"The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom - and thus its significance - in a world dominated by apparatuses; to reflect upon the way in which, despite everything, it is possible for human beings to give significance to their lives in the face of the chance necessity of death. Such a philosophy is necessary because it is the only form of revolution left open to us." — Vilém Flusser
"Human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images: Imagination has turned into hallucination." — Vilém Flusser
"Our thoughts, feelings, desires and actions are being robotized; 'life' is coming to mean feeding apparatuses and being fed by them. In short: Everything is becoming absurd. So where is there room for human freedom?" — Vilém Flusser

When images matter more than reality

January 9, 2024

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.

Who was Vilém Flusser? 

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.

Vilém Flusser, Fachhochschule Bielefeld, Bielefeld, Germany, 1984.
What is Flusser’s philosophy of photography about? 

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). 
The present and future of technical images

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.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Leonardo Werner has a background in law and holds a master's degree in Philosophy of Science, Technology and Society from the University of Twente, the Netherlands. He is particularly interested in the topics of ethics, existentialism and human-technology interaction. His present research and writing center on augmented reality, artificial intelligence and the consequences of digital technologies in our daily lives.

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