Last year, when I was offered the opportunity to teach a course on anthropology and photography at Haverford College, I immediately knew I wanted to do something with Flickr. I even wrote to the folks at Flickr to see if they would offer free “pro” accounts to my class for the semester. They politely declined. In a way that was a good thing, because Flickr had a lot of growing pains and reliability problems over the first few months of the year, which could have been a problem if the class had been depending upon it. In the end I worked with the computing department to install Gallery for the class on local servers. This was actually really nice of academic computing, since few schools offer such virtual hosting accounts [which are necessary to install web-applications like Gallery], due to the difficulty in providing security, tech support, and maintenance for each professor.
Security was key, since I wanted students to be comfortable posting any picture without worrying about privacy concerns, obtaining releases from their subjects, copyright etc. As long as everything remained within the classroom nobody could get in trouble. By having the classes Gallery installation behind the college’s firewall, with additional security protections to limit access to students in the class, there was little reason to worry. While Flickr does offer some privacy protections, they don’t have the degree of control necessary for such a situation. (i.e. You can’t define your own groups, but can only mark contacts as “friends” or “family.”)
While Gallery worked well for having students post pictures for in-class presentations, as well as for their final projects, I still wanted to use Flickr as data for student papers on the everyday uses of photography. I had the students read a number of books and articles on the ethnography of photography, including Bonnie Adrian’s Framing the Bride, Bourdieu’s essay on “The Social Definition of Photography” (in Photography: A Middle-brow Art), and several articles in Pinney and Peterson’s Photography’s Other Histories. I wanted them to draw from these articles to attempt their own ethnography of photography using Flickr. Obviously, there are limits to such a project. Flickr is a virtual community, not a real one, and as such it not easy to place the photographs in the social context within which they were taken. People’s identities are often anonymous. Moreover, the Flickr community is both diverse, with members from all over the world, and at the same time restricted to a small class of people with digital cameras, broadband internet connections, and the desire to beta test geeky new web tools. Still, I was convinced that students could work around such limitations and still say something meaningful about the social uses to which photographs were used on Flickr. I was not disappointed.
I have to admit that it was exhausting correcting papers with dozens of hyperlinks to photos on flickr. Clicking on each of those links and sometimes exploring related tags added hours on to the process of grading. But it was also fun. I especially enjoyed seeing the various ways students used Flickr’s tags to come up with interesting paper topics.
- One student looked at how people interact with art on camera. Comparing art in the museum, with public art.
- Someone looked at the “what’s in my bag” meme, comparing it to John Berger’s discussion of oil painting as a depiction of wealth.
- Another student looked at depictions of the disabled, which raged from offensive, to inspiring, to practical.
- Similarly, another student found offensive pictures of fat people presented as social commentary. She also had interesting things to say about pictures of fat cats.
- T-shirt irony was surprisingly wide-spread.
- Two students looked at tensions between the individual and the group in specific subcultures (raves and Catholic nuns respectively).
- Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital was well explored in relation to out-of-focus pictures from rock concerts. (And nicely compared with off-stage shots.)
- I was surprised at how many pictures of public displays of affection one student was able to find.
- Wigs offered fodder for one student to contemplate beauty, the male gaze, and transgendered fantasy.
- Speaking of the gaze, one student looked specifically at pictures of people looking at themselves in the mirror.
- People imitating fashion photographs made for interesting comparisons with Adrian’s book.
- And, surprisingly absent from pictures of the Cayman Islands were pictures of the people who actually live there.
That’s just a small sample of the pictures student’s talked about. If you followed all the links you can begin to imagine what grading these papers was like. Next time I might ask students to download the pictures and post them on Gallery so that I can see all the pictures in one place. Flickr does offer a “favorites” tool which some student’s used, but it is limited because it doesn’t allow you to sort the pictures in your own order. You can only organize and sort your own pictures, not those you find from other users. Using the favorites feature also brought some unwanted attention to a few of my students. One got an angry e-mail from someone who seemed surprised that other users could “favorite” their photos. He said that she should “post her own photographs” instead of taking from others! Another student, working on Tattoos, received a nice message from someone urging her to look at his pictures – all of which were of him naked. This is not the kind of thing I want to expose my students to! I think it is very important that students don’t use their real identities online, and next time I will be able to better warn students about the various kinds of behavior they might encounter. If you have any other ideas or suggestions let me know! In the end, everyone seems to have really enjoyed this project, and I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the papers I received.