Capturing the End of the World

This is an introduction to Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017)

Figure 1. Screengrabs from the Earth Vision Institute’s time-lapse video of the receding Columbia Glacier in Alaska, 2007-2014.

Figure 1. Screengrabs from the Earth Vision Institute’s time-lapse video of the receding Columbia Glacier in Alaska, 2007-2014.

At the very beginning of the twenty-first century a professional photographer with an interest in environmental issues named James Balog decided to record glacier retreat, a phenomenon that is considered the most visible indicator of climate change in the world today (figure 1). To realize his project, Balog invested in a number of Nikon DSLR cameras, which he subsequently customized with microcomputers to enable them to capture images over a period of several years, in different weather conditions. The cameras were then installed in high-resistance cases and soldered onto rocks. Exposed to extremely harsh weather in Iceland, Alaska, and the Arctic, these cameras recorded, for years on end, the transformations of the geo- and hydrosphere. Upon retrieving them, Balog uploaded the data from the cameras’ memory cards onto his computer, and then edited the still images into time-lapse videos that illustrated the progressive ice loss from glaciers. Subsequently developed into the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary, Chasing Ice (2012), the project has been promoted worldwide via a series of events under the umbrella of “the Anthropocene”: i.e., the present time interval, going back to at least the Industrial Revolution, in which the human has been recognized as a geological agent that has had irreversible impact upon the Earth.1 The project has also served as a driver for the activities of the Earth Vision Institute, a donor-funded organization headed by Balog whose goal is to help global citizens see the impact of environmental change and envisage a better tomorrow.

The above anecdote encapsulates all of the key concerns of Nonhuman Photography. On the one hand, the production process involved in shooting the multi-year collection of images of glaciers from high vantage points in extreme weather conditions signals that today, in the age of CCTV, drone media, medical body scans, and satellite imaging, photography is increasingly decoupled from human agency and human vision. Yet I will also argue throughout the book that even those images that are produced by the human, whether artist or amateur, entail a nonhuman, mechanical element. By this I mean that these images involve the execution of technical and cultural algorithms that shape our image-making devices as well as our viewing practices. On the other hand, the glacier project demonstrates how photography is increasingly mobilized to document and illustrate the precariousness of the human habitat, and also how—through advertising, campaign posters, and Instagram—it is tasked with helping us imagine a better tomorrow and a better life for ourselves. In its conjoined human-nonhuman agency and vision, photography thus functions as both a form of control and a life-shaping force.

All-encompassing in the workings of traffic control cameras, smart phones, and Google Earth, photography can therefore be described as a technology of life: it not only represents life but also shapes and regulates it—while also documenting or even envisioning its demise. Thanks to the proliferation of digital and portable media as well as broadband connectivity, photography has become pervasive and ubiquitous: we could go so far as to say that our very sense of existence is now shaped by it. In the words of Susan Sontag, “To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions.”2 This altered role and agency of the photographic medium calls for a new understanding of photography, I suggest, beyond its traditional humanist frameworks and perceptions. Nonhuman Photography analyzes this new ontological—and political—conjuncture, as well as possible ways of negotiating it, while also refusing to submit to the conventional “human vs. machine” narrative. Through this, it outlines a posthumanist philosophy of photography, anchored in the sensibility of what has become known as “the nonhuman turn.”

There are good reasons that a new conceptual framework for understanding photography as part of a wider media context may be needed. Even though photography has become embedded in our everyday lives on so many different levels, the traditional scholarly and curatorial way of discussing this medium still maintains a relatively narrow set of humanist and human-centric frameworks and discourses on the topic: photography as art or photography as social practice. The first framework is rooted in the methodology of art history, and is encapsulated by numerous histories of photography, typically narrated as stories of the evolution of the medium featuring those rare singular actors identified as “artists.”3 In the art-historical view, photographs are positioned as discrete objects that yield themselves to being framed and displayed, individually or in series, on flat surfaces in galleries and other cultural institutions. They are then analyzed in aesthetic, semiotic, and economic terms, for example, in terms of how they affect us, what they mean, and what their value is. The second framework through which photography tends to be interpreted is sociological. It offers a contextual perspective that studies not so much how people take and make photographs, but rather what they do with photographs: how they store images in family albums, how they join camera clubs, how “professionals” differ from “amateurs,” how they all contribute to the emergence of “popular taste” about photography.4 New ethnographies of the digital which are cognizant of the multiplicity of photographic practices that transcend their visual aspect to embrace phatic communication, narrative orality, and sensory-tactile experience very much inscribe themselves in this trend.5 The area of photography as professional practice—mainly in the documentary and photojournalistic tradition, but also in fashion and advertising—falls in-between these two traditional frameworks, with the market once again acting as an adjudicator of appropriate categorization.6

Nonhuman Photography adopts a different, and arguably more complex and more multi-faceted, perspective in its treatment of photography: that of posthumanist media theory. By this I mean a media-theoretical framework that combines insights from media, communications, and cultural studies with those of continental philosophy and cultural theory, while also raising questions about the human subject as the anchor and main reference point of analysis. In other words, my book positions photography first and foremost as a medium, one that is subject to dynamic and ongoing processes of mediation—only some of which involve humans. Treating photography as a set of processes rather than just objects, it draws on theories of mediation, media ecology, and posthumanism with a view to overcoming the entrenched humanism of the traditional debates on the medium so far. Written by a theorist-practitioner, Nonhuman Photography incorporates my various photographic projects as accompaniments to (rather than just illustrations of) the argument, in order to stage a different mode of thinking about and with media, one that involves the simultaneous production of media. Writers, students, media practitioners, and artists attempting to both theorize things and make things will hopefully find in it a number of pointers and openings toward a wider debate on how to do and make media (studies) today. The book also has a companion website that allows readers to see, in color, movement, and high resolution, many of the image-based projects discussed here:

Exploring the nonhuman aspects of photography while also building on the work of media theory, including theories of media ecology (John Durham Peters, Vilém Flusser, Siegfried Zielinski), posthumanist philosophy (Karen Barad, Henri Bergson, Claire Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold), and traditional photography theory (Roland Barthes, Geoffrey Batchen, André Bazin, Joan Fontcuberta, Michael Fried, John Tagg), Nonhuman Photography ultimately aims to sketch out a conceptual framework for understanding image-based media, visuality, and perception. Through this framework, it challenges the typical orientation of photography theory toward indexicality, representation, and the preservation of memory traces. It also shifts attention to the non-representational acts of photographic creation. Moving away from typical associations between photography, mourning, and death (as found in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, for example), the book positions photography as a formative practice of life. Although its method is not faithfully or perhaps even recognizably “Deleuzian,” Nonhuman Photography aims to do for photography what Deleuze and Guattari did for cinema, in terms of acknowledging photography’s ontological force and its significance as a life-shaping medium. Its argument is therefore intended to be both affirmative and critical: in analyzing “nonhuman photography” as a cultural condition in which visual enhancement, algorithmic logic, and mediated perception enable different modes of visuality and self-identification, it also raises ethico-political questions about the camera eye’s inhumane or even anti-human interventions. To sum up, the goal of this book is thus to expand the human-centric concept of photography by embracing imaging practices from which the human is absent—as its subject, agent, or addressee. The notion of “nonhuman photography” proposed here encapsulates three different yet interconnected conceptual planes:

(1) the rather frequently encountered yet often uncanny-looking photographs that are not of the human (depopulated expansive landscapes, say);

(2) photographs that are not by the human (contemporary high-tech images produced by traffic control cameras, microphotography, and Google Street View, but also outcomes of deep-time “impressioning” processes, such as fossils);

(3) photographs that are not for the human (from QR codes and other algorithmic modes of machine communication that rely on photographic technology through to perhaps still rather cryptic-sounding photography “after the human”).

The link that I posit between photography and the Anthropocene—and, more broadly, between photography, biology, and geology—highlights the interweaving of the matter (and materiality) of chemistry, minerals, fossil fuels, and the sun, but also of us humans, with this particular medium. In his introduction to The Nonhuman Turn, Richard Grusin identifies this eponymous “turn” with a decentering of the human as the datum point of the humanities, and with a shift of attention toward questions concerning our human engagement—as well as material entanglement—with nonhuman entities and issues: “from climate change, drought, and famine; to biology, intellectual property, and privacy; to genocide, terrorism, and war.”7 In a similar vein, Elisabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse have recently postulated something called “the geological turn.”8 By this they mean an increasingly widespread turn toward the geologic that explains and inspires cultural responses to conditions of the present moment. All these authors intimate that the recognition of the vital role played by nonhuman agents in the life of our planetary system needs to shape our understanding of the radical changes brought on by the modern way of life.

What are these changes? As Elizabeth Kolbert has explained in her well-known article in National Geographic titled “Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man,” “Probably the most significant change, from a geological perspective, is one that’s invisible to us—the change in the composition of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions are colorless, odorless, and in an immediate sense harmless. But their warming effects could easily push global temperatures to levels that have not been seen for millions of years.”9 We could thus say that there is something in the air at the moment—and this something is a mixture of cosmic dust and human-induced pollution. In other words, the Anthropocene describes the changing condition of photography and photomedia because it becomes visible to us through altered light—and through the particulate matter that is reflected in it. But the Anthropocene also serves as an articulator of a new crisis: a crisis of life itself, both as a biological and social phenomenon. Yet, while scientists are still debating whether the designation of a new epoch is justified, the Anthropocene has already been renamed by cultural and political theorists as the Anthrobscene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Eurocene, Plantationocene, and Technocene, with questions being raised about the viability of its underpinning structure that “does not exist outside structures of mourning.”10 So even though we are not anywhere near solving the climate issues, in humanities debates we already find ourselves post-Anthropocene.11 Yet, problematic as the term now is, it may be worth staying in its shadow a little longer, for political and ethical reasons. Mindful of these problems, we should therefore perhaps figure the Anthropocene first and foremost “as a critical zone rather than one grand evil mess that includes all of humanity.”12

One of the main reasons I propose to link the light of photography and the shadow of the Anthropocene is that, as demonstrated by the opening anecdote of the photographing of a receding glacier, many responses to the planetary crisis signaled by the term “Anthropocene” have been visual. In addition to science-led projects such as Balog’s, we can also mention here large-scale art photographs of the damaged environment by Andreas Gursky or Edward Burtynsky, the critical photographic project The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, or the many visual works included in Grain Vapor Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene published by the MIT Press in 2015. I will indeed discuss many of these representations and visualizations of climate change and ecological disasters via the trope of “posthuman landscapes.” But I also aim to expand this “representationalist” approach to suggest that the concept of “nonhuman photography” can help us see and understand, in a new way, both the photographic medium and ourselves as partly constituted by this medium.13

My claim about photography’s vital importance in the age of a global crisis of life at various levels thus constitutes the book’s philosophical axis. As I stated earlier, photography is a formative practice of life not only because it represents our lives in various ways but also because it actually shapes life. It does so through images but also through various kinds of material impressions it activates—and also through the forms of perception it generates. In a philosophical gesture akin to the one made by Siegfried Zielinski in Deep Time of the Media, my argument here expands the notion of photography beyond “things that humans do with cameras” to embrace imaging processes from which the human is absent—microphotography, space photography, drone-mounted cameras. Yet, by way of a conceptual experiment, I also want to take a step further to read human cultural practices as only one section of longer-term processes occurring across “naturecultures.” This will allow us to see photography as occurring precisely across what Zielinski calls “deep time,” as forms of stabilized perception and impression that occur across various media, such as stone, clay, wax, or even skin in tanning—and to consider photographs in terms of fossils. The recognition of the formative role of light across different time periods (in fossils, imprints, photograms, analogue film frames, digital snapshots) will also help us shift the debate on photography beyond the analogue-digital binary. For me, it is this moment of temporary stabilization which signals a cut in time that differentiates photography from moving media, such as film or video—and that, notwithstanding its kinship with other photomedia, points to photography’s ontological singularity.

There are some interesting predecessors to this nonhuman mode of thinking in media, communications, and cultural studies: for example, in the work of Canadian scholar Harold Innis, which reads railroads and trade routes as part of the wider communications system.14 We could also look to Welshman Raymond Williams’ linking of culture to the transformation of substance at the biological level, beyond the control or even influence of the human.15 Last but not least, communications scholar John Durham Peters’ 2015 book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, argues that “media theory is about environments and infrastructures as much as about messages and content” and that we need “to think of the media as environmental, as part of the habitat.”16 But the interdisciplinary conjuncture of media, communications, and cultural studies can also remind us why it makes sense for embodied humans of the early twenty-first century to zoom in on this sliver of geological unfolding we call “history” to try to make sense of it, using the conceptual and material tools at our disposal. It can therefore help us recalibrate the human in relation to the geological scales, without losing sight of the significance of that narrow stretch of temporality we call “culture”—and of how we have arrived at it. Indeed, it is the question of seeing—and unseeing—things we take for granted that the interdisciplinary conjuncture of media, communications, and cultural studies has the correct apparatus to address, which is why it provides a useful rejoinder to philosophical, art-historical, and sociological frameworks that deal with images and viewpoints. This attempt to “unsee” the seemingly obvious is precisely what I aim to achieve in Nonhuman Photography, by offering the notion of “nonhuman vision” as an alternative vantage point from which to understand ourselves and what we humans have called “the world,” in all its nonhuman entanglements. With this, the book responds to Nicholas Mirzoeff’s injunction to “recognize how deeply embedded in our very sensorium and modern ways of seeing the Anthropocene-aesthetic-capitalist complex of modern visuality has become.”17

And thus chapter 1, “Nonhuman Vision,” poses a challenge to the traditional tenets of the self-focused, capital- and fossil-fueled, masculinist I, who is supposedly in control of his own vision and (world)view. It also explores the possibility of developing some better modes of seeing and imagining both the present and the future. Drawing on the work of Donna Haraway, Vilém Flusser, and James Gibson, it outlines an ecological model of perception as a more embodied, immersive, and entangled form of image- and world-formation. This model opens up a passageway to being-with, and thus offers a promise of a better ethics and a more responsible politics. It does this by exploring the revolutionary potential of the photographic medium at a time when, for many, photography has become synonymous with image deluge, banality, and narcissism. The chapter is followed by images from my project, Active Perceptual Systems.

Chapter 2, “The Creative Power of Nonhuman Photography,” continues with the argument that nonhuman photography does not just mean photos taken by agents that are not human, such as CCTV cameras, body scanners, or space satellites, and posits that all photography is to some extent nonhuman. While this nonhuman aspect of photography can no doubt produce inhumane practices, I also suggest that it is precisely in its nonhuman aspect that photography’s creative, or world-making, side can be identified. Rather than therefore contribute to recent jeremiads about photography, in which it is being seen as supposedly dying in the digital era because it is no longer authentic or material enough, or imploding due to its excessiveness and banality as evidenced on Instagram and in the much maligned selfie phenomenon, I argue that it is precisely through focusing on its nonhuman aspect that we can find life in photography.

It is the existence of images, and, in particular, light-induced mechanical images known as photographs, after the human that is the main focus of chapter 3. The “after the human” designation references the present imagining of this disappearance of the human world as a prominent visual trope in art and other cultural practices. Such “ruin porn” has some historical antecedents: from the sublime romantic landscapes of ruined abbeys, all the way through to paintings such as Rotunda by Joseph Gandy, commissioned by John Soane, the architect of the Bank of England, and depicting the aforesaid bank as a ruin even before it was built. Yet the visualization of ruins has gained a new inflection in the Anthropocene, a period that is said to be suffering from a dual "eco-eco" crisis: the current global economic crisis and the impending—and irreversible—ecological crisis. We can think here of the haunting images of Detroit but also of TV series imagining our demise as a species, such as History channel’s Life after People. Extending the temporal scale beyond that of human history by introducing the horizon of extinction will allow me to denaturalize our political and aesthetic frameworks through which we humans understand ourselves. It will also help me take some steps toward visualizing a post-neoliberal world here and now.

In chapter 4, “Photography and Extinction,” the horizon of extinction serves as a reference point against which I aim to think the ontology of photography and its agency: what photography can do with and to the world, what it can cast light on, and what the role of this light (or, more broadly, light as such seen through the photographic lens) is in approaching questions of life and death on a planetary scale. Considering the history of photography as part of the broader nature-cultural history of our planet, I trace parallels between photographs and fossils, and propose to understand photography as a light-induced process of fossilization occurring across different media. Photography thus can be said to bear a material record of life rather than just its memory trace. But I also turn to photography’s original reliance on the natural light emanating from the sun to explore what photographic practice can tell us about energy sources, and about our relation to the star that nourishes our planet. I do this via an engagement with photographers who have consciously adopted the horizon of extinction as their workspace—from the nineteenth-century geologist-photographer William Jerome Harrison through to contemporary artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto. I also look at practices in which the work of the sun has been taken on as both a topic and a medium, including the post-digital work of Penelope Umbrico.

Chapter 5, “Ecomedia between Extinction and Obsolescence,” builds a link between geological and technical perspectives on media by developing parallels between biological extinction and technical obsolescence. It addresses the current transformations in our media landscape, whereby many objects traditionally considered stable or fixed—photographs, imaging systems, technological networks—are radically changing both their identity and their visibility. In this context, the photographic image is seen as existing in a dynamic set of entangled media relations, and hence as a process rather than as a discrete object. This rethinking of photography in more dynamic and processual terms leads to a broader discussion of producing, curating, studying, and looking at images in the currently transforming media landscape—but also of the constantly updated apparatuses that are producing these images. Picking up the Anthropocene thread, I suggests that we should not worry so much about the (frequently pronounced) death of photography but rather about the multiple deaths of cameras and other equipment—and about the piles of e-waste resulting from those “deaths.” The chapter includes a series of images from my artwork, The Vanishing Object of Technology.

In suggesting that perhaps “we have always been digital,” chapter 6 attempts to move the debate on photography beyond the analogue-digital binary—and beyond the instrumental, industry-imposed focus on the technical future of the medium. Exploring anxieties over the challenge digitization poses to our established notions of art, culture, and the media, it also questions some of the ways of defending these established notions and values via multiple strategies of remembrance, archiving, and data storage. Although photographic arts—in particular, Tacita Dean’s found-image project Floh—provide a focal point for the discussion, the argument focuses on socio-cultural and political, as much as aesthetic, issues. The “amateur” becomes for me a pivotal concept in trying to rethink the relationship between media production, media consumption, and art, and in considering what it means to both photograph and archive photographs “seriously” in the age of digital cameras, Flickr, Pinterest, and the ubiquitous Delete button. The chapter incorporates images from my artwork, We Have Always Been Digital 2.0.

Looking at laser-enabled photographic modeling of worlds past and future, the conclusion to the book aims to reclaim “life” in photography, beyond and outside the human control of the photographic apparatus and the photomedia it produces. But it is also a historically-located, human-anchored tribute to photography as a mode of thinking, sensing, and seeing across time.


1. For example, on December 2, 2015, Balog presented a talk-cum-screening titled “Human Tectonics: Ice, Fire, and Life in the Anthropocene” at an event hosted by The Royal Photographic Society at the Regent Street Cinema in London.

2. Susan Sontag, “Regarding The Torture Of Others”, The New York Times, May 23 (2004).

3. Art-historical narratives of this kind span from Beaumont Newhall’s modernist classic, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, 5th edition; first published in 1939) through to Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

4. Pierre Bourdieu’s book, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990) has served as initial inspiration for the development of this sociological framework.

5. Elizabeth Edwards’ review article, “Objects of Affect: Photography Beyond the Image,” is in a way exemplary of this approach. On the one hand, it seems to embrace the Latourian model that has made its way into anthropology, whereby “the social saliency of objects and their efficacy is activated by networks of humans and nonhumans, people and things” (223), and Edwards also makes quite a radical proposition that “photographs cannot be understood through visual content alone but through an embodied engagement with an affective object world, which is both constitutive of and constituted through social relations” (221). On the other hand, the article ends up reaffirming the discreteness of the ontological categories it seemingly hybridizes by returning to the human as both the arbiter of sense and the ultimate addressee and reference point of photographs—as evident in the following question that summarizes Edwards’ review: “Underlying all these positions … is the central ethnographic question, why do photographs as ‘things’ matter to people?” (224), The Annual Review of Anthropology, 41 (2012): 221-34. It is worth mentioning in this context the collection Digital Photography and Everyday Life: Empirical Studies on Material Visual Practices, edited by Edgar Gómez Cruz and Asko Lehmuskallio (London and New York: Routledge, 2016). While many of the articles in the book, guided by the opening question, “What do ordinary people do with their cameras and personal pictures, as part of everyday life?” (Richard Chalfen, foreword, xv), inscribe themselves in the human-centric and humanist narrative about the photographic medium, the two editors—both in the joint introduction and in their respective contributions—have also taken some bold steps toward shifting photography into different terrains and modes of thought. Thus Gómez Cruz outlines a theory of non-representational photography, demonstrating how “photographic technologies are increasingly being used not (only) as a representation or performance but as a techno-visual interface between objects, information, networks, environments, databases and people” (“Photo-genic Assemblages,” 230)—as evident, for example, in QR codes that function as translators between material objects, databases, and, occasionally also humans. Lehmuskallio picks up this line of argument, in turn, to discuss the functioning of cameras as sensors in wearable or remotely controlled camera technology. Here, “a database of thousands of recorded images might be used for modelling social networks or geolocation information,” (Lehmuskallio, “The Camera As a Sensor Among Many,” 245-6) providing an example of what I am referencing in this introduction as photography that is not “for the human.”

6. The material outlined in this paragraph has been reworked from Joanna Zylinska, “Photomediations: An Introduction,” in Photomediations: A Reader, ed. Kamila Kuc and Joanna Zylinska (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016), 7-17.

7. Richard Grusin, introduction to The Nonhuman Turn, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), vii.

8. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2012).

9. Elizabeth Kolbert, “Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man,” in Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, ed. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2012), 31. Originally published in National Geographic Magazine, March 2011.

10. Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook, preface to Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols, Tom Cohen, Clare Colebrook, J. Hillis Miller (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016), 11.

11. Claire Colebrook has gone so far as to argue that “we have always been post-Anthropocene” (“We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene: The Anthropocene Counter-Factual,” emphasis mine).

12. Cohen and Claire Colebrook, preface, 11.

13. For Karen Barad, representationalism is characterized by “the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent [whereby] … that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representation.” This belief ignores the role of the technical apparatus in the shaping of images, and hence also of our knowledge of the world—and our picture of it. (See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 46).

14. See, for example, Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1930) and The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951).

15. See Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary,” in Studying Culture, ed. Anne Gray and Jim McGuigan (London and New York: Arnold, 1997): 5-15.

16. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 4.

17. Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Visualizing the Anthropocene, Public Culture 26: 2 (2014): 213-232, 213.