what is a photo?

by anders pearson Sun 27 Nov 2005 21:03:31

there's been some controversy lately over at flickr about their policy of not allowing drawings, paintings, illustrations, etc. on the site. well, "not allowing" isn't quite accurate: they don't delete the images, they just flag a user's account as "Not Public Site Areas" (aka 'NIPSA') which means that none of a flagged user's images will show up in global tag pages or group pools (except to logged in flickr users who are actually signed up to the group). but since flickr's real draw is the community aspect, being NIPSA'd effectively cuts a user out of the community; they might as well just have their account shut off.

ignoring the issues of whether drawings, paintings, illustrations etc. have any overall negative effect on flickr, whether this is a very "web 2.0" policy for a service often touted as one of the leaders of the whole "web 2.0" scene, whether it's good business practice to purposefully alienate and frustrate a thriving and enthusiastic sector of their customer-base, and even ignoring the fact that they flag accounts in this way without in any way notifying the users that they've been flagged, i think this raises deeper philosophical questions.

reading through the threads in flickr's forum, the flickr admins seem genuinely astounded that anyone could have an issue with this policy. the common refrain repeated over and over again is that "flickr is a photosharing site. it's for sharing photos only" so why is anyone surprised?

my natural response is to ask, "well, what is a 'photo', anyway?"

what exactly is the magical defining quality that makes one image a 'photo' and another a 'non-photo' and thus not suitable to be posted on flickr? where is the line?

let's start with something we can probably all agree on. here's a photo from my flickr stream. it was taken with my digital camera and uploaded with no processing (aside from flickr resizing it). it might not be a great photo, but it's pretty typical of what's on flickr.

melon grate

now, right off, we run into the issue that this is a digital photo. accepting a digital photo as a photo is a relatively new phenomenon in the photographic community. i don't think you'd have to look very hard to find some stodgy old gray-beard photographers who would still insist that if it doesn't involve film and chemicals and a dark room, it's not "real" photography. but most of us aren't that snobby so we'll agree that a digital photo taken with a digital camera is still a "photo".

next is the issue of PhotoShop. this is where things get murky real fast. most professional photographers use photoshop or some other image editing software to post-process their photos. cropping them, adjusting the contrast, removing red-eye. these are all common operations and most people wouldn't revoke an image's status as a "photo" because of them. of course, once again, you can also find communities of digital photographers who shun the use of photoshop and insist that it only counts if the image is left exactly as the camera recorded it. every profession or hobby has its share of cranks.

but how much can you really get away with? can i crop a photo down to one pixel and still have it be a 'photo'? if the answer is that yes, it's still a 'photo', then what about another image which consists of a single pixel of the same color except that it was created entirely digitally without light ever being reflected off an object, passing through a lens and onto a photo-sensitive surface? the resulting image files will be exactly identical so how could one justify a difference?

here are two images, one the result of photoshopping a digital camera photo (actually using the Gimp, not PhotoShop, but same diff) and the other an immaculate digital creation. can you tell which is which?



if there is some point at which manipulating a photo makes it no longer a photo, where exactly is that point? does cropping a photo down to less than 11% of its original size change it's nature while 12% percent is ok? does it depend on what the subject matter of the photo is?

if i take this photo of a painting:


and crop it down and clean it up into this:


does that make it no longer a photo? or is any photo with a painting in it at all, not a "photo"? even if it's not the focus of the picture?

Buenos Aires 2005 - lani, sveta, eduardo's apt

what percentage of the image is the painting allowed to take up and still be considered a "photo"? what if someone uses photoshop to composite several images together like this?

is that still a photo? is it only because all of the sub-images pass as "photos"? what if one out of the four were a "non-photo"? two out of four? where's the cutoff?

personally, i would call it a "photo of a painting". actually, i would probably just call everything an "image" and leave it at that. but these are the kinds of photos that flickr has decided are not photos.

anyone's who's seriously tried to take decent photographs of paintings or drawings also knows that it's not a trivial task. actually, it's a royal pain in the ass to get it to come out right and requires some real photographic skills like an understanding of lighting and focus and depth-of-field issues. that's why my photos of paintings suck; i'm not a very good photographer.

ok, i don't think it's too much of a stretch to argue that a photo of a painting or drawing is still a 'photo'. what about scanned drawings and illustrations? does 'photo' mean that at some point in its life, light must have passed into some device that we label a "camera"? a scanner functions very similarly to a camera, but i guess you could argue that it's different enough that it doesn't really count as a "camera" and thus images that it creates aren't "photos".

so, how about this "photo" taken with a 35mm film camera and scanned in?


does passing through a scanner strip it of its "photo" nature? how about this photo of a painting taken with a 35mm film camera and then scanned in:


if a "photo" can only come from a camera, what about photograms, the staple of introductory photography classes? are they "photos"?

what about scanner photography? are scans of flowers ok but scans of pieces of paper with ink on them not?

clearly, i think this whole business is absurd, arbitrary, and petty. i think flickr should lighten up, remove the non-photo related NIPSA flags from accounts and promise never to do it again. flickr happens to be a great tool for sharing drawings, paintings, and illustrations whether they're "photos" or not and i think they would do well to embrace that rather than start punishing their customers for using the service in a way that they hadn't thought of.

TAGS: photography philosophy rant web 2_0 flickr


Great post. Flickr's policy is absurd. Have you had your drawings tagged NIPSA?

yeah, my account's flagged. i care less about that though than the general philosophical issue. if i wanted, i could get my account reviewed and probably unflagged on the grounds that only about 250 of my 1800 images are "non-photos" but i haven't even bothered. i think it should be ok for my entire account to be "non-photos".

though i was quite annoyed at their way of doing it without any kind of notification. you can really only tell if your account is NIPSAd if you go looking for your own images in public tag streams which isn't something that i do very often (call me weird).

the whole thing really saddens me because i've been so vocally pro-flickr trying to get my friends and coworkers all signing up and pushing it at work, etc. now, they go and pull this kind of thing and make me really feel like a chump for supporting them.

They're the chumps for instituting this policy. I sincerely hope they come around.

Excellent, infuriating post--infuriating because this makes little sense, as you point out. Flickr has imho just blown off a huge percentage of its appeal, its membership, its potential. Damn!

This is why Google will win in the end. If Google had made flickr, they wouldn't have narrowed the usage down like that. They would have instead created multiple categories of art, allowing for multiple communities, but all leveraging the same app.

I've noticed only today that a few illustration based pictures have crept into the 'explore the last 7 days' pages. I'm hoping this is because they've had a last minute change of heart after realising how stupid they were being, but they're being so sneaky and underhanded these days -there's no way to be sure. This whole NIPSA thing is obviously their way of stagmatising people and work they don't approve of. It smacks of high school kid's passive-aggressive bullying to me.

This whole issue has really put me off flickr, and to think there's all this fuss about the whole site being blocked in the UAE... it wouldn't hurt them to take a good hard look at themselves and at what could be seen as internal censorship.

Very community-spirited -hah!

Perhaps the reason for the policy is similar to Gmail's blocking of all binary attachements. By requiring all submissions to be photos flickr avoids a deluge of banner graphics. Try doing an image search on google for some contested keyword and you'll find ads competing with what you're looking for. Still, I'm not sure flickr checks to see that one is uploading photos. Do they personally inspect each member page?

I really enjoyed your post and was discussing just these very things today when I realize that alas, I too had been NIPSA'ed. It is infuriating they don't tell you. And me thinking Flickr was great, went and bought a PRO account. {stupid me}.This entire thing has soured me on Flickr and I want to find another playground to play in. I don't like bullies. Does anyone know of another site (not Deviant Art)??

I should point out that flickr has finally implemented "filters": which should basically eliminate the problem and make the site actually usable for artists.

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