The Context of Things

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

nothing_robert montgomery

During my first year of university teaching when I was only about twenty two years old, I remember feeling as if I was in a constant state of dazed shock. I was a type A personality as an undergraduate (and still am really). I read everything because I enjoyed it. I researched the background of poems and books and authors because I was fascinated by them. I wanted to know more about them and what made them tick. The Romantic authors didn’t just write beautiful poetry, they also responded via literature to political events during their times, commented on The French Revolution and criticised the ravages of industrial growth in the nineteenth century. Within this context, when William Wordsworth writes about clouds and daffodils, I understood the full meaning of his words: the fragility of nature in the face of human industry and growth.

I wanted to be totally immersed in the literature I was studying, and that meant learning about its context. The thing that shocked me the most when I moved from being a student to a teacher was the extent to which I had to gradually, gently and patiently introduce students to the original context of literary works and constantly express why I think this is important. I’ve never been one of those people who assumed that art and literature are about abstract or universal concepts alone, existing on some airy plane of transcendental truth. I’ve tended to approach art and literature as coming to fruition within a distinct social, cultural and historical context. When I first read Emily Brontë’s British novel, Wuthering Heights, in Hebrew in Israel, I understood its foreignness and it own unique logic, created within a different context to my own.

I was thinking about this when I was mulling over the problems I have with Tumblr, Pinterest and blogs in general when it comes to a much-debated topic on the internet: image crediting. Usually, this topic is raised by a photographer, artist, or blogger, rightly complaining about the lack of crediting and sourcing when their work is blogged or pinned by others. I completely understand their frustration, but there is also a wider issue here. I become most annoyed when I see historically significant images being de-contextualised from their original context. What do I mean by this? I’ll give you two examples:

: : I’ve seen countless images of Anne Frank being pinned on Pinterest under categories or labels such as “style”, “black and white photography”, “beautiful”, and the like. No mention of who she is, no mention of why this photo of her is particularly well-known or important, no indication that the pinner even knows who she is. This disturbs me.

: : I’ve seen this image of a Holocaust memorial being rampantly blogged and re-blogged on Tumblr with tags such as “decor”, “interior” and “wall art”, as well as various comments by bloggers saying how they’d like to decorate their homes like this. There is no mention of the caption that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides and distinctly requests be included with the image when and if it is shared online:

Tower of Faces: This three-story tower displays photographs from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, they describe a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and within two days massacred the Jewish population.

-United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

There are many other examples of this going on, I’m just using these two Holocaust ones as the most obvious examples. Why does this bother me? Well, these images do not represent “decor” or “style” and it’s extremely problematic to include them on “inspiration” boards for decorating your home or fashion. I get that we all like collecting pretty images. But this one-sided fixation with “style” and “inspiration” is starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth. What worries me is that I’m participating in websites that feed this constant consumption of images without context or knowledge. I worry now when I re-blog and re-pin an image whether there is a story behind it that I’m not aware of and a context that I’m unwittingly ignoring. I’m concerned that if we allow these images to be pinned and blogged in such a superficial manner, we’re just contributing to historical ignorance and forgetfulness.

Although this may sound like harsh criticism, I actually feel no malicious judgement toward anyone when I see this occurring. Because let’s face it, on crappy days when I feel like procrastinating, it’s much easier for me to just click “re-blog” or “re-pin” and not think about the image. I enjoy Tumblr and Pinterest too, I’m not about advocating polarising opinions about these websites or presenting myself on a moral high-ground. But I do think I need to, we all need to, consciously consume. That is, we need to start being aware of the narratives surrounding the images we put out there: what’s the context of this image? Who took it? Why? Maybe it’s a good idea to start approaching images from a photo-journalism perspective where images form a significant part of a wider narrative, and where there is a distinct relationship between images and words, history and the present. I’m afraid that if we don’t do this, all these “inspiration” pin-boards and blogs will just end up being one big vacuum of nothingness.

Image credit: Billboard Art by Robert Montgomery. I often find his words speak well alongside mine.


Petra said...

you make some good points. over-consumpiton, and above all, mindless visual consumption worries me, too. and like you said, at times the whole style and inspiration thing annoys me, too, but these periods come and go.

I consider myself fairly aware of what's going on around me, mainly because I'm already one of the 'older' ones on the net, and because of a very different upbringing and education, but even I can't fight the brainwashing. what chance do today's teenagers or pre-teens have?

I agree with you, you can't blame or judge anyone for mindlessly repinning or collecting images, all you can do is to try to make (keep) people aware.

when I was at school, we had an entire year of history classes dedicated to WWII, about ten years ago the curriculum was changed, now it's a couple of weeks, and the focus is on contemporary issues and terrorism. and that's in Germany, where people are still very careful how they talk about the Holocaust and where things don't get ignored or excused. I have to say, I'm not surprised people don't know who Anne Frank is anymore.

Jen said...

I am so glad you have put how I (and many others) feel about this trend into words. If you see something you like, it stands to reason that you should want to know more about it; that you should want to discover what it is within an image that resonates with you.
(I should also mention how much I always love reading your posts. Your blog is wonderful.)

Sofia said...

I honestly love your brain! Your blog is wonderful, critical. I makes room for art and loveliness but does not forget its implications.
Thank you!

Sarah said...

I agree with Sophia, your brain is a joy to dabble in.
As someone currently doing their English honours, I get really frustrated seeing anything plagarised. The problem with these sites is that they actively promote it and ignore it. This means if you want to take action you have the be completely responsible and vigilant, which can be extremely exhausting.
I really liked this post, it made me think about how i can stop being a passive observer and start making positive changes.
Thank you x

Siubhan said...

I love that you relate the pinterest/tumblr whirlwind to a wider context, as to me all that pinning and tumblring often does start to feel like a vacuum, separated from the real world by the lack of thought that often goes into it. It's been starting to concern me recently too.

I've been reading a bit about the legality of Pinterest lately, (which is shocking enough) but the idea that a picture of Anne Frank is being pinned as fashion inspiration is awful - and, like you say, really worrying. You're absolutely right, context and conscious consuming is key, and it's something that I will definitely keep in mind when I'm using these sites myself.

Leah said...

This seems to be on everyone's lips lately. Perhaps the solution is some kind of program or website mandate that means metadata added by the creator won't allow images to be disconnected from their sources.
I don't know if such a thing exists. It should!
I am usually loath to post anything I don't have a credit for. It feels nebulous, almost dangerous, like I am becoming anonymous by representing myself with an anonymous image.

Sofia said...

Very interesting point, Leah!
Especially those tumblrs that are nothing but images + which you can scroll down infinitely feel like a whirlpool of nothingness to me and still I lose myself in them while at the same time losing myself as a person: I feel like I am turning into a jar to be filled. The anonymity adds to that because the imagery feels unconnected to a real world - to stylists, photographers, designers. Even the people depicted turn into pure image: Anne Frank is nothing but A Girl in a Picture.

Chuck said...

Wow, I had not come across the Anne Frank/Holocaust 'trend'. That is hideous and surreal. Maybe that is because I don't use Pinterest and only follow a couple of Tumblrs. I find the constant stream of undifferentiated images disorientating. In terms of literature I agree that context can bring a lot to your reading but I also agree with the New Critics that texts should be analysed independently of any cultural/biographical baggage. The words themselves are everything and a great text can stand outside culture. I want both - I'm greedy. I'm also missing academia now. x

Rhianne said...

I have always felt something is a bit off with Tumblr... and perhaps this is it - the idea that something has no source and therefore no context does bother me a lot and the ignorance of such important historical events and people is definitely upsetting.

I think its too easy to think of the internet as a distraction from whats real, theres so much out there to see and read that sometimes you lose perspective of things without even realising it.

Olga Bennett said...

Hila, this is so true! The images are very often ambiguous and rely heavily on the captions and/or context to be understood, or interpreted in a way that was intended... In the cases you mentioned it's just appalling, things like that sort of scare me. I stopped using pinterest and tumblr recently, it just doesn't feel right anymore. I feel a growing need to look deeper as opposed to wider, if that makes sense...

rooth said...

Well said. I often feel like sometimes, blog posts can be just a collection of pictures and nothing to go alongside them. However, intellectual curiosity (or just plain curiosity) only pays dividends to people who dig deeper and want to know more. So for those individuals like yourself who want more, it's out there for you to get. And everyone else is just missing out.

B said...

Robert Montgomery's words couldn't be more relevant. Lack of creditation is deeply worrying, and the two examples you gave have just taken the issue to a whole new level. I am very wary of mass image consumption, these days. It feels so unbearably empty that I prefer to stay out of it, and focus on smaller, simpler things.

erica-knits said...

I had a wonderful history professor who always assigned literary works along with non-fiction texts. She was absolutely brilliant at stressing the importance of context. Perhaps it is my love of history that drives me to research the context of artistic works.I can imagine that your classes are wonderful for their exploration of context in relation to art and literature. It's so vital.

That lack of context on pinterest and tumblr is distressing. I'm a slave to the src img bookmarklet, but I, too, have been lazy. It is a distressing vacuum of images that I am slowly trying to shelter myself from. Yet, of course, these images are often why I love the internet so much. It is difficult to find balance. I do my best in my pinning to credit and contextualize, if only, because it is so important to me.

Pinelopi said...

You're always so right at presenting a hidden view of things we are doing every day. I hadn't thought if tumblr and pinterest this way and I'm glad that you shared your thoughts on this. I want to be more careful from now on.

deconstructingthegirl said...

I just found your blog and want to let you know that I think it is great, especially your writing. You brought up such an interesting point that I never really thought about when blogging or using a service such a pinterest. Pictures and text definitely need context in certain circumstances, especially with the examples you presented (those were particularly disturbing). We definitely all need to be more conscious not only when we consume but also when we are putting those images out there. Thanks for such an insightful post!

Camila Faria said...

This is happening with text too. So many quotes and even entire paragraphs are beeing posted without the due credit, it's frightning.

Miss Bibliophile said...

With all of the talk about Pinterest and plagiarism, your point about context isn't one I had necessarily thought about before. Though I do love Pinterest and don't plan on walking away from it any time soon, I have been starting to realize that "pinning" has become an activity in itself, rather than a means of getting inspiration for some larger end. I have yet to actually do anything--like decorate a room or rebuild my wardrobe--based on any of my pinned inspiration boards. That's something I'd like to try to make a conscious effort to change. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

C said...

What an interesting discussion, Hila. Whenever I see a photo I'm drawn to on tumblr, I try to click back through a chain of "via ____"s until I find a link to the source. I don't use tumblr or pinterest myself, and so it's not a matter of finding the information for an image credit – I'm curious about the source because I want to find out where the photo came from, if it was a part of a larger series, who took/made it, etcetera. I like hearing about the stories – and yes, the context – behind images that I'm drawn to, which is import in making things, to understand your source material and inspirations. Even though I do enjoy browsing certain tumblrs, sometimes I can't help be frustrated by the surface aesthetic overload the site encourages.

megan said...

such a thoughtful and well-written post, hila. your points about consciously consuming and being aware of the context of the images that we post/pin are right on. i think making an effort do just those things will lend itself to a greater self-awareness on the part of many of us, and that's so important, too.

in an age where we can pin and reblog with a quick click of a button, it is often hard to remember that there really is a story behind everything, and that sometimes those stories aren't happy or pretty. decontextualization can be dangerous. thank you for reminding us of that.

Kate said...

As a former university lecturer specialising in early european literature, I recognise that need to constantly explain my emphasis on context. And I share your concerns about the increasing lack of context for images, but also fear a growing tendency to diminish the materiality of works of art. A teacher friend was told by her Head of School that trips to art galleries and museums were no longer necessary as 'the pictures are all available online'. We're losing as well as gaining in this new world.

Sasha said...

This post is filled with wonderful truth. Conscious consumption is important in such a day and age. The way people see and consume images without though creates a less beautiful world. When they pile on top of one another without thought or care for what they mean or could mean...well, they cease to have meaning. The photos (and "inspirations") become disposable, lost quickly to the sea of images that clutter our minds these days.

Hila said...

Petra: I'm still freaked out by the idea that people don't know who she is. But judgement is useless here - you can't blame people if they don't know. You can only reiterate and discuss things that are important to you.

Jen: Thank you! I'm so curious about everything, sometimes it comes as shock to me when others don't want to find out more.

Sofia: My brain says thank you :)

Sarah: it can indeed be very exhausting, and that's why I understand that it's not a matter of snapping your fingers and fixing it. That's also why I don't judge anyone about this.

Siubhan: It's funny you should mention the legality - I'm part of a research project team that looks at precisely these legal and copyright issues online and how we can develop ethical online repositories. It's a difficult topic, but one that is well-worth investigating. I'm shocked by the fashion references to Anne Frank photos too, it really baffles me.

Leah: It should exist, I think it may in some cases. But it would be a wonderful solution.

Chuck: I agree, I like appreciating literature on its own merit, but I feel I also gain a whole lot more out of it when I understand where it comes from. I like them both, so I'm greedy too :)

Rhianne: I've lost perspective myself many times - it's so addictive, re-blogging and collecting. There's nothing essentially wrong with that, but it would be nice if it was accompanied by some context.

Olga: I use Pinterest and Tumblr in my own select way. I have considered deleting them both, but I also derive pleasure from them, so I haven't. I don't know, some days I think I should though.

Rooth: Curiosity is what makes the world go round! I find myself less and less willing to spend time browsing through blogs that are just about collecting images without a point.

B: me too, I think my own blog has evolved alongside my growing concern for how imagery is used online.

erica-knits: I can be lazy about this too, so I definitely understand. Nobody's perfect, we all have our moments. I'm trying to be more conscious about my habits online.

Pinelopi: It's bothered me for a while, so I'm glad I wrote this - that's basically my aim with this post: to get people thinking about this.

deconstructingthegirl: Thank you! I think it's a matter of finding a balance between enjoyment and substance - not always easy, I know.

Camila: Oh I know! I've had my own work plagiarised, it's not fun.

Miss Bibliophile: Yes, exactly! I thought about that too: I'm 'pinning' but not actually doing anything. What's the point then? Does inspiration translate into action?

C: yes, I feel the same way. I think a lot of bloggers feel they need to credit an image just for the sake of legality or being nice. Which is perfectly valid, I'm not knocking those reasons at all. But what about wanting to know the story behind the image? It always frustrates me when I see a particularly interesting image but I can't find out anything about it.

Megan: yes, decontextualisation can be dangerous and hurtful. I guess I'm advocating for greater self-awareness about this.

Kate: That's awful! Nothing can replace the experience of seeing a work of art in person - having it online is great, but it doesn't remove the source from consideration.

Sasha: I become a bit lost when I see so many collections without meaning. It's the antithesis of a gallery or a museum, where art is collected with a purpose and meaning.

Niina said...

Yet another excellent post! I have also been thinking about referencing on the net, and the lack of. Although I love images (also as such) I feel not looking beyond them is a loss. Almost always there´s atleast as interesting story behind the picture. I think this matter becomes apparent with education (atleast art history made it for me), but perhaps we haven´t been ready for this huge amount of images and other information that web gives us all access to.

Hila said...

Niina: That's such a good point - all this information can be overwhelming, sometimes I think we just don't know what to do with it all.

Jane Flanagan said...

I forgot to leave a comment here, though I mentioned the post twice on my own blog!!

Thank you for your post and for articulating so clearly another thing about Pinterest that was troubling me. My own experience with the issue of context (or lack thereof) was so personal, I was unable to separate what troubled me from my general upset.

And thanks also for inspiring me to publish the post I'd been sitting on for the longest time!

angela said...

I do agree with you Hila, your examples of uncredited repins are ignorant. Other than such important historical images, sometimes I find myself feeling that an image may speak for itself for those in the know. I guess that creates a kind of exclusivity that is not very friendly.

BarbR7 said...

I understand your concern, but I think most people do not intend to infringe or plagiarize - they just don't know any better, which means education is the key.

I, too, think everything is so much more interesting in context, and I always try to go back to the source for descriptions, except when, as angela commented, the image speaks for itself, i.e. sunset, moonrise. For famous incidents or people, I always include as much as I know and I do as well for my photos of life in the past.

I, however, think that Pinterest is an amazing tool for education. To think that some do not know Anne Frank is shocking, but better we who do, use this opportunity to teach and share. The same is true for images of things no longer able to be seen in our everyday life. I was shocked by my very well-educated son and his girlfriend, when talking about a clothes wringer, to find they did not know what one was. But the "aha" moment was amazing. They looked at each other with delight and related that they had always wondered where the expression, "Put through the wringer" came from.

A lot of my followers are young, and actually take the time to comment on my pictures and descriptions, so I know they are reading and learning and that the history of our lives is being shared with another generation.

I also think that there is a certain amount of reluctance to type out a lot of information, hence the ubiquitous period on so many images. Perhaps if it were better known that a pinner can highlight words on a webpage and they will automatically appear in the description box? I've not seen this mentioned anywhere.

Hila said...

Jane: I'm glad you published that post! It's important to talk about these things, even of people may disagree with you. I think you handled the subject in a balanced and fair manner.

Angela: I never thought of that - the 'cliquey' side of it all. It's true though, it can feel like that.

BarbR7: unfortunatelty, I've seen it used as a tool of ignorance far more often than as a tool of education. It has potential to be useful in terms of education, and it is enjoyable, but it's also causing some damage. In my opinion, the Pinterest terms of service also need to be reworked from a legal perspective. And I've made it pretty clear that I'm definitely not judging anyone. I understand that most people don't mean harm. But that shouldn't stop critique of an issue I feel strongly about.

tamerajane said...

When I first read this post and read about the Holocaust memorial image, I got chills and almost started crying. Coming back and reading it again, my blood still runs cold. The implications and long reach of this kind of lack of understanding is truly terrifying.

joyce said...

Word. I've been more conscious of this topic lately, so it was nice to hear your thoughts on it. Though perusing lovely photos on blogs can be nice, my favorite blogs are the ones that post thoughtful content that reveal their unique voice.

hungryandfrozen said...

Hila this is a fascinating angle to this discussion which I've seen going round the internet - I find it horrible that images with such meaning and history can lose both those things in an instance. And of course on a more shallow level, I hate seeing people copy paste segments of my own text under my photos that they've pinned, so that no one need ever click through to the original material. I feel that until Pinterest itself changes how it operates, the majority of people are probably unlikely to self-monitor the integrity of what they're posting.

Hila said...

Tamera: I agree, so thank you for writing about it too.

Joyce: Same here.

hungryandfrozen: It's probably idealistic to expect that most people will self-regulate. I think Pinterest have to regulate.

suzanne said...

Dear Hila,

I appreciate your post and comments on this issue and find myself wanting to learn more and dig deeper (in my leisurely studies and reading), and online -- which I find so hard to do. When I first joined Tumblr (I do keep a blog there), the more visually-oriented images reminded me of my teenage years (before Internet) when we'd clip images from a magazine and put them on notebooks and walls. Pinterest, style blogs, etc. seem to be the modern-day equivalent to me.

It's almost shocking that people would post Holocaust images with "style" in thought, and yet how do we all in our own ways create culture that is dumbed-down and less thoughtful? I'm guilty for sure.

This very thoughtful post is a gift, and I look forward to following your blog here.

Hila said...

Suzanne: That's a good point - although I guess the difference is that blogs and pinterest are public 'diaries' and collections, so they sort of feed into each other collectively, creating a culture of ignorance. That's what bothers me. Thanks so much for this comment.

Fashion Forestry said...

I was just referred to your blog from a commenter(mutual follower of out blogs) on a blog post I just posted here:

I am so glad she pointed me in your direction your blog and this article are exquisite and I am a new follower without a doubt, thank you so much for sharing your insight with us!

I completely agree with you in this post, and it made me think more about why I do things, and how modern society is being affected by the same idea and why. I especially agree with Ruth in the comments.

I personally use Tumblr as an extra element to my blog and as a design tool. Its almost an anonymous freedom, where you don't have to care about formatting or why the post matters. Its a huge compilation that you make yourself, and if you choose you can organise afterwards (highly recommended) As a fashion designer I take great pleasure in using tumblr to sort out what it going on in my brain at that moment, and it helps me evolve my collection. I also think to enjoy this freedom, you would need to know what the images are about and have many references. I have a rich literature, historical, and costume background, and so for just me it doesn't bother me when the original source is missing, because I already know.

On the other hand, this is bad for society. Especially youngsters or even people who don't have references or don't care, to find out etc. But we also have to keep in mind, we meaning type A personalities like you and I who want and really care about the meaning behind everything, that people mostly do not care, as sad as it is. I always shove this down every ones throats: Its how the setting and characters are played with and used that make a movie or literature valid, important or interesting, not the plot. The plot is the the stationary and everything else is what is actually written.

So in a sense all these no name images are just floating stationary all around the Internet, and people are just re posting decorated blank pieces of paper.

If you are curious here is my tumblr:
haahaaha I am done now sorry for the long comment!

Hila said...

Fashion Forestry: Not at all, thank you for taking the time to leave this comment. I know the urge to collect anonymously, because I feel it myself. However, I'm also disturbed by the lack of basic knowledge and historical understanding I see on sites like Tumblr, which makes me feel almost frightened. I don't have any easy answers for this, other than talking about it and hoping that such discussions contribute positively in some way. I fear we're dissolving into one huge cycle of aesthetics without substance on such sites, and this is not only incredibly superficial, but also, incredibly dangerous.