Fotograf Magazine

Virtual Panopticon: False Mirrors of Social Media

Contemporary technologies have changed our perception of public and private space. The virtual environment and online platforms disrupted the principle, which until recently has been materialized by architecture, where the interior is perceived as a space for privacy and the exterior for relations with the surrounding world. Since Facebook was introduced in 2004, YouTube a year later and Instagram in 2010, there has been a shift in the paradigm of human behaviour. The publication Public, Private, Secret: On Photography and The Configuration of Self by curator Charlotte Cotton accompanies the eponymous exhibition, which in June 2016 inaugurated the new museum space of the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York. Both the book and the show reflect on how photography and other image media appear on virtual platforms and how they subsequently influence our identity and behaviour – online and offline – as well as the line between our private and public lives.

Charlotte Cotton’s book presents a mostly North American perspective of this global phenomenon. In collaboration with other authors and artists, Cotton focuses on a current topic of how personal usage of social media, corporate and state monitoring as well as image and communication technologies affect our identity. Her introductory essay notes the paradox of our vocal demand for our right to the protection of personal data while we willingly expose ourselves on social media. In the words of Marisa Olson, it is “a tug of war between a desire to expose and a desire to be protected”.

Our private lives are perpetually thrown into the infinite processor of metadata owned by corporations, which collect our data and use them for their own profit. The borderline between sharing and surveillance is blurred in the times of global capitalism. Privacy becomes public, and public information is a secret for subsequent manipulation by corporations. Dan Bustillo asks in his text whether we are living in the age of colonialism of global telecommunication. Jon Rafman explains that “the idea of Google as a ‘neutral’ corporation is deceptive; Silicon Valley controls how data are gathered, organized, and consumed online. Google, like the internet as a whole, is both revolutionary and totalitarian”.

The monopoly of data handling is happening together with the homogenization of behaviour and desires. David A. Banks discusses the theory of the sociologists Jaber F. Gubrium and James Holstein, which describes the self not as a static identity, but rather as a story that changes according to its environment and audience. Therefore, the virtual world is a platform for performance, as our behaviour on social sites can be understood as rituals in a “post-individual” culture. Furthermore, from the point of view of corporations, our data become algorithms, and technologies turn our identity into something quantifiable. Also, from the viewpoint of a consumer, for example, memes and GIFs similarly translate meanings and emotions into easily accessible and digestible shortcuts.

The publication along with the exhibition represents a critical and creative approach by artists and theoreticians towards images and digital technologies. Their practices contribute to a reflection on the function, meaning and effect of these technologies. As part of the Experiment in Art and Technology (EAT) organisation founded by Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Burson collaborated with experts on computer graphics and then at MIT’s Media Lab continued to establish the method of facial morphing, which gradually evolved into a scientific tool that enabled Burson to help the FBI in their search for missing persons. The ICP also launched the educative program New Media Narratives, where students experiment with old and new media and interactive platforms to look for opportunities of engaging with pressing social questions and making them visible.

Public, Private, Secret warns against the uncertain border between public and private spheres of today’s virtual lives and critiques the problematic nature of images and visibility. At the same time, the project emphasizes the qualities of photographic art that is able to support our search for new ways of creating empathy between the spectator and their depicted environment as well as the formation of a relationship with their own identity and sense of autonomy.


Cotton, Charlotte. Public, Private, Secret: -On Photography and The Configuration of Self. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation, 2018. ISBN 978-1597114387.

Adéla Janíčková