In our modern lives, the impulse to capture and share everyday moments through our smartphones has become almost second nature. We snap photos to document our experiences and share them on social media or send them to friends without even thinking. This desire to record our lives through images is a powerful force, one that's not unique to us – we also find ourselves engrossed in the digital images created by others. In fact, it's safe to say that we spend a significant portion of our waking hours interacting with digital screens. Whether we're endlessly scrolling on our phones or absorbed by work on our computers, the digital world has become an inescapable part of our daily existence. This immersion in the digital realm has consequences, often pulling our attention away from the physical world that surrounds us.
Have you ever wondered about the impact of images we see on how we perceive the world around us? It's not a ground-breaking revelation to claim that images are more than just unbiased or objective representations of reality. They are like a script that we start living by, influencing how we navigate our lives.
Images do not only represent or mimic an objective reality, they shape it as well. In the past decades, many philosophers have explained this important thought in distinct ways. Guy Debord, in his exploration of the spectacle society, says that images actively contribute to shaping our perception of reality through the manipulation of visual representation. Marshall McLuhan, with its famous aphorism, “the medium is the message”, emphasizes the profound influence of the medium itself on the content it conveys, suggesting that the form of communication is as significant as its content. Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacrum and hyperreality delve into the transformative power of images, positing that contemporary society is saturated with simulations that blur the lines between reality and representation. Less known however, is the work of the media theorist Vilém Flusser. In this essay I will bring forth his distinctive contributions for the field of philosophy of photography.
Although European by birth, Flusser made his academic success in Brazil, which explains why he is more studied among Brazilian scholars than elsewhere. For this reason, allow me to briefly introduce him.
Born into an intellectual Jewish family in 1920, in the city of Prague, he enrolled in the undergraduate school of philosophy at Charles University at the age of nineteen. However, in that same year the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, which forced him to decide whether to stay in Prague or to flee. He chose the latter option, which saved his life. In contrast, his entire family died in the German death camps.
The young Flusser initially fled to London, but soon after migrated to Brazil, where he would spend the next twenty years of his life. While he never finished his Philosophy degree, he met important academic and intellectual Brazilians, which allowed him to eventually land in the academic world, and start teaching philosophy and media studies in the 1950s in different higher educational institutions, including the University of São Paulo. However, due to the military regime in Brazil that started in 1964, Flusser’s professorship position was revoked, forcing him to leave the country to carry out his work as a philosopher. In 1970, back to Europe, he would live and teach in different countries, particularly in France and Germany.
It is hard to name authors who influenced Flusser’s philosophy, since he made little to almost no use of references or footnotes in his works, although he does mention a few times the names of Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1984, Flusser published his most studied book in Brazil: Towards a Philosophy of Photography, where he elaborates on the advent of the fast production and distribution of technical images due to the creation of the camera, as well as on its profound impact on how we orient ourselves in the world.
Flusser’s premature death in a car accident in 1991 did not allow him to testify how his ideas proved to be so relevant in today’s world, where we are constantly and increasingly engaged with and oriented towards digital screens.
The first thing the reader should bear in mind is that Flusser’s departing point for his philosophy of photography is the advent of the technical image, which was born thanks to the invention of the photographic camera. To Flusser, there is a world before and after the invention of the camera. Its creation marked a historical breakthrough as much as the invention of linear writing because it has completely reshaped the collective imagination of events and how information is transmitted.
The technical image is different from traditional images, like paintings, because the former gives, at first glance, the impression of an objective representation of reality. Flusser stresses precisely the opposite understanding: images can never objectively represent reality: they are always representations of the world. In that sense, images can never be neutral, as they are not mere objects of contemplation. Rather, they act on us.
In traditional images, its symbolic character is evident. Inasmuch as a painter makes use of techniques to portray an event or a person as close to reality as possible, the result of a painting is still fully dependent on the painter’s skills, who owns the entire process of their painting.
In technical images, on the contrary, the symbolic character is not evident, as they carry an illusion of objectivity. Between the act of taking a photograph and the picture itself, the camera’s black box decodes the world accordingly. This process happens without the photographer’s intervention. The illusion occurs because the technical image becomes a screen, which hides what it essentially means.
To put it straightforwardly, Flusser understands the camera as a technical apparatus whose nature is programmatic. In Flusser's work, the term "program" is often associated with predetermined patterns or signs and codes that influence human behavior and communication. He explored the idea that modern societies are increasingly guided by predetermined programs embedded in various forms of communication and media.
The photographer, when using a camera, may believe they are autonomously manipulating its settings to capture an image that reflects their desired perspective of the world. Yet, it is the inherent programming of the camera that defines the boundaries of their action, and it is the device itself that influences the significance of the resultant image. Of course, the picture is shaped by the photographer’s selection of subjects, angles, and events they choose to capture. But still, the resulting image is something that does not depend on the photographer, but rather on the camera’s lenses, frames, and overall quality.
There is a second dimension, although not so obvious, regarding the notion of program associated with Flusser’s philosophy. For him, the technical image develops almost its own life - metaphorically speaking - to conquer the world, shaping how humans communicate with each other and how we understand reality. That means that technical images need to be taken and put into circulation as much as possible, because the more pictures are taken, the more reality is ‘captured’ and ‘framed’, transforming the world into a ‘global image scenario’.
Because of that, Flusser argues that, since the invention of the camera, worldly events began to accelerate, as they started to roll toward technical images at an increasingly fast pace. The camera invites the photographer to grasp reality in the form of pictures in an immediate way. Such acceleration of production and distribution of technical images gave rise to a curious phenomenon: human beings, Flusser says, no longer decode the scenes in the image as signifiers of the world. Instead, the world itself is experienced as a set of scenes. If we think of a global sports event, such as the Olympic Games, the photographers aim to capture as many images as possible, documenting and highlighting its key moments. Thousands of images are then conveyed in different media to the spectators in the entire world. Athletes, captured in pictures, become idols. This inversion of the function of images is called, precisely, idolatry. That is, instead of taking the images to orient ourselves in the world, we take the world to orient ourselves in the image.
The technical image, which results from the photography captured by the photographer, is far from being objective or neutral; it turns out to be a hierarchical power game. “Photographers have power over those who look at their photographs, they program their actions; and the camera has power over the photographers, it programs their acts.” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 30).
When we think of today’s society, any event that takes place in the real world, for it to be considered existent, must be registered and distributed in the form of images. It is like when we travel somewhere not because we genuinely want to be there and experience the place as it is, but because we feel the need to share with others that we were there - in the form of pictures or videos - every moment of the trip. Places are now more or less worth visiting depending on how instagrammable they are (i.e., how appealing they are for posting on social media).
This resonates with Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation, which refers to the history of the images and its four successive stages (where the first stage implies images reflecting reality, and the last one bearing no relation to reality whatsoever, resulting in the disappearance of reality). But whereas Baudrillard believes that the image dissimulates and denaturalizes reality until the observer cannot differentiate what is real from what is a simulation, Flusser argues that technical images have the function of (or at least pretend to) representing reality, which at first should help us to rediscover reality, but rather, they obstruct the path toward it. Allow me to give an example. If we take a picture of a colorful poké bowl from a nice restaurant to post on Instagram, Baudrillard would state that this image is a representation of a specific moment, yet detached from the original experience. The poké bowl on Instagram becomes a simulation, and the platform itself is a space where simulated experiences are presented as real. Further, the image of the poké bowl may become more real and significant than the actual act of eating the meal. Flusser, on the other hand, would analyze the picture as a technical construction, highlighting how the photographer’s choice of framing, composition, and filters shapes the viewer's perception of reality, obstructing how the actual poké bowl looked like. Additionally, Flusser would say that the very act of using the smartphone to take a picture to post on social media has a programmatic nature. Had we not had these devices (nor social media), we would probably not worry about taking a picture of a poké bowl seeking likes from our followers.
This is to say that, nowadays, we are more interested in the image, or, specifically, how we want things - or ourselves - to appear in the image, than in visiting a certain place or eating a certain food for its own sake. And that is the inversion of orientation Flusser talks about: “[t]he technical images currently all around us are in the process of magically restructuring our reality and turning it into a 'global image scenario'” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 10). The magic occurs because technical images instantly liberate their observers from the need to think conceptually about what they see.
“Nothing can resist the force of this current of technical images - there is no artistic, scientific or political activity which is not aimed at it, there is no everyday activity which does not aspire to be photographed, filmed, video-taped. For there is a general desire to be endlessly remembered and endlessly repeatable. All events are nowadays aimed at the television screen, the cinema screen, the photograph, in order to be translated into a state of things.” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 20).
Flusser himself was not interested in analyzing what he called 'redundant images’, as they carry no new information and are superfluous. At his time, however, he did not anticipate that smartphones and social media would invade our lives almost 24/7 and that selfies were going to be a global cultural phenomenon. But when we see celebrity Kim Kardashian publishing a bestselling book named “Selfish”, whose main content is simply hundreds of selfies, these redundant and superfluous images may carry no new information, but they do carry a deep sociological, economic, and cultural meaning, which cannot be ignored and are far from being irrelevant. To say the least, it reinforces Flusser’s main point: that we are increasingly orienting our lives towards images. The more technical images are produced and distributed regarding a particular person or a particular event, the more socially and economically relevant this person or event becomes. Technical images do not serve the purpose of contemplation, nor do they deliver an accurate representation of reality. Instead, they become commodities, ready for consumption. Kardashian’s selfies do not help us orient our lives more wisely. Actually, we might compare our ‘real’ selves with her crafted selfies and chosen angles and feel bad about our own bodies. It requires critical thinking to realize that the image we see is not a reliable representation of reality. In that sense, again, they are programmatic because they interfere in our behaviors, sense of orientation and perception of reality.
In 2016, Kardashian confessed that she took 6,000 selfies during a four-day trip to Mexico. What does that mean, ultimately, if not how programmed she has already been by the camera? Her main concern was how she was going to look like in her selfies rather than in experiencing the place she was visiting. To that, Flusser would say that her selfies are translated in a cultural and economic power game, where her images influence her followers, and her behaviors are greatly influenced by the device she carries.
Why does it matter? Flusser alerts us that our orientation towards technical images reduces the richness, diversity, complexity, and depth of experiencing reality, or, the physical world, because the overproduction, replication and sharing of technical images creates a frictionless world, with no physical edges, forms or shapes, and which wrongly mimics the former.
“This apparently non-symbolic, objective character of technical images leads whoever looks at them to see them not as images but as windows. Observers thus do not believe them as they do their own eyes. Consequently, they do not criticize them as images, but as ways of looking at the world (to the extent that they criticize them at all). Their criticism is not an analysis of their production but an analysis of the world.” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 15).
The world of technical images can only be experienced by us through flat, odorless, tasteless screens rather than tortuous, three-dimensional, multisensory physical objects, with all its imperfections, flaws, and contours. If we seek reality, we must embrace its complexities, twists, asymmetries, and nonlinear characteristics, which always escape from images, since they can only capture a snapshot, a viewpoint, a particular frame. Flusser invites us to reflect about the extent to which the omnipresence of images in our daily lives programs and dictates our perspectives, behaviors, and interpretation of reality. Is such omnipresence of images detaching ourselves from the real world and its real needs? If so, then where lies our freedom to seek alternative references that can help us to challenge and expand our preconceptions, habits, and orientation in the world? What kind of ‘offscreen’ practices can we individually and collectively pursue to re-experience and even confront reality in its physical dimensions?
Maybe a good start would be to become more aware of our own habits that confine and push us even further towards the magical realm of technical images while distancing ourselves from unfiltered, earthly reality.