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Depth of Field, volume 4, no 1 (September 2014)

Aura, Artifact and Apparatus; Towards a theory of tourist photography

Dennis Schep


While both tourism research and photography research have grown into substantial academic disciplines, little has been written about their point of intersection: tourist photography. In this paper, I argue that a number of philosophically oriented theories of photography may offer useful perspectives on tourist photography. In my readings of Benjamin, Flusser and Barthes, I highlight those aspects of their theoretical work that offer insight into tourist photographic behavior, while pointing out where their theories need to be revised before they can be extrapolated to this domain. In particular, drawing on Barthes, I highlight the photograph's function as a material testimony constituting an implicit autobiographical narrative; drawing on Flusser, I foreground the camera's productive capacities, opposing these to a widespread perception of the camera as a passive recording device; and, drawing on Benjamin, I analyze the photograph's capacity to endow sites with an elusive aura that cannot be reproduced in any actual pictures of the site. While these authors have provided the theoretical framework for my analysis of tourist photographic practices, all of them need to be assessed critically, as their theories require significant alterations before they allow us to grasp the specificity of the tourist situation.


Beyond any doubt, the camera – together with the road-map and a pair of sunglasses – is one of the tourist's essential attributes. The material written on the actual practice of tourist photography, however, is relatively scarce. This may partially be explained by the private nature of photo albums; although some empirical work has been done on tourist photography, for obvious reasons this has never dealt with a corpus of photographs large enough to allow for any general characterizations.[1]

Every technological ensemble can be studied from a sociological or philosophical perspective; but the inherently social nature of tourist photography demands an interdisciplinary approach that does not neglect the technological aspects of photography, while refusing to separate technology from the social sphere in which it is embedded. It is at this junction that I believe canonical texts about the philosophy of photography may inform our analysis; and it is precisely this corpus that is absent in most studies dealing with tourist photography.

“Nicht der Schrift-, sondern der Photographieunkundige wird … der Analphabet der Zukunft sein,”[2] predicted Benjamin in 1931;[3] and beyond doubt, visual literacy has become a fundamental competence in our image-infested universe, where our first acquaintance with another place or culture is almost always an encounter with an image. In this context, an engagement with canonical texts about photography may enrich our understanding of tourism and the “tourist gaze”.[4]

Code and emanation

One of the most interesting authors to have addressed the subject of photography is Roland Barthes. In the essays collected in Mythologies, originally published in 1957, he analyzes the mythological investments of our supposedly disenchanted world. One of the essays deals with the Guide Bleu, a travel guide with a focus on art and architecture. Noting the prevalence of mountains and monuments in the guide, Barthes writes:

To select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is to be seen is thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness.[5]

In this description, the photograph functions as an agent of petrification. The world depicted in the Guide Bleu is emptied of life, history is suppressed, and culture is reduced to the stasis of age old churches and castles. In many other analyses in Mythologies, Barthes emphasizes that the operation in which the second-order semiological chain of “bourgeois” mythology is composed conceals itself under the supposed self-sufficiency of the sign. Myth is a language, a code, a mode of signification that ensnares the world in a discursive network that confers a meaning on all objects, and the purpose of semiological analysis is to render visible the hidden meanings of this mythological code.[6]

Now compare this to the following passage from Barthes' 1980 book on photography, Camera Lucida:

A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent (as is the case for every other image, encumbered – from the start, and because of its status – by the way in which the object is simulated): it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier (certain professionals do so), but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection. By nature, the Photograph … has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe.[7]

Throughout this book Barthes argues that in a photograph, we see what is depicted rather than the photograph itself. The founding order of photography is reference, its noeme is “That-has-been”.[8] The photograph is not a copy, but an emanation of reality; an image without a code; a form of magic, not an art.[9] Naturally, certain codes inflect our readings of photographs, and the photographer him/herself employs myth to reconcile the photograph with society in order to tame the madness of photography. But all of this pertains to the photograph's studium, the domain of semiotics, that is secondary to the absolute coincidence of signifier and signified in the photograph's punctum, that uncoded, unnamable element that “pricks” me, pierces right through me to provoke sympathy, tenderness and even love.[10]

It is my opinion that Barthes made two mistakes, and that these mistakes are exemplary both for Barthes' shift from structuralism to post-structuralism and for our failure to understand photography. In Camera Lucida Barthes idealizes the punctum, but may do so to expiate himself from his previous tendency to reduce images to an economy of signs. In Mythologies, images only start speaking after semiotic analysis; in Camera Lucida, they speak only in their non-speaking. Both books are predicated on a relation of exteriority between image and discourse, where in Mythologies the discourse of semiology forces the encoded image into speech, and in Camera Lucida the value of the image lies precisely in its muteness: the image speaks to us when it does not transmit a message. The early Barthes sees the image as a discourse that imposes an encoded history; the late Barthes praises precisely the image's mute material presence, erasing the genealogy of the “That-has-been.” Both views are significant and informative inasmuch as they are theoretically incoherent. While the Barthes of Mythologies adhered to the misguided structuralist belief in the symmetry between signifier and signified, the Barthes of Camera Lucida compensated for this reductionism by doing away with the signifier altogether, instead opting for a romantic idealization of the punctum and attempting to dispel all mediations between reality and its emanations.

Despite these inconsistencies in and irreconcilability between Barthes' theories of photography, his theory is not unfounded, and his two positions both reveal something fundamental about the photographic image. While the scrupulous analyses in Mythologies demonstrate the extent to which our images are coded, they overlook the part that cannot be transcoded into words; and while the meditations in Camera Lucida clearly attest to a recognition of the non-discursive element that inhabits photography, they mystify and idealize the mute materiality of the photographic image. The Barthes of Mythologies seems to believe that the image is composed of nothing but a series of intersecting and overlapping codes, while the Barthes of Camera Lucida foregrounds the indexical relationship between photograph and reality. In tourist photography, both of these views come into play.

While many semiotic analyses of photographs demonstrate that photographic images do have a code that can be read, in the case of tourist photography, this code would be of little value to us save for the fact we are able to instantiate it in the photographic act. By taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower – a picture that has been taken millions of times – we inscribe a preexisting code and the sight it adheres to into our biography. The value we attribute to the picture is the value derived from our capacity to instantiate the code by being physically present on the site it renders legible. The internal structure of the code is irrelevant, as long as we can appropriate it with our camera to produce artifacts that serve as narrative supports for an autobiography in pictures.

For the late Barthes, photography was also a testimony without discourse,[11] a proof that something had-been-there. The widespread acceptance of this view has also pervaded the field of tourism research: “Holiday photography is the record which shows, no matter how rushed the visit, that what was seen was what was there”.[12] But while in tourist photography the self-authenticating ability of a photograph is certainly a constitutive element of its value, Barthes' formula should be slightly altered: the value of a tourist photograph is not that “That-has-been,” but that “I-have-been-there” – and I can prove it with my own instantiation of a more or less lenient code.

This structure became clear to me in February 2011, as I visited the Machu Picchu ruins in the Peruvian Andes. After a good hour of climbing the short version of the Inca trail and a two hour guided tour through the ruins, me and the other members of my group were free to discover the area on our own. Machu Picchu is surrounded by various climbable mountains and smaller Inca sites, and when I asked our guide what he would recommend for the coming hours, he told us: “You can climb that mountain there, to take the emblematic photograph.” Everyone knew what he meant, as this photograph was prominently displayed on every map or flyer of the area. And not only had we seen this picture many times in the days preceding our visit to Machu Picchu, it would also be readily available on Google Images (fig. 1). But somehow, this is not the same – and so, the majority of the group, myself included, climbed that mountain (2 hours) and took that picture (fig. 2). As there was not much else to do on this particular mountain top, after five minutes we started making our way back down – each person satisfied with his/her picture, each picture identical to all the others.


Fig. 1. Code and instantiation: Photographer unknown, Iconic picture found as hundreds of copies on the internet through Google search ‘Machu Picchu Peru’.


Fig. 2. Code and instantiation: Photo by the author, Instantiation by the author of the Machu Picchu code, January 2011, digital photographic file.

No matter how aesthetically pleasing or conceptually interesting a holiday snap may be, its importance lies in the fact that its photographer was there to take it. We can see here that both the early and the late Barthes are of some value in understanding the practice of tourist photography. While the former may allow us to grasp the meaning and myths that stick to every image, his analysis remains stuck within the universe of semiotics, and fails to interrogate the conditions that uphold this universe. The late Barthes touches upon some fundamental aspects of the photographic image and partially explains our fascination with it, but he neglects the multitude of mediations that separates the image from the world.

Aside from the Barthesian codes of contemporary mythology, these mediations include the apparatus itself. Ever since Talbot used the notion of a “pencil of nature” to describe the art of photography in 1844, the productive capacities of the camera have been overlooked – a tendency still present in Barthes' insistence that the photograph is not distinguished from its referent. Yet the supposed truthfulness of the photograph does not follow from the indexical relationship between image and reality; it is established through a variety of subjective choices and objective mechanisms that prevent the image from sinking away into a state of information entropy. The camera is no mere surface of inscription, but an apparatus into which the photographer inscribes him/herself to produce pictures that cannot be said to be fully controlled by his/her subjective choices. This photographic apparatus comprising both human and machine elements is one of the things that cannot be thought if we subscribe to Barthes' belief that the noeme “That-has-been” is what characterizes the nature of photography. In his meditations on photography, Vilém Flusser addresses precisely this problem.

Productive mediations

While Flusser rarely makes his interlocutors explicit, one gets the impression that Towards a Philosophy of Photography, first published three years after Barthes' Camera Lucida, is partially an attempt to dispel the latter's belief in the camera's ability to allow for a pure “emanation” of reality. Both Barthes and Flusser were convinced of the absolute novelty of photography, but where Barthes insisted on the lack of distinction between photograph and referent, Flusser saw the photograph as the product of a “programming imagination”.[13] For him, the truly creative moment is not the photographic act, but the creation of the camera. Individual pictures are of little value; they function merely as worthless supports for the programmed information elaborated by the photographic apparatus.[14]

The camera is a “black box”[15] whose program, although originally produced by humans, eventually escapes all human intention. Most individual photographers are not interested in the contents of this black box and the nature of the photographic program, but derive pleasure from merging with it and exhausting its possibilities. The photographic industry actively promotes this merger: in 1976, Minolta advertised one of their cameras with the slogan “It's hard to tell where you leave off and the camera begins”.[16] The information carried by the photos this hybrid apparatus produces have not been intended by either the photographer or the camera programmer, but existed as a virtuality within the camera's program.

How can this focus on the apparatus serve to elucidate the practice of tourist photography? To begin with, Flusser's emphasis on the productive capacities of the camera has obvious ramifications for the photographic representation of the ethnic other. In the 1960s, Edmund Snow Carpenter, an early collaborator of Marshall McLuhan, distributed cameras among various ethnic populations to study their use of these new media. The results were discouraging: “These media swallow culture. The old culture was there all right, but no more than residue at the bottom of a barrel. I think it requires enormous sophistication – media sophistication – before anyone can use print or film to preserve and present one's cultural heritage, even one's cultural present”.[17]

If the camera does not merely record reality but also produces (and reproduces) it, tourist photography can be complicit with colonial politics of representation by reproducing harmful stereotypes – especially when the culture in question lacks the means to exert control over the authorization and circulation of its visual representations. The asymmetrical financial relations between tourist and touree cultures may lead the latter to reshape their homes into signifying ecologies that live up to tourist's expectations (fig. 3); in many third world countries, so-called ethnic cultures stage so-called traditional events to produce visual spectacles that have more to do with dominant stereotypes than with their actual culture. Derrida once asked: “Can we not say that there was already in photography, in the classic sense, as much production as recording of images, as much act as gaze, as much performative event as passive archivization?”[18] While empirical research should determine whether tourism reinforces or undermines stereotypes on a case by case basis, the dominant conception of the camera as a passive device for recording reality clearly obfuscates the need for a responsible photographic practice.


Fig. 3. Fedekuki/Wikimedia Commons, Indigenous woman grinding corn on the floating Totora island in Peru: It is disputed how many people still actually live on the islands; the huts in the background are used as souvenir shops, 31 July 2005, digital photographic file.

Furthermore, it is helpful to consider Flusser's analysis of the camera desubjectivating its operator, turning him/her into a mere functionary of its program. When I was observing photographing tourists on the Pont Neuf and in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, one of the things that struck me was the fact that some tourists, when they came across a sculpture, first took a picture of it, and only started looking after the picture had been taken. Perhaps Sontag is right to argue that the production of pictures serves to appease the tourist's anxiety about not working; in any case, this type of predatory photographic behavior promotes the accumulation of images to a goal in itself rather than a means to produce meaning or memories.[19] An interviewed Taiwanese study tourist neatly sums up this attitude: “I don't know much about Britain so I photographed everything, especially those buildings and churches”.[20]

Flusser is right to emphasize the desubjectivation at stake in these developments, but in his emphasis on the information carried by the photograph, he appears to be caught up in a romantic overvaluation of originality. Of course, from the perspective of artistic value, most tourist photographs are redundant – but this perspective fails to grasp the specificity of tourist photography, where information is not defined in terms of formal originality. In tourist photography, the informative value of an image cannot be separated from its context of creation; information is not contained within the space of the image, but grounded in the narrative space that links the tourist with the world he/she tours. In most cases, what the much-derided tourist taking “snaps” creates is not merely a picture, but a segmentation of space and time governed by the production of an implicit autobiographical narrative. In their photographs, tourists “capture something of themselves”,[21] and this “something” cannot be replaced by the readily available reservoir of professional images that may be of a superior quality. As Haldrup and Larsen note: “ and tourism are major social practices through which modern people produce storied biographies and memories that provide sense to their selves and their social relations.”[22]

Although the driving force behind large segments of the tourism industry is the desire to see the extraordinary,[23] the resulting pictures are often quite mundane. Moreover, while many tourists strive to attain a certain measure of originality in their pictures,[24] this originality has little to do with the Flusserian exploration of the possibilities of the photographic apparatus. In tourist photography, originality often lies in a creative engagement with the tourist's surroundings; tourists frequently sit on the knee of a sculpture or position themselves in such a way that it seems they are holding the Louvre pyramid in their hands (fig. 4). Trick photography is a popular way to deviate from the standard and produce original pictures, even though the originality of this practice is questionable at best (fig. 5).


Fig. 4. Photo by the author, Tourist pretending to lift the Louvre pyramid, ca. 2010, digital photographic file.


Fig. 5. Martin Parr, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, 1990, digital photographic file © Martin Parr / Magnum.

Making aura

A central reference for many authors who have addressed photography from a theoretical perspective is Walter Benjamin's essay 'Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit.'[25] The main contribution of this essay is the notion of “aura” – an ambiguous concept that has often been misunderstood, not in the last place due to Benjamin's own contradictory statements. In this section, I will first uncover what Benjamin intended with this concept, and then assess its possible value for a better understanding of tourist photography.

In the artwork essay, Benjamin defines aura as an “einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag”;[26] the singular appearance of a distance, however close the object may be. This formulation implies a doubling of the notion of distance: while within Euclidean space the object may be within hand's reach, something still exceeds our grasp. This “something” is the object's aura. From this definition, Benjamin proceeds to explain that in the age of mechanical reproducibility, the aura withers away: “Die Dinge sich räumlich und menschlich »näherzubringen« ist ein genau so leidenschaftliches Anliegen der gegenwärtigen Massen wie es ihre Tendenz einer Überwindung des Einmaligen jeder Gegebenheit durch die Aufnahme von deren Reproduktion ist”.[27] The masses in Benjamin's historical era (he wrote this essay in 1936) join the apparatuses of mechanical reproduction in an attempt to overcome the impassable distance that constitutes the aura. This drives them to annul the “Hier und Jetzt”[28], the absolute singularity that makes up the aura, by making reproduction turn singular into similar.

Benjamin has often been understood to imply that the aura can only inhabit absolutely singular objects and progressively disappears when these objects are reproduced. But as one of his earlier texts suggests, things are not that simple. Here, Benjamin notes that “genuine aura appears in all things, not just in certain kinds of things, as people imagine”.[29]

Can photographs only have an aura in rare and specific cases, or does every object, and hence every photograph have an aura? Perhaps the question is beside the point. As Benjamin emphasizes in the 1930 text, “the aura undergoes changes, which can be quite fundamental, with every movement the aura-wreathed object makes”.[30] For Benjamin the aura has a history, and its recent history is characterized by demise: “was im Zeitalter der technischen Reproduzierbarkeit des Kunstwerks verkümmert, das ist seine Aura”.[31]

It is precisely at this point that I think Benjamin's theory should be reconsidered. In his 1936 essay, the ambiguity of his notion of a historically constituted aura threatened by reproduction is most clearly perceived in the segment about actors. According to Benjamin, as the aura is strictly dependent on the singular “Hier und Jetzt” of the actor and cannot be reproduced, it is not transmitted by the screen; when actors play for a camera rather than a live audience, the aura that habitually envelops them vanishes, and with it the aura of the figures they portray.[32] Meanwhile, the film industry desperately tries to compensate for the actor's disappearing aura with a carefully constructed “Starkultus”, marketing artificial personalities as commodities.[33]

Although I wouldn't dispute Benjamin's insistence on the commodity character of film actors, I do not agree that this is a mere compensation for the disappearance of the aura. By understanding the star system as a new chapter in the history of aura rather than as something new succeeding it, we may grasp how aura is not always threatened by reproduction, but can also be enhanced or even constituted by it. It is difficult to see where the aura of movie stars (and tourist sites!) originates if not in their enormous media exposure.

The name under which William Henry Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was calotype, from kalos, the Greek word for beautiful.[34] This term foregrounds the beautifying aspect of photography that has been emphasized by several subsequent authors. The photographer photographs what he/she considers beautiful or notable, but soon, this relation is inverted, and photography decrees beautiful and notable whatever it photographs.[35] In much the same way, if we are to retain Benjamin's notion of “aura” as a useful category of analysis without turning it into a reified generality that leads to misleading homogenizations, we must allow for the possibility that the effects of mechanical reproduction on the aura are not strictly negative. In other words, photographs do not simply destroy an aura rooted in nature or tradition; they can also enhance or create the object's aura.

While not all tourist imaginaries can be grasped by this notion, the tourist industry endows some destinations with an aura in an attempt to shape our dreams and anticipations. Tour operators create an aura of virginal nature for certain locations by featuring advertisements with images of empty beaches and untouched forests – images that stand in stark contrast to the realities of mass tourism. But the aura also adheres to cultural achievements, explaining why millions of tourists flock to the Louvre each year to photograph a painting they already know (fig. 6). Both cases illustrate that the aura does not wither in the age of reproduction: idealized images of nature lure the “romantic gaze”[36], and the circulation of images of the Mona Lisa does not curb the flow of tourists to the Louvre, but enhances it.


Fig. 6. Sergey Meiailenko/Wikimedia Commons, Tourists photographing the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre in Paris: only the aura can explain why every day, thousands of people stand in line to take a picture of the Mona Lisa - a painting they already know, 1 July 2005, digital photographic file.


From my somewhat irreverent readings of Barthes, Flusser and Benjamin, I have extracted three elements that I consider essential for a proper understanding of tourist photography:

  • The photograph as a testimony at the service of an autobiographical narrative (Barthes).
  • The camera's productive capacities, thought in opposition to the dominant conception of the camera as a passive recording device (Flusser).
  • The photograph's capacity to endow tourist sites with an aura that attracts tourists, but remains essentially elusive (Benjamin).

Of course, the generality of theoretical discourse can become an inhibition to the analysis of actual tourist photographic practices. Theory is never enough, and besides these authors, we will need to take into consideration empirical studies of tourist behavior and the interrelated history of tourism and photography – a history that is much less straightforward than their 19th century co-appearance may lead us to believe. Be that as it may, I believe these theoretical frameworks bring out important elements of photography that have rarely been considered in the analysis of tourist photographs and photographic behaviors.

As Jonathan Culler (1990) argues, tourism is primarily a semiotic activity, and a semiology informed by the early work of Roland Barthes might elucidate the ways in which tourist photography reproduces or subverts the dominant imagery of touree cultures. In his 1976 book The Tourist, Dean MacCannell undertakes this type of semiotic analysis; starting from the assumption that usually, “the first contact a sightseer has with a sight is not the sight itself but with some representation thereof” (MacCannell 1999:110), he analyzes how semiotic markers (travel brochures, plaques, photographs) constitute tourist sights while foreclosing our direct, unmediated access to them. The space opened up between a sight and its circulating representations is the space that accommodates code and aura, and that mediates our access to a sight. Sights are alienated from themselves by a multiplication of images and images of images – a process that often retroactively affect the sight that functions as the marker's ultimate referent, as when touree cultures stage performances of exoticism for financial gain (Van den Berghe and Keyes 1984) or when a fetishization of authenticity leads to authenticity's demise (see Umberto Eco's Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality for numerous descriptions of simulacral tourist spaces). Each time a tourist takes a photograph, he reproduces or subverts the semiotic codes that govern the readability of the captured scene – codes that impose stories on the mute reality his image purports to represent. The political stakes of this process are clear: if we subscribe to the conception of photography as a means of passively recording reality, we risk overlooking the fact that semiotic codes are not given by nature, but constantly produced and reproduced – and we become blind to the ways in which they can be subverted.

Beyond the semiotic universe of tourism, Flusser and Barthes offer valuable insights into actual tourist behaviors. We cannot understand tourist photography without considering its implication in the narratives a tourist tells himself and others about himself and Others; through photography, tourists produce storied biographies that allow them to make sense of themselves and the world around them (Haldrup and Larsen 2003). Following my reading of Barthes, tourist photography is about writing the self rather than witnessing the other; rather than attesting to “what-has-been”, holiday photographs inscribe an “I-have-been-there” in the narrative of the tourist's life. This goes a long way in explaining the generic nature of the resulting images; if the value of these photographs lies in their being part of an autobiographical narrative, there is little need for semiotic subversion or formal innovation. While this shifts the emphasis away from Flusser's concern with the meaning of agency in the age of the apparatus, his focus on the technological opacity of the photographic procedure may serve as a corrective for the idealizing tenets of Barthes' program: the camera is not innocent, and rather than passively recording reality, it actively contributes to its constitution. Our holiday snaps are not simply the willfully produced results of a transparent photographic activity. Style as well as subject matter are in part directed by the camera's program, and this program always exceeds our grasp.

Homi Bhabha wrote that “An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of 'fixity' in the ideological construction of otherness” (Bhabha 1994:66). The inherent fixity of the photographic image urges us to think a photographic politics in post-colonial spaces that is not complicit with the ahistorical fixity of colonial representations, to prevent photography from freezing what it photographs in time and denying our ethnic other his/her own history. While sociology, anthropology and the study of intercultural communication all offer useful frameworks for understanding the political implications of mass tourism in developing regions, it is essential not to neglect the potential reproduction of colonial stereotypes through photography and the effects of the intrusion of a photographic apparatus on tourist/touree interactions. Considering the large financial, demographic and cultural relevance of tourism in the contemporary world, the mobilization of various research methods in the study of tourist photography can be an effective way to further our understanding of the structural organization and global consequences of the tourist gaze.


Dennis Schep (born in the Netherlands in 1985) holds two MA degrees; one in post-structuralist philosophy from the European Graduate School in Switzerland, and one in Intercultural Communication Studies from the European University Viadrina in Germany. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Literary Studies at the Free University of Berlin, where he is writing his dissertation on autobiographical fragments in theoretical texts. He is the author of Drugs: Rhetoric of Fantasy, Addiction to Truth (Atropos Press, 2011), which examines contemporary drug discourse in relation to the suppression of irrationality in the age of reason. Other research interests include ghosts, metaphor, photography, and the relations between science and literature.


1. Robinson and Picard 2009, p. 9. It should be noted that the use of social networking websites like Facebook, Flickr and Picasa for the storage and distribution of photographs may facilitate new types of empirical research in the future.

2. “The illiteracy of the future will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography” (Benjamin 1999:527). Although I generally prefer to quote from published translations, the available translations of Benjamin's work are of such a poor quality that where possible I will refer to the original German texts in the body of my text, supplementing these passages with an authorized translation in the footnotes.

3. Benjamin 2003, p. 64. He presented this prediction as a quotation, without, however, disclosing its source. It is not impossible that, in fact, it is not a quotation; on more than one occasion Benjamin presented his own words as the words of someone else.

4. Urry 2002.

5. Barthes 1972, p. 76.

6. Barthes 1972, pp. 107-113.

7. Barthes 2000, p. 5.

8. Barthes 2000, p. 77.

9. Barthes 2000, p. 88.

10. Barthes 2000, p. 43.

11. Barthes 2000, p. 80.

12. Hutnyk 1996, p. 145, cited in Robinson and Picard 2009, p. 1; see also Meethan 2001, p. 84 and Urry 2002, p. 127.

13. Flusser 2003, p. 8.

14. Flusser 1986, pp. 329-332. The advent of Photoshop has underlined the deceptive nature of photography; yet Flusser locates the productive capacities of photography in the camera itself at the expense of the indexicality foregrounded since Talbot.

15. Flusser 2000, p. 27.

16. Sontag 2005, p. 145.

17. Carpenter 1973, p. 185.

18. Derrida 2010, p. 6.

19. Sontag 2005, p. 7. In a similar vein, Benjamin speaks of the amateur photographer as a “Jäger” (hunter) returning home with his “Kamerabeute” (camera spoils). Benjamin 2003, p. 60.

20. Cited by Yeh in Robinson and Picard 2009, p. 205. It is more than likely that the rise of digital photography (predicted by Flusser in 1980) has further emancipated the photographic program from the intentions of its functionaries. The ease of taking pictures has always provided us with an incentive for clicking away; but now, unrestricted by the limited number of exposures of traditional photographic film cartridges, we easily resort to the “'machine-gun' approach to photography” (Ansel Adams, cited in Sontag 2005, p. 91), taking many pictures and hoping one of them comes out right.

21. Pocock in Robinson and Picard 2009, p. 195.

22. Haldrup and Larsen 2003, p. 42.

23. Urry 2002, p. 3.

24. Robinson and Picard 2009, p. 8.

25. The correct translation of the title of Benjamin's essay would be “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” – not “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as it is usually translated.

26. Benjamin 2003, p. 15. “...the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it [the natural object] may be” Benjamin 2007, p. 222. I personally think the use of the term “phenomenon” in this authorized translation is misleading; the aura of the object appears irreducibly distant, but “phenomenon of a distance” implies a substantive distance that can be conceptually separated from the aura-endowed object.

27. Benjamin 2003, p. 15; emphasis in original. “...the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction”. Benjamin 2007, p. 223.

28. Benjamin 2003, p. 25.

29. Benjamin 2006, p. 58. It is tempting to think the political events separating these two texts changed Benjamin's ideas, and allowed him to write in the 1936 essay that “Im flüchtigen Ausdruck eines Menschengesichts winkt aus den frühen Photographien die Aura zum letzten Mal” (Benjamin 2003:21) (“For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face” (Benjamin 2007:226)), the aura being henceforth concealed under the photograph's “Ausstellungswert” (exhibition value) – the elusive distance of the aura denied in an obscene kind of total visibility.

30. Benjamin 2006, p. 58.

31. Benjamin 2003, p. 13. “...that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” Benjamin 2007, p. 221.

32. Benjamin 2003, p. 25.

33. Benjamin 2003, p. 28.

34. Sontag 2005, p. 65. According to Hubertus von Amelunxen, he used the term skiagraph (shadow-writing) to refer to the photographic negative, which he also invented. Derrida 2010, p. 1.

35. Sontag 2005, p. 65; Barthes 2000, p. 34.

36. Urry 2002, p. 45.


Roland Barthes 1972 , Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York.

Roland Barthes 2000 (orig. 1980), Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, London.

Walter Benjamin 1999 (orig. 1931), ‘Little History of Photography’, in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, pp. 508-530. Cambridge and London.

Walter Benjamin 2003 (orig. 1936), Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Drei Studien zur Kunstsoziologie. Frankfurt am Main.

Walter Benjamin 2006 (orig. 1930), On Hashish, edited by Howard Eiland, translated by Howard Eiland and others. Cambridge and London.

Walter Benjamin 2007 (orig. 1936), ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ in Hannah Arendt, Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, pp. 217-252. New York: Schocken Books,.

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