Photography as a Mass Medium Essay


Photography is an important part of modern life. Besides revolutionizing how we understand our society, SCP (2) says this type of art has immense power in influencing human communication. This is why photography appears in many human disciplines, such as astronomy, biology, medicine, and industrial quality management (among others). Based on its importance to human life, photography has rivaled many types of mass communication methods. However, historically, people have not perceived the art as a form of mass communication.

This paper seeks to change this perception by portraying photography as a mass medium. To demonstrate this fact, the study explores the works of Sontag (4) in her article titled, On Photography, and shows how digital photography changes her analysis about the “photographic way of seeing” life. However, before delving into the details of this paper, it is, first, important to understand the arguments of Sontag (5) about photography.

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The Arguments of Sontag (5)

“Photographic” Way of Seeing

Sontag (12) said that one consequence of photography is its equalization of the meanings of photography. This view informed her unique perspective of photography, which suggests that the practice has led to deteriorating human relationships. To support this assertion, she said, “The presence and authority of the photographic Image in the lives of everyone today has destroyed, a more natural, compassionate, knowing civilization than ours has become” (Vaczek 760). Using this argument, she said because people have photographed almost all aspects of life, societies have lost their right to determine what they want to view.

For example, she says that photography has made people indifferent to human suffering and violence (Vaczek 760). Using the same logic, she says, children are increasingly gaining exposure to materials that are inappropriate for their age. She believes that the “lost” right to determine what we should view alters our perceptions of what is “right” and “wrong.” Moreover, it distorts our perception of reality by limiting our assessment of knowledge and history (Vaczek 760).

Heroism of Vision

Sontag (51) said that photography was initially a good thing because it could capture beautiful moments. However, it lost its meaning when people discovered its ability to distort reality (to promote aesthetic values) (Vaczek 762). Therefore, she believes that instead of showing people good things about the society, photography started to represent images, as they are (bad).

In her view, this transition created a casual attitude regarding what surrounds us. She also said this perception eroded the value of photography because it made “bad” images seem “normal.” Sontag (55) says this is a wrong approach of representing the society because photography needs a “shock element.” “Normalizing” adverse events negated this fact. According to her, this was the only way photography would remain relevant (Vaczek 762).

The Image World

Besides the heroism of vision, Sontag (19) also believed that society greatly depended on images to explain its issues (Vaczek 762). She said this shift undermined the social bonds that underlie human relationships (Vaczek 763). In this regard, she believed that photography had become a “primitive” way of “consuming” images. For example, she used this logic to explain how China had used photography to spread propaganda (Vaczek 764). Overall, these insights show how Sontag (56) believed photography negated the gains of positive mass communication. Digital photography has since changed most of these arguments.

History of Digital Photography

Digital photography has only been around for a few years. However, the technology that birthed it has been around for more than three decades. The earliest forms of digital photography came from the inventors of digital cameras – George Smith and Willard Boyle (Brooke 3). They are among the first people to produce images that had enough clarity for broadcasting (people knew these cameras as charge-coupled devices). Today, these devices have many uses, including digital scanning and desktop video conferencing (among others).

In 1981, Sony Corporation developed the first digital photographs through their magnetic video cameras, which allowed photographers to store digital photographs in floppy disk drives. Since then, Nikon and Canon have developed the technology and produced new cameras that take high quality digital pictures with high megapixels (Brooke 3).

However, before these gadgets flooded the market, many photographers sought their inspiration from paintings. Oscar G. Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson (cited in SCP 6) were among the first people to use photographic attributes of the painting era in the digital period. At the same time, photographers also introduced their unique personal styles in their works by advancing detailed theories of photographic aesthetics. Such influences were dominant among the 19th century art photographers. Nonetheless, this period heralded a time when photography took a mass-market appeal (SCP 6).

Social Networking of Photographs

SCP (5) says the perception of photography as a type of mass media is an old concept. For example, middle-age photographers considered their photographic materials as a form of mass media. The photographers often took pictures and produced them to appeal to a specific societal need. This way, they also hoped to profit from their work (commercialization).

The transition of photography to mass communication came when small and independent photographers started working for big publishing companies. Particularly, the Kodak era started the move towards mass-market photography (SCP 6). George Eastman (cited in SCP 6) started this movement when he introduced his first Kodak camera in the late 1880s. He is also the first person to have introduced the infamous slogan, “You push the button and we do the rest.” During this time, many photographers were exploring the potential of digital photography by pushing its limits and adding creativity to their products.

Before digital photography emerged, people used print media to communicate. The greatest challenge for this type of photography was the delay time for taking images and the associated costs of relaying these images to the audience. Digital photography changed this situation by eliminating these barriers. For example, it allowed content developers to produce (edit) images using their home computers, as opposed to buying sophisticated and technical equipment to do so (as was the case in the past).

Internet penetration further made it possible for people to use digital photography as a form of mass communication. Today, many online photo-sharing platforms, such as Instagram, support digital photography as a type of mass communication. This understanding prompted Giaccardi (167) to say, “Digital photography is a mass phenomenon, especially because it ties to online photo sharing methods.”

How Digital Photography has Transitioned into a Mass Communication Medium

Easy Distribution of Information through the Internet and Self-Reporting

Unlike conventional types of photography, Giaccardi (167) says the distinctive attribute about digital photography is openness. Stated differently, it has created new opportunities for consumer-led communication (crowd sourcing). Therefore, digital photography has significantly shifted the power of communication from traditional information providers to any person who has a camera phone, or a digital camera.

Consequently, people can tell their stories from wherever they are and project them to a global audience, through the internet. Since anybody can participate in global information sharing, digital photography has opened a new phase of mass communication that transcends geographical and technical barriers of information production (that limited traditional forms of communication).

Mass Audience

Digital photo-sharing platforms have expanded the market for photography. This attribute has amplified the modernist conflation of individual freedoms, such as market liberalization and competition. Minority interests have exploited this opportunity by voicing their issues through digital photography and online platforms (Giaccardi 167).

Consequently, digital photographs can spread across the world, in minutes. For example, an international photographer took a recent photograph of America’s President, Barrack Obama, UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Nelson Mandela’s burial, in South Africa, which circulated across global media in a few hours. Its ability to affect global audiences within a short time shows the power of digital photography as a mass media tool.

Counter Argument

Limited Audience

Most of the arguments proposed by proponents of photography, as a type of mass medium, say the number of contacts a person has limits the virtual distribution of photographs (Giaccardi 167). For example, popular online communication platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have features that allow online access to a specific group of people.

Therefore, although Facebook has more than a billion users, someone can only communicate with a few hundred (or thousand) people that they know. This communication platform is different from traditional mass communication platforms, such as radio and television, which can reach millions of people, regardless of the number of friends one has.

Digital Photography Does not match the Characteristics of Mass Communication

According to John Thompson (a scholar at Cambridge University), mass communication should have technical and institutional methods of production, involve commoditization of symbolic forms, separate contexts between production and reception of information, reach people who are far removed in space and time, and disseminate products to a great quantity of audiences.

Digital photography meets many of the above criteria (Giaccardi 167). For example, through virtual platforms, digital photography can disseminate products to a large audience. However, it does not (necessarily) involve technical and institutional methods of production, as Thompson demands. Similarly, it does not (always) separate contexts between the production and information reception processes. Some critics have used these failures to argue that photography is not a type of mass medium (Giaccardi 167).


Digital photography has changed how people communicate in the modern world. Technological development and internet proliferation have greatly increased the speed and access to digital photographs. Virtual communication platforms have further made it easier for photographers to share their products to a mass audience and communicate important messages that advance their cause. Sontag (5) argued that photography distorted our perceptions of reality and created indifferences towards human plights around the world.

Comparatively, this paper argues that digital photography has changed the dynamics of photography by making it easier for people to share their experiences, messages, and concerns regarding several political, economic, and global issues. This attribute has increased connectivity among human societies. Although the internet has contributed to this phenomenon, by providing a virtual communication platform, it would be difficult to reach mass audiences without digital photography.

Moreover, since digital photography gives people the power to self-publish, it is untenable to say that photography distorts our perception of reality if the communication is outward-in and not inward-out (people use their creativity to influence reality through digital photography). Therefore, this form of art has evolved and now stands out as a mass communication medium.

Works Cited

Brooke, Bob. The Brief History of Digital Photography. 2 February. 2014.

Giaccardi, Elisa. Heritage and Social Media: Understanding Heritage In A Participatory Culture, London, UK: Routledge, 2012. Print.

SCP. History – What is Photography? 2013.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography, New York, NY: Picador, 1977. Print.

Vaczek, Louis. “On Photography by Susan Sontag.” Technology and Culture 19.4 (1978): 760-762. Print.

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