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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Something missing from screensaver slide show images

There’s been a recent proliferation of image galleries used as screen saver slide shows on the likes of Microsoft Windows and Amazon Prime. The production standard is extremely high, post-production manipulation subtle and the end result always super-pleasing to the eye.

But one thing is missing, I have gradually come to realise: people.

The natural world features heavily; animals often make an appearance; the human built environment is also well represented, whether soaring cities, ancient stone bridges or bobbing quayside boats. So, it’s not as if humankind is missing entirely and the images solely form a nature gallery, but that’s clearly not the whole story.

Since this started to become a preoccupation of mine, I’ve kept half an eye on the progression of images as presented. I think I’ve noticed one or two in which people appear distantly and indistinctly, but they are rare and always incidental to the rest of the subject.

I idly wonder why this might be.

An obvious reason might be something around publication rights for people framed in such images, although I don’t see an intrinsic difference compared to newspaper and magazine use of photographs including plenty of anonymous but identifiable people as a matter of course.

Another reason might be the fraught one of quantitative representation, that is, ensuring that there is fair inclusion of every flavour of humankind in all its variety. It’s a commonplace that every outlet, whether media organisation or corporate entity, has to take great care to ensure even visual treatment according to a set of prevailing conventions.

A third reason, it strikes me, might be the even more fraught one of how individuals and groups are represented. The risks of inadvertent stereotyping, whether conscious or not, are high, and risks to reputation higher. I imagine, if anything, this is likely to be a dominant reason for the aversion to featuring people in these rolling images.

I recall a cinema advert from many years ago that depicts a chase through urban streets. The two people represented, using rapid cuts and varied angles, are a uniformed policeman and a young man in casual clothes. The impression given is of a chase to catch the criminal. The policeman is gaining … will the suspect be apprehended? Then the voiceover informs the viewer that both of the running figures are police, the second in plain clothes, and that the person being pursued is not in view. That second figure was what these days is often referred to as black and minority ethnic (BAME), and the whole point of the short film was to challenge stereotyped images, very powerfully in this case.

A second, personal, example comes to mind. I have a cousin most of whose career has been spent working with non-governmental organisations in Africa, principally on public healthcare works. She is also a talented amateur artist and on one visit passing through London presented us with a largeish portrait of one of the people she had just been working with who is pictured with a large container of bowls on her head in the manner of someone headed to the local water source for washing of cooking implements and/or replenishment of clean water. We felt honoured that the cousin should bequeath this image to us and it is framed and hung on our wall. My cousin told us of the closeness of their friendship and that the subject had been delighted to be depicted in this way.

In the nature of things, discussion about visual subjects on display doesn’t often come up, but on one occasion a guest made a comment about this particular depiction and the risk of its coming across as objectification and potentially exploitative. I have to admit that, having known the context and origin of the image, it never occurred to me until then that it might be seen in this way and the intervention did spark some comment and debate in the family afterwards. It was certainly an eye-opening moment for me of how important subjective perceptions might be, especially when light on context and origination. Short of displaying explanatory captions and turning the house into an art gallery (which it very much is not), we recognised that we might need on occasion to be ready with explanation if required.

Back to the original subject of this blog, I am not sure whether this leads to a fourth distinct reason for being wary of using people in a screenshot or a development of the third reason I listed earlier, but there is certainly a greater realisation and awareness these days that the relationship between image creator and subject represents an asymmetric exercise of power, with commensurate responsibility on the part of the former, including that of explanation of context to subsequent users of the image.

I think awareness of such a dynamic and its associated responsibility is a very good thing in general and my own awareness has been quite significantly changed as a result of that guest’s comment.

However, if the end result is the avoidance of depicting people entirely in public imagery, I think that carries a different type of risk, that of a tacit, passive misanthropy, a preference to avoid people entirely because it is just too complicated to include them. The outcome would then be a subliminal message not very different to an ethnographic museum that concentrates solely on artifacts and not on the people who give rise to them. Like an abandoned planet visited by adventurous aliens who would speculate on what life forms gave rise to what has been found and why they are no longer present.

Of course, I only see the images on devices and platforms I use and have no idea whether it is indeed a general trend to exhibit implicit misanthropy – I would be happy to be put right if not, and welcome others’ views on the subject.

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