Social distance and mobile photography

Do we feel impersonal distance, a sense of personal contact or intimacy in relation to the people we see in images? Chances are that the scale of the shot (whether a photograph is a close-up or taken at a distance, or somewhere inbetween) has something to do with that feeling. I’m interested in looking at situations where, in any given body of images, the represented distance between the camera and the subjects of the shot is used to generate an overall sense of closeness or distance towards particular groups of participants.

I wanted to be able to quantify an aspect of social distance. My motivation was that I wanted to explore some of the overall differences I’ve picked up between geolocated images posted to two social websites, mobile site The Grid and conventional photosharing site, Flickr (discussed here and here). Social distance is influenced by a number of factors, including the vertical and horizontal orientation of the camera, but shot scale seemed to be the easiest thing to measure and quantify, or a lot easier than camera orientation at any rate. So I measured the height of faces depicted in the photos I collected and graphed the results.

Below are some of the visualizations I developed using Processing. I found a particularly useful tutorial which gives a detailed explanation of how to build a visualisation to use data from a Google spreadsheet:

Shot scale distance distribution on The Grid and Flickr
Shot scale distance distribution on The Grid and Flickr - low values are long shots, high values are close ups
Distant shots predominate on Flickr
Distant shots predominate on Flickr

Close-up shots predominate on The Grid
Close-up shots predominate on The Grid

I found it far easier to do the analysis when I could compare the images side-by-side and so I created a new 3D view of them in five planes which correspond to my coding categories – intimate, personal, social, impersonal, and landscapes (for this study, I included other shots without any people in this category).

Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from Flickr
Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from Flickr

Flickr close-ups focus on children, food, drink, a dog at popular Guguletu butchery and outdoor restaurant, Mzoli’s. Photographers rarely feature in shots.Impersonal shots of landscape, buildings and distant township residents predominate.

Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from The Grid
Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from The Grid

Close-ups predominate on The Grid, often shot in self-portrait mode, with very few truly impersonal shots. Social distance is increased in some shots by the use of dark glasses and other distancing devices. Social distance is particularly difficult to code in some cases – if someone is photographed at what would otherwise be a ‘social’ distance, but in a provocative topless pose, it’s difficult not to code that shot as ‘intimate’.

If you’re interested in trying Processing, take a look at this introductory overview by my colleague Lyndon Daniels.

Local vs tourist views and mobile photography

Mobile snapshots
Online image-sharing sites such as Flickr currently reinforce the digital invisibility of the majority of the world’s population. This is a simple function of the fact that most people have not had access to consumer electronics, digital production and distribution, and even electricity. Recently cameraphones have become accessible to many more people, and digital publication is becoming more feasible, given that many platforms are now adapted or specifically developed for mobile use. For mobile industries eyeing emerging markets, multimedia communication practices can develop new markets for handsets and heavier use of mobile data networks. Academics and activists have spotted the possibilities of using mobile media to document grassroots stories, issues and new forms of journalism. But what possibilities do digital image-sharing platforms suggest for ordinary people? And to what extent will mobile publication platforms shift existing patterns of digital invisibility?

I’ve been working on a research project which investigates how cameraphone images are being published on South African mobile locative media-sharing platform, The Grid.Here is a short video which shows how The Grid’s designers imagined that their users might use the application’s locative features together with messaging and photographs taken with their cameraphones. The video shows trendy urban youth on the move, always in touch with one another, sharing their lives and emotions as they dart around the map, from home to train to mall to beachfront sunset to nightspot, co-ordinating busy social lives while capturing transient moments of beauty and fun.


I’ve worked on the mobile snapshots posted to The Grid during a short sabbatical visit to the Multimodal Analysis Lab (MMA) at the National University of Singapore.  At NUS, linguist and multimodality researcher Kay O’Halloran and her team are working on a project called Mapping Asian Cultures, where they are developing visual tools to research and analyse visual culture in Asia. Their visualisation tool, VisualCultures, is currently in alpha stages of development, and during my visit I’ve been able to use the tool for my research into mobile photography from South Africa.

Cultural Analytics

The MMA VisualCultures tool is being produced in a joint effort with new media theorist, Lev Manovich, whose Cultural Analytics project at UCSD aims to use computational visualisation and supercomputing to study large sets of images. This will allow cultural scholars to gain insights into existing collections of artworks, but also provides new methods which are adapted to the explosion of visual images in contemporary culture, associated with user-generated content and Web2.0. The images above are taken from the Cultural Analytics Flickr page. They illustrate how VisualCultures uses the measurable  characteristics of individual works or pages (in these cases the mean brightness of Rothko paintings and of individual pages from manga title Zippy Ziggy) to create a large-scale overview of an artist’s oevre or of a manga title as a whole.

Brightness in Zippy Ziggy manga title
UCSD Cultural Visualisation project - Brightness in Zippy Ziggy manga title
Brightness in Rothko paintings (1830-1970)
UCSD Cultural Visualisation project - Brightness in Rothko paintings (1830-1970)

VisualCultures is  an open source project which runs in Adobe Air (free download). As the software runs on ordinary PCs rather than supercomputers it is useful for work with medium-sized image datasets (a maximum of 800 images). I’ve really enjoyed working with an early version to extend an analysis of South African mobile phone images that I started working on earlier this year. (I’ve written up an initial analysis in a short paper  accepted for design conference DIS2010).

VisualCultures helped me to compare geo-tagged images from Yahoo’s photo-sharing site Flickr and  from South African mobile locative media-sharing platform, The Grid. The images were taken or posted in low-income areas in Cape Town (they are mostly from Guguletu, but to increase the sample size slightly I included all images from neighbouring Nyanga as well).

While The Grid’s designers imagined prolific visual communciation between trendy groups of urban friends on the move, my study found quite different patterns of use. Users posted relatively few images, and they seldom document their environment, preferring to publish a couple of self-portraits. The Grid is still not widely used, and so, on this platform, visual communication seems to be taking place between geographically dispersed early adopters rather than between close friends whose daily lives are intertwined. The Grid  extends patterns of mobile interaction established by anonymous chat and IM, which are the most popular uses of dominant mobile platform in SA, MXit. The Grid seems to be used occasionally as a supplement or as an experiment, rather than as a primary means of communication. Nicky Allen from The Grid team reports that conversations on The Grid are primarily cross-gender (80%). The site seems to function to some extent as a dating app, with images often being used to introduce anonymous chat participants to one another. The limited number of images published may also relate to the fact that mobility costs money, and so does mobile bandwidth.

I compared the two sets of images along a number of dimensions. In this post I’ll focus on what I found about the geographical distribution of the images.

Multimodal Analysis Lab's VisualCultures - mockup
Multiple graph view in Multimodal Analysis Lab's VisualCultures (mockup)

Although VisualCultures doesn’t include a map function yet, I have mocked up a map view in Photoshop to show how the software allows one to display multiple graphs, and to investigate different views of the data at the same time.

The first graph is a map view, which maps the images according to longitude and latitude. The second graph (superimposed in the top left corner of the map) functions as a kind of user interface to the first graph, and allows the user to select categories of interest, in this case the two image platforms, Flickr and The Grid. By selecting the Flickr category on the graph I have tinted images on the map which belong to that particular category. These images of interest can then be viewed one by one in higher resolution if the user needs to take a closer look.

Locals and tourists - Guguletu and Nyanga images from Grid and Flickr
Locals and tourists - Guguletu images from Grid and Flickr

The map visualisation of the Guguletu data reminded me of the Locals and Tourists visualisations of Flickr images. Locals and Tourists contrasts the concentrated distribution of tourist shots (which tend to cluster around key tourist landmarks in cities) with the more dispersed distribution of photographs taken by people who live in these cities. The VisualCultures map was not entirely accurate, so I created a simpler visualisation with Processing (using code from Modest Maps) to get a more exact representation of their geographical distribution. Purple ellipses represent Flickr snapshots, and are concentrated around local township tour routes, with several shots taken around or near Klipfontein Road, the main thoroughfare through the area. A couple are taken from the N2 highway, which is the route to Cape Town International Airport. This is likely to be the only view tourists have of the area, if they do not take a township tour. In contrast, images from The Grid (blue squares) are distributed more evenly around the map, indicating more local patterns of use.

Flickr is used by both locals and tourists in the wealthier areas in South African cities. In contrast, the distribution of the Guguletu images suggests that there is very little local use of Flickr in these areas. Local views of South African townships may only be emerging on mobile platforms, where township residents are gaining access digital publishing opportunities for the first time. As these platforms are not always indexed, linked or aggregated on mainstream sites such as Google Images, these separate local mobile platforms may be perpetuating a certain kind of digital invisibility, and, for now, mobile creativity and expression remain on the margins.

The rest of my work on mobile snapshots involved looking at social distance in the shots, and I’ve developed my own visualisation tools for this – more on that in another post.