older than one month.

Is Virtual Reality Real?

While online data is undoubtedly useful for research of online communities and behavior of internet users, does it also reflect changes in society off-line? Can a research done entirely online make claims about social changes in the real life dimension, not only in the virtual one? Some scholars are still skeptic about online data, claiming that the internet is often a source of ungrounded claims, gossips and amateur research. They distrust any user-generated content such as Wikipedia and any data that is provided, and can be altered, by ordinary users. Humanities scholars have to now face the question whether the Web can be a source of solid, researchable data and if it adequately reflects dynamics in society.

Perspectives on the Future

So what does the future hold for the humanities at Tilburg University and for the discipline in general? The movement towards more modern, digitized and computerized research is a fact, but what will happen to more traditional aspects of the humanities? Judging from the nature of the lustrum events, the Schools of Humanities at the university struggles with the same question. The committee clearly tried to combine the traditional with the modern. The Asko|Schönberg music concert was a wonderful performance of classical instruments, yet combined with the more contemporary, minimal, and innovative music composed by Steve Reich. While this combination seemed to work just fine during the concert, it was not that successful during the masque ball.  What was expected as an elegant gala with long dresses and tuxedos turned out to be a party with party music, wine served in plastic cups and beer on the floor.  What should then be the balance between tradition and innovation?

Published: Univers no 5, 22 November 2012


Unhealthy 2014

Don’t fool yourself. We both know that regardless of our New Year resolutions, we will keep eating junk food. We are lazy. We hate changes. We can’t resist temptations. Any attempts to cook healthy meals will backfire.   

Sure, there are thousands of recipes online. Sure, there are tons of cookbooks. But if you’re not Jamie Oliver yourself, there is no way you can make use of them, because:

  1. You have no idea how much is 150ml and you wonder why they don’t measure liquids by some commonly and globally understandable standards. Everybody knows the volume of a beer glass.
  1. If you decide to watch a cooking video for a better visualization of the creation process, it seems that all ingredients miraculously appear cleaned and chopped in little glass bowls on a table. You have no clue how to get from “a fish” to a “fantastic pieces of fresh mackerel, already butterflied, filleted, and without intestines, brain, spine, and skin, kept overnight in a basic French marinade. Beautiful.”
  1. What on earth is a Jerusalem artichoke and where do they sell it???
  1. You don’t know which cooking guru to trust, because they all differ greatly in their opinions. There are even TV shows in which one professional cook screams and shouts at another professional cook, with their anger boiled up to a point that they start hitting each other with a cookbook- one of the billion available on the market. It’s all very confusing.
  1. You read somewhere that you need at least three home cooked meals a day. So just after you finish cleaning the massive blender from the leftovers of the morning smoothie, you’ll have to start folding cream cheese and avocado wraps for your healthy lunch. Don’t forget to already start cooking broccoli soup for dinner. You also need to chop the wok veggies (frozen ones are unhealthy), mix the salad dressing (bottled dressing? Bleh!), and collect fresh tomatoes from your mini tomato garden on your balcony… Congratulations. You’ve just spent a whole day in a kitchen and you are now officially a housewife.

You can just as well order a pizza now.

Project Happiness

When I moved to the Netherlands five years ago I wasn’t exactly the happiest person on earth. I had a hard time adjusting, com­bining studying with a physically tiring student job, and most of all I was quite lonely.

To make myself feel like I had (sort of) a plan, I used to neuroti­cally compose lists of things in different areas of my life that I needed to change in order to be happy. It was kind of like a bucket list, except that instead of listing things to do before I die, I listed things to do before I can fully live. I never waited for New Year’s Eve. Almost every week I used to scribble those bul­let points on a first page of my notebook, in my agenda, or on a glossy page ripped from a textbook.

After five years the lists are still scattered around my desk, in between the pages of my books and written on the palm of my hand. Most of the points have been rephrased over the years but they’re still there, making me stuck in the almost-­there phase. I hopelessly flip through the colorful pages of all those self­ help magazines that promise bliss, energy and light if you manage to lead a spotless lifestyle, but they just make me nauseous instead.

There is nothing wrong with self-­improvement and striving for the better. But I’m afraid it’s time to realize that becoming a happy person is not up to checking off a few tick boxes. When you complete your to­-do list you won’t go puff!, and turn from a sad little frog into a princess with glowing skin, who’s so ecstatic about her life that she can’t stop singing to a bunch of birds. Con­trary to what all the reading materials made out of recycled paper tell you, happiness is not a project

Entering the Lion’s Den

As great as Tilburg is for students, it is very likely that one day you’ll get bored with a place that calls one street a city center, and you’ll move to a more exciting place. If you are already wowed by Amsterdam and plan moving there, remember that it is a long, seductive game.

My affair with Amsterdam started with approaching her just a bit closer by moving to Utrecht. The capital is like a moody woman who doesn’t just let anybody in. Finding a place to live is a nightmare, and people are squeezed on a couple of square meters just to be able to brag about getting in. But Utrecht is much more sympathetic. She will take you under her wings because she knows how much it hurts to be rejected by her bigger sister.

The second step was approaching Amsterdam’s suburbs. The very heart of the city can be rather overwhelming, smelling of weed,
vomit and sex. Instead, I chose to live among the trees. By living just outside of a city you tease Amsterdam a little by visiting during the night, but going back to your place in the morning. You have to make sure she doesn’t get clingy.

I don’t think I’m ready for the final step yet. Entering the lion’s den and moving to the center is definitely something that many
suitors of Amsterdam want, but that’s when things go wrong. Think twice before jumping in and moving to Amsterdam immediately after living in Tilburg; if not properly tamed, she will eat you alive.

Published: Univers no. 2, 5 September 2013


Shadowed by a Mosque

Red, fluorescent lamps on each table illuminate the grinning profiles of teenagers almost too young to be sipping flamboyant cocktails. Their fun was accompanied by old school, American 80’s hits instead of rhythmic, Arabic music so typical for the streets of Marrakesh by night.

I happen to sit next to an artificial palm tree, even though the street just outside was full of the real deal. There were only few elements in this scene that were comfortingly lo-cal: colorful water pipes smoked by those giggly youngsters, complimentary spicy olives, and a Mosque tower in the background, quietly guarding the city from a distance.

It seems that, just as traditional tourism, party-tourism is spread-ing to spoil more and more unspoiled places. Ibiza and Mallorca are slowly becoming passé as more exotic countries like Morocco are taking over as party destinations for thirsty teenagers. The most surprising thing about this choice of a location for spring break-esque holidays is that alcohol is a rather sensitive subject in Muslim countries. And the upcoming Ramadan didn’t make the search for booze any easier; I myself went to great lengths to get hold of even the smallest bottle of nameless white wine to satisfy the kind of thirst that water cannot.

That makes us, tourists, a gold mine for Moroccan bars and res-taurants trying to accommodate our shameful lifestyle. But they do prefer to keep it a secret. Tourists ordering alcohol are rarely seated among regular customers; they are secretly sent upstairs
instead. If you think that sipping beer while being secluded behind a fence of a restaurant terrace adds more excitement and makes you nostalgic about your high school years, this type of holiday destination is for you. The question is, however, how
much this type of tourism changes the ways in which Muslim cultures deal with the issues of (public) drinking. And I don’t necessarily mean for the better.

Univers no. 1, 21 March 2013

Kitchen vintage

Pinning Down Female Roles

Published: Masters of Media, University of Amsterdam

I have to admit: browsing through countless, perfect images and saving those that I enjoy looking at the most is quite addicting. All the images clothes, accessories, furniture and jewelry that I wish I had can be neatly organized in categories, which I can come back  to whenever I’m ready to redecorate my room, change my style or re-think my haircut. It seems that by being active on Pinterest we engage in a kind of a shortcut identity formation through pre-existing images. It is not only about collecting images that relate to our perfect life and aspirations, but also having an absolute control over them. The way we neatly arrange image boards contrasts with our busy, often disorganized life style. In that sense Pinterest can have a therapeutic effect; we can collect (images of) things we can’t have in real life, and organize them in a way that would be impossible in our fast-changing environment.

Let me focus on one aspect of Pinterest that (p)interests me the most. Scrap-booking, collecting photographs, and cutting out illustrations from magazines have always been hobbies engaged in mainly by women. Since Pinterest is a digital extension of such activities, it comes as no surprise that 87% of Pinterest members are female. Yet, when I first visited the site I was surprised by the amount of cute, girly, and feminine photos. Especially in the age of feminist movements and focus on female self-sufficiency, I did not expect such a display of fascination by the old-fashioned and the traditional. The question then arises, whether Pinterest is a testimony of a growing anti-feminist trend? Are young women coming back to their traditional roles in society?

In order to find out whether the majority of content on Pinterest does in fact refer to traditional roles of women, I have analyzed a sample of images (pins). I have selected three random samples of images in the course of three days. The images I obtained through Image Scraper were the latest ones pinned and included in the Popular category.  I was hesitating between one of the two categories: Popular and Everything, simply because the latter seems less selective. However, I wish to analyze a particular trend in society, and trends are reflected in popularity of certain ideas; in this case images. Therefore, I’ve decided to analyze the most popular pins.

The Popular section, just like the Everything section, takes into account images from all categories, not giving privilege to female-related ones such as Weddings or Hair & Beauty. I was not logged in during the scraping process, so that the individual preferences linked to my account would not influence the selection.

A total sample of 271 images was chosen. I have applied a simple coding system, or at least I though I did. I drew a distinction between images that do refer to traditional roles of women and the ones that don’t, but I encountered some difficulties specifying the first category. Do fashion images belong to the traditional women’s domain? Images of colorful nail polish? Hair styles? Citations from the Bible? In the end I’ve decided to include three main themes in this category:

House: house and garden ornaments, Do It Yourself decorations, cleaning tips, cooking and baking tips.

Marriage: husband, wedding planning, engagement, bridal shower, bachelorette party.

Family: children, pregnancy, baby shower, Do It Yourself children clothing and toys.

The results were surprising, and they did not confirm my hypothesis that the majority of content on Pinterest refers to a traditionalist discourse. Only 86 out of 271 images could be clearly associated with a traditional female position in society. The remaining 185 images were either not gender- related, or were targeted at women but did not display any clear traditionalist tendencies.

Nonetheless, one can still argue that the 31,7 % of the images belonging to a traditionalist discourse still mark a visible and research-worthy trend. In order to define the categories more specifically, such a research would have to be based on theory on feminist and traditionalist discourses, as well as on pictorial semiotics.



Welcome to Tijuana

Did you know that the city of Rotterdam organizes a Summer Carnaval in June? Me neither. It’s all very confusing, because the festival has nothing to do with Carnaval celebrated by the Southern Dutchies, but rather with the Latin American celebrations in winter.

In any case, Rotterdam lured me in for the festivities with the Manu Chao & La Ventura concert. It didn’t feel like the Netherlands anymore because of the exotic atmosphere brought by all the Mexicans, Spanish and Portuguese fans. If you feel as lost as I was in the multiculti setting, here is a short guideline of how to melt into the melting pot.

Chant football songs regardless of location. A concert is a perfect occasion to clap and roar “Oé, Oé, Oééééé, Oééééé, Oééééé!” Engage as many people as possible, pointing fingers at them and yelling two times louder, hoping that they will follow your lead and not leave you hanging.

If you don’t know the song lyrics, especially when they are in Spanish, French or Portuguese, accentuate international words that you recognize and know. If you attend a Manu Chao concert, just sing “na-na-na-na-na-na…MARIJUANA!”

Share the love. If you bring your own booze and a million extra plastic cups, distribute them to the people around you. If a lady refuses to accept your kindness, cram the plastic cup into her hands. The moment that rosé wine lands in her cleavage, cry out “Oééééé!”

Taking girls onto your shoulders is much appreciated, but if you want to be worshiped as a real hero, you have to do better. Spot a guy already with a girl on his shoulders and take him onto yours by surprise. It looks especially impressive after you’ve had a few too many beers. Girls like it when being all wobbly adds additional excitement to seeing broken pieces of glass on the ground from three meters high.

Published: Univers no. 14, 27 June 2013