The Power of the Image: Anthropology and Image Analysis

Dr. Virginia Anne Nightingale,
Dr. Anna Gibbs
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Drawing on the work of anthropologist, Alfred Gell (1998), we explain why indexes (media images in this case) possess the capacity to disturb. Gell argued that the agency of indexes is a secondary agency derived from the complex of social relations that come into play in the creation and distribution of indexes (images or art objects). The agency of the image/index therefore is active in the space between two intentional beings, where one is exercising agency and the other is “vulnerable to control and influence via outside agents” (Gell, 1998, p.18). Broadcast television offers a classic example of this type of relation: television exerts its influence through its content but its influence is not activated until or unless audience members switch on the TV set and place themselves within its sphere of influence. The agency of the audience member is, by definition, responsive at the time of viewing (even if response involves yelling at the TV set or re-enacting something viewed). This dynamic is unsettled by the Internet and by social networking sites like Flickr, YouTube and MySpace, where audiences are also the creators of the images distributed, yet appear also to submit themselves to the influence of other audience/creators and who represent an arguably more capricious array of “outside agents”. We argue that it is helpful to apply the work of contemporary anthropologists (e.g. Pinney and Thomas, 2001; Slater and Miller, 2000) to explaining internet image archives that specialize in images of misfortune, brutality, degradation and death, and to analyzing the active mimicry and imitation that has found its expression in outbreaks of “happy slapping” (acts of gratuitous violence enacted on strangers and videotaped for internet distribution). The paper is organized around a series of images and news stories that illustrate the argument.

Keywords: Media Images, Social Networking, Anthropology, Digital Media, Agency and Identity
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Virginia Anne Nightingale

Associate Professor, School of Communication Arts
Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Virginia Nightingale is Chief Investigator for an ARC Discovery Project, The Power of the Image: Affect, Audience and Disturbing Imagery (2006 – 2008), with Associate Professor Anna Gibbs. The Discovery grant extends work initiated in a collaboration in 1999 with the Australian Broadcasting Authority on the Media Harm Project (Monograph 10, UWS and ABA, 2000) with 10 to 15 year olds. Other research focused on young people and the media has included a study of western Sydney children and advertising (8 – 15 year olds), the Australian component of an international investigation of Global Disney (young adults), an investigation of young adults’ memories of childhood TV viewing, and a Prix Jeunesse project, led by Professor J.D Halloran (Leicester University, 1980) on the link between national stereotypes and the media (12- 15 year olds). In addition to her commitment to qualitative and ethnographic research, Virginia has a detailed understanding of audience measurement and audience development. She also writes on new media and research methods.

Dr. Anna Gibbs

Associate Professor, School of Communication Arts
Writing and Society Research Group, University of Western Sydney

Sydney, NSW, Australia

Ref: I07P0351