media, information, the contemporary

The Camera Membrane

A decomposed cellulose nitrate film.

This is the second research note from Anand Kumar Jha, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.


A decomposed cellulose nitrate film.
A decomposed cellulose nitrate film.
Credit: Kellie LoGrande.

The Shoot

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
– The Modern Traveller (1898) Hilaire Belloci

Out of the few machines churned out of the industrial revolution, the gun travelled the farthest. It mediated polarized conversations between the colonizers and the indigenous, either concluding in submission or elimination of the party it was pointed at. “Shoot” became a word and a direction between the colonizer and the colonized. The gun, however, was not the only machine using this vocabulary or direction.

By its ability of exoticization of other cultures and the creation of media museums in daily and periodic prints [1], thus securing the investment for colonization and reforming the uncivilized, the Camera became the other machine that could shoot, mimicking the position of mediation that Gun held. There were two people at the either side of machine and the activity was directed from person to another, consuming the fraction of a second to get results.

Interestingly, the convergence of the Gun and the Camera is not only historical or metaphorical, but also scientific.

Paul Landau captures the historic collaboration between William Walker and George Eastman who worked to adopt the manufacturing process and the chemistry of the gun towards developing effective and economical image capturing. They created gelatin treated gun-cotton strips, which became the first photographic films. Addition of amyl acetate to gun-cotton created the first celluloid, thereby stabilizing image capturing methods to successfully commercialize them. As Landau puts it, “breech-loading guns and the Kodak camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges” [2].

Let us revisit the act of shooting.

It is an event and in its happening, it interrupts an established sequence of events. It starts from a source and ends at a destination. It is a vector, it is directed towards someone, and in the act of being directed towards someone it becomes constitutive of the space it slices. The space contains a subject; the subject existing in a certain condition, a certain state which as the property of states go, may change soon after the image is taken. Like all vectors, it does not only have a destination/subject/endpoint, it also contains the relationship with the endpoint. A vector is both the power and the direction.

Who is that vector connecting? Who is shooting, who is being shot, and what is the relationship being explained by the act of shooting?

The Gun is essentially a one-sided dialogue; the act of final violence from a distance, with minimal muscle involvement and little direct contact. If you put an optical instrument such as the telescope above the gun, which to a great extent will frame and localize the visibility of the target, you would do so only in a circumstance in which the power equations at the two ends of the vector need to be reversed. That is, where the one shooting needs invisibility and is often scared. The one being shot at has only a brief moment of awareness, almost like an internal bleeding before a sudden collapse.

Now, if you take the gun away and just leave the optics, the telescope, what changes? The direction of vector becomes uncertain. You are not sure of the relationship between the start and the end point, the observer and the observed. Despite of a person watching and a person being watched, there suddenly opens a room for performance, of spectacle making, of the possibility of a dialogue.

What happens when you create the possibility of slicing out that dialogue and reducing it to only a snapshot of the larger conversation? And if this can happen at only one side of the vector? What changes then?

Notice that now we are talking about the camera. The transition from the gun to the camera has happened but the act of shooting remains. The vector, despite being diminished, resurfaces, and remains.

The Image

Guns or cameras do not shoot without a prior engagement with the subject. As discussed earlier, there exists a conversation between the two ends of the vector. While the gun often terminates the conversation, the camera slices a frame out of it. The conversation, sliced out, nests within the capture, the shot. But the conversation is not the shot. The shot is the action and the conversation or the image is the byproduct. The Shot is the act of cutting very small slices of time, almost in a way extracting very specific moments from a sequence of moments [3]. While the concept of “the point of departure” often touches on the slicing away/editing attribute of the camera (which is very different from the framing), it is only in video as a format that one truly sees the camera in a slicing action.

This slice of time, though existing as an action, is visualized in the form of an Image. Visualization defines a visual periphery, in going with all historical narratives, choosing to be told through the eye of the narrator, enforcing the vector once again. It isolates a certain something in the space and cuts it out of the space. After the shot selecting a moment from the moments, the frame selects a space from the space. We do not know what was left out, we can only build up on what was cut out for us to see, to imagine with. This frame has a dual nature. It could be reductive, a small pixel of a larger picture. It could also be constitutive, the pixel interpolated to make a larger picture.

This frame is what remains of the slice of time, after the time has silently evaporated. It sits on the table, liberated and orphaned.

The photographer thus exercises a two level elimination, first cutting out a slice from the time and visualizing it as Image. The second is cutting out a part of the imagery and eliminating the rest. The produced image not only narrates an event, it also narrates how that event was seen, again re-invoking the vector. However, the vector does not end here. Shooting is but a small act in the larger scheme of things, both with the gun as with the camera. The act of taking the shot, becomes the act of production of image which must be consumed, or often the other way round since the shot must be consumed and so it must be produced. The orphaned frame is thus match made to fit a narrative completely removed from it, or it is hatched inorganically so that it could fit a pre-existing concept.

This system of production of the image also requires to be behaviorally coded to guide the eye to see it in a certain way and for the brain to infer it accordingly, hence manufacturing a belief and thus, a behavior or opinion. The act of framing and the two fold filtering ensure that the production of image becomes only a contributing factor to production of consent. The image however does little in this context to proliferate itself, a larger story must hold its hand. The production of the image and the proliferation of the story were completely disrupted with the advent of social media and digital photography.

The Image physically remained the product of a chemical reaction, being non-reversible in character. To reproduce it was also the act of eroding it, and it was to be distributed along with a story in the print, very often claimed to be a push medium. Digital photography made the process of image making reversible. The Image was now generated on a sensor instead of a film, was now an array of RGB values ready to be copied like any other data file, to be infinitely replicated, to be analyzed, post-processed, and to be reconstructed from data. Martin Lister puts it beautifully as “Post social media photograph is a shape shifter. Photograph is now apparently produced without photography” [4]. The work of a photographer or the image maker is now a software filter than can be readily applied. While Instagram facilitates nostalgia using matrix multiplication techniques over the existing image array [5], Pinterest ensures that images tagged together and grouped and curated using a collective filtering / collaborative recommendation [6], a common practice used in conjunction with various algorithms to cluster similar entities together. This being put on a mobile phone ensures that images are produced as they are consumed and that the role spectatorship plays in the production of an image is internalized by the image producer. We will dwell on this a little more in the next post where we’ll discuss image and interface black boxes.

The four step intervention by the software in the process of image-making as put forward by Manovich, Automation, Simulation, Augmentation of an existing medium and additional functionality, outline a certain direction image digitization has taken [7]. Automating a certain workflow (essentially choosing a standard darkroom process and hardwiring it into the hardware as the standard automation) also systematically limits the room for exploring a post-optical, pre-image creation possibility that a dark room presented. If we dwell on this point a little more, we will see that in the larger scheme of things, the agency of the image maker has been taken away. The current day photographer (read the man with the camera) knows to aim and click, generate a volume of images, and then automatically route that series of images to a social media conduit with apps such as Facebook or Instagram. These apps also provide a routine post-processing with no control what so ever to the end user (that a trained photographer uses in Photoshop or similar tools) and generate a volume that is skillfully, algorithmically curated by social media tools, applying their own post-processing to further correct the image (the 500px vs facebook vs g+ as image sharing platform debates [8], and discard and select as suitable. What is generated becomes the simulation, and inspiration for the person who clicked the image in the first place. Apps such as Pose take this a step ahead and mine this data to do fashion trend prediction and lead generation, creating first a visual idea of the world and then selling the products that make it.

The Amateur photographer is not the only one contributing the image to this loop. Ansel Adams, in “Instructions to Himself,” lists image taking as a sequence of activities that lend themselves easily towards automation [9]. Public cameras are precisely doing this by generating a series of images taken without human intervention and feed into a curatorial pool that exercises no discretion between the images produced by human or non-human agencies.

What happens now? Who is at both ends of the vector? Who is taking the image and who is being made into the image, when both the sides have been co-opted by the camera itself?

Interestingly, either side, the one creating the image production tunnel, and the image consumption funnel, have institutional faces, and are the ones with the agency. The shape shifter that the modern photograph is lends itself as data more easily to institutions driven by segregation and bucket-ization (Sort into categories) than as an image with aesthetic merit. The fact that to a certain precision aesthetic merit can also be quantified, reduces the inherent idea of an image to a statistic. The membrane is dissolved, at a system level, while still remaining visible to the people at both sides of the camera, keeping them safe in the bubble of a private moment. The Vector however exists, it gets drawn differently. Traveling from the shooter to the shot, from the voyeur to the performer, this vector now travels from the system to the user. Shooting or being shot have ceased to be aesthetic and behavioral positions, and are now only an activity of a pool which generates and consumes, while the system takes the onus of defining the visual language, and dictating the form of the image, post-processing the image to fit the form and then curate the end result for consumption. In short, the system dictates what to produce, how to produce, and who to click; the system dictates what to consume and how to consume.

In the expression of a regular selfie, the producer is the consumer, captive of the frame he liberated through the camera.

What Next

The subsequent post will move from image to the interface and present glimpses of the camera and interface blackbox.


[1] Picard, David, and Mike Robinson (Eds.). 2012. Emotion in Motion: Tourism, Affect and Transformation. Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[2] Campbell, David. 2012. The Gun and the Camera: An Historical Relationship. Retrieved from

[3] Schneider, Lee. 2014. What is a Camera? The Dawn of a New Visual Literacy, But at a Cost. Retrieved from

[4] Lister, Martin (Ed.). 2013. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Routledge.

[5] Silverberg, E. 2012. Code Repository for Image Filters. November 15. Retrieved from

[6] Konstas, Ioannis, Vassilios Stathopoulos, and Joemon M. Jose. 2009. On Social Networks and Collaborative Recommendation. In Proceedings of the 32nd International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval. Pp. 195-202. ACM.

[7] Manovich, Lev. 2011. The Language of New Media. MIT Press.

[8] Stevenson, Dave. 2012. Best Social Network for Photographers. TechRadar. February 24. Retrieved from

[9] See [4].