Affording images: Digital imaging and media-sharing practices in a corpus of young people’s cameraphone images

Paper presented at Multimodality in Education colloquium held at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch on 10 August, 2011 by Marion Walton and Silke Hassreiter, Centre for Film and Media Studies. University of Cape Town

The affordances of mobile phones as devices for creating, publishing and distributing images means that they are often seen as a threat to young people’s safety or to public morality. Alternatively, they are celebrated as having immense potential for supporting an individualised and highly networked mode of mobile learning or ‘m-learning’. These issues are particularly significant in the global South, where photographic practices and digital imaging are being adopted rapidly, as mobile networks reach over a billion people and feature phones with cameras become increasingly accessible.

This paper documents the image-sharing and photographic practices of fourteen young people who participated in a mobile video-making project over four months in July-November 2010 in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. We analyse the corpus of images which they shared with us as researchers. We explore distinct communicative genres which, in this context, are associated with (i) personal photographs, (ii) photographic composites (iii) downloaded images from popular culture (iv) multimodal image messaging. In this paper, our focus is specifically on interpersonal meanings and the representation of interpersonal meanings and social distance.

We argue that the social practices of young people and the marginal contexts of this appropriation play key roles in their domestication of mobile photography. Consequently, it is a mistake to assume that new genres and practices can simply be ‘read off’ by listing the features or affordances of the new generations of smart phones. Instead, it is necessary to consider a wider range of contexts and uses before the ‘affordances’ of the new medium can start to be understood. In particular, the differences associated with the specific contextual meanings of artefacts such as mobile phones, local genres of communication and interaction, and broader issues of access to communication infrastructure and mobility need to be considered. We argue that a contextualised study such as this should be conducted before embarking on the development of new curricula for learning or self-expression for young people.