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.

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