Thursday, May 22, 2008


In the three decades that I’ve lived so far, visual recording media, in terms of their form and their place in and impact on society have been an increasingly important facet of life. Whilst this is a world-wide phenomenon, I’ll deal here primarily with the society I’m immersed in: Western, developed, “first-world” Australia.

I’m going to look at my experience of and connection with visual recording media over my lifetime. Out of necessity, I’ll be looking at still- as well as motion-cameras – the still and motion visual recording methods are difficult to isolate from each other, and to do so artificially would actually serve to radically distort my experiences. Ultimately, I will focus on the video camera, and how it has come to infiltrate the society in which I live, examining ways in which this has happened and looking at some of the ramifications of this: how the technology has influenced society, and how society has influenced the technology.

Early Experiences

I still have some photographs of me as a small child. There are even the ubiquitous “naked baby”pictures - covered in the semi-liquescent evidence of my first encounter with a stick of liquorice – of course, I don’t remember back quite that far.

I must have known what cameras were even as a young child, because why else would I pose and smile for them? The obvious answer, of course, is because I was told to. I was never very fond of having my picture taken, though I suspect that was somewhat influenced by my own self-image. I have never had a very photogenic smile, or certainly not one that I can consciously control. When someone urges me to smile for the camera, I instantly become unable to look natural.

The camera served as a sort of semi-esoteric device for recording memories in moment-form. Those moments were always either candid, random, and almost always badly composed and lit, and often out of focus or demonstrating grievous examples of parallax-error; or else they were posed, forced, and not only suffering the previously mentioned problems but also serving primarily as a sort of deadly reminder of the ways we used to dress and wear our hair.[i]

Cameras were semi-esoteric for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that they were either extremely expensive (if you wanted a good one) or incredibly poor in quality. In either case, they were arcane devices, difficult to use well but incredibly easy to use badly.[ii] As a result of rarely being exposed to the high-quality device and regularly to the low, cameras were in some way to become objects of a sort of low-level suspicion for me.[iii] This appears to not be an uncommon aspect of the domestication of technology (as per Ling’s description) – things with which we are unfamiliar, or which we associate with negative experience tend to be looked on negatively.

Motion photography was, at this stage, only familiar to me in the form of television. I was a consumer, and strictly that. No-one in my immediate family had ever so much as indicated that they owned a home-movie camera, and I don’t think that I even knew that they existed, for all that they weren’t all that uncommon in the broader community.[iv] So this is where we begin.

The Path to Adoption

In Technoculture, Green makes reference to technology being regarded, in Western society, as inherently masculine, and the “mastery and control” of technology a masculine trait. Fair enough, say I. There is significant evidence to support that view, and I’m not going to argue the point. In fact, I’m going to put myself forward as a product of this society and an example of how this re-iterative relationship can be seen to work.

My exposure to motion photography was somewhat incidental. As I stated earlier, my childhood consisted, in this regard, as being entirely consumer. I didn’t know how the television or films that I watched were made, and it didn’t for the most part even enter my head to find out. It wasn’t until my teen years that I paid any attention to this at all, and then I was primarily interested in special effects, specifically make-up effects. The role of the camera was still very much relegated to the background.

Now, here’s where we can see the “masculine mastery and control” aspects creeping in: I went to university to study physics. You can’t get much more “mastery and control” than the desire to know exactly how the entire universe works.[v] After I left university, during a period of unemployment, I began to look on movies less as something to watch, and more as something to make. I studied the techniques and methods of film-making. Funnily enough, I did this without ever having held a video camera, which by that stage was a common item. Later, I went on to volunteer at the local community television production arm. I’ve been working in television/film production on and off since then.[vi]

To a lad growing up in the time and places I did, motion photography, indeed any photography was very much ‘other’. It wasn’t until I moved to a town with a significantly large population that the high school actually offered Media Studies that it even began to occur to me that there are actually people who do this sort of thing. There was a sort of underlying assumption in my outlook, and this seemed very much shared by many, that there were professionals (who made the television programs and movies, and were highly technically skilled) and that everyone else was just making home movies.

Indeed, this is reflective both of the arcane nature of the earlier technologies and the fact that poorly-made home movies were about all one saw of amateur video – particularly in light of the fact that the main form of distribution for them was Australia’s Funniest Home Videos or family gatherings. On the whole, other families’ gatherings are not enticing subject matter for most people. The same goes for other people’s holidays.[vii]

So for a while there that was pretty much where it stood. Cameras became more common, but there was a sort of blockage. The product had no real form of distribution, nor did it have appeal. It is interesting to note that at around the same time in the US, the market for home video equipment was largely driven by the amateur pornography sector (Schlosser, p 169). Whether and to what degree this was the case in Australia as well I don’t know, though we do appear to have a thriving “swinger” community, so it would not be surprising.

So, the video camera was an (expensive) toy and archival device, pressed into service mainly on special occasions, at least for the average person. Only the professional saw them any other way, and they were a specialized breed. (It is also worth noting here the VHS/Beta war, the outcome of which was that VHS became the accepted standard for home video. The interesting part of this is that Beta remained the format used by professionals, rather than just disappearing. The reason for this is simple: the US pornography industry adopted VHS because it was cheaper.)

Then came the Internet and computers powerful enough to edit video at home, and the whole face of my society’s interaction with video media changed.

Computers, Internet, and the change in a relationship

There used to be three ways to edit video: in-camera, vid-to-vid, and dedicated editing suites. Editing is almost always time-consuming, especially using these methods. In-camera editing is a valuable technique to know, but is almost never used except as an exercise, being a hold-over from the days of film.[viii] Vid-to-vid editing was/is largely an entirely amateur technique, tending to result in the loss of image/sound quality and be very tedious to boot. And dedicated edit suites were expensive. Very expensive – strictly professional level.

Advances in computer technology resulted in machines that were now powerful enough to edit video whilst being cheap enough for the general home-user. It is now possible to acquire video-editing software cheaply or even for nothing. Simultaneously, video camera technology has advanced tremendously. The camera that I bought in 2001 cost roughly $6000-, and was one of the cheapest ‘prosumer’ products available.[ix] The camera my brother-in-law bought six months ago is more compact (not necessarily a good thing), doesn’t require tapes, and works in High Definition Widescreen. It also cost about $1800-.

Video camera technology has advanced to the point that it is almost impossible to buy a mobile telephone without an inbuilt camera. And these days, the pictures they take are recogisable. Sometimes footage shot with one will even be used as television news footage.

The Internet, of course, has proved to be the dam-buster. User-produced video sites like YouTube have provided the means for distribution, access to a wide audience for free. The low cost of the technologies and, I would argue, the modern generations’ experience of the rapidity of development and change in those technologies have really begun to percolate through. There are cameras everywhere, and for this society now, it’s simply become a fact of life. Anything you do may be recorded and made available to a world-wide audience. The interesting thing about that is that there is no mass outcry. From a culture where having your picture taken was a notable, indeed rare and often obtrusive event, we have become (or are becoming) a society that’s always (potentially) on camera.

Ling, R., The Mobile Connection - The Cell Phone's Impact on Society. 2004, San Francisco: Morgan Kaufman Publishers.

Green, L., Technoculture - from alphabet to cybersex. 2002: Allen & Unwin.

[i] This is not so much of a problem when you are a child in the pictures, but if you want to mortify someone in their 30’s, show them pictures of their teen years.

[ii] My early years were spent in rural areas of Western Australia, during the late 1970’s and ‘80’s. My specific circumstances were never financially robust.

[iii] It probably didn’t help that, most of the time, cameras only came out during social functions. I was a fairly innocuously anti-social child, not fond of large gatherings. Having an extended family on my mother’s side of more than 300 meant that the major social events such as family gatherings consisted, for me, of being forced to socialize with fairly massive numbers of people whom I barely knew. Cameras, therefore, became associated with feeling socially uncomfortable and put-upon.

[iv] I suspect that this was at least partly due to the fact that they were also expensive and difficult to use, and that you could only shoot three minutes of footage at a time with them. Even those that had them tended not to bother using them.

[v] As it happened, the vast majority of my fellow students were also males, though this seemed to begin to shift in the following year. Interestingly, the majority of my fellow students were also a rather rowdy, rough-and-tumble lot, rather than the nerdish sort of stereotype that has become associated with scientists.

[vi] I include all this as a sort of parenthetical encapsulation of how I fit into the culture that my observations are based on. This is not a scientific treatise; no double-blind experiments were entered into. This is simply an exploration of one aspect of one cultural context, to whit: south-western Western Australia.

[vii] Other people’s holiday videos are a terrible thing to be made to watch. Unless the people involved are technically skilled and lead really interesting lives with well-constructed narratives and/or significant high comedy, no-one should ever feel socially obligated to watch their holiday videos.

[viii] Edit-in-camera is a technique designed to reduce or eliminate film-wastage. Film is/was expensive, so much so that the vast majority of a small-to-medium budget films costs would be simply buying the film stock.

[ix] ‘Prosumer’ – Industry speak for the crossover point between the professional and the amateur. Generally, the prosumer is either a professional working at the lower end of the budget scale, or an amateur with lots of spare cash and the willingness to spend it to get something that’s professional quality.

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