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Digital Photography and Picture Sharing: Redefining the Public/Private Divide


Digital photography is contributing to the renegotiation of the public and private divide and to the transformation of privacy and intimacy, especially with the convergence of digital cameras, mobile phones, and web sites. This convergence contributes to the redefinition of public and private and to the transformation of their boundaries, which have always been subject to historical and geographical change. Taking pictures or filming videos of strangers in public places and showing them in webs like Flickr or YouTube, or making self-portraits available to strangers in instant messenger, social network sites, or photo blogs are becoming a current practice for a growing number of Internet users. Both are examples of the intertwining of online and offline practices, experiences, and meanings that challenge the traditional concepts of the public and the private. Uses of digital images play a role in the way people perform being a stranger and in the way they relate to strangers, online and offline. The mere claims about the privatization of the public space or the public disclosure of intimacy do not account for all these practices, situations, and attitudes, as they are not a simple translation of behaviors and codes from one realm to the other.

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  1. A recent European Union survey about Internet uses and young people (15–25) in five different European countries reveals that half of the participants share pictures in webs and social network sites (Lusoli and Miltgen 2009).

  2. Edgar Gómez is currently finishing his Ph.D. project, an ethnography of digital photography practices in Barcelona. Dr. Amparo Lasén has been doing research about mobile phone uses since 2001 (Lasén 2005, 2006, 2008), and it is also relevant for this paper her ethnography consisting of participant observation in Spanish online dating sites and online and offline informal interviews with subscribers of those webs, carried out from November 2007 to February 2008 and from July to October 2008.

  3. To cite one of these debates: the “sexting” (contraction of sex and texting). In some states of the USA (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wyoming), some teenagers have been accused of child pornography because they exchanged nude self-portraits with each other. Controversies following these charges reveal that the boundaries are not legally clear and definitely not at the social level.


  5. These web sites are quite different regarding their aim, design, the kind of people’s participation, and the users’ generated content displayed. Some of them are sexually explicit online dating sites whereas other just display the images provided by the users. But in spite of their differences, all of them are examples of the public disclosure of intimate images and therefore of the current transformation of intimacy afforded by the convergence between digital images and the web.

  6. As our developed pictures are not seen by the photography laboratories staff anymore

  7. In Flickr for example, a search for the word “autorretrato” (self-portrait in Spanish) leads to a 31,729 photos and the search for the words “self-portrait” to a 1,198,530 images. Also, there are 12,228 groups that includes the words self and portrait, such as: “Arm’s length self portrait experience”, “Identity and self portrait”, “Self-Portraits!!!” (search performed on 14 April 2009).

  8. As well as in some initiatives found in the Web, such as the Facebook group promoted by Spanish women and called “I would like to be a mysterious and aloof woman (but Facebook doesn’t let me)” whose presentation reads: “To all the women who end up telling our life in the ‘status’ and lose our magic and mystery… But how much fun we get when we read ‘I’ll have my bikini wax’ or ‘just got my period’. Hurray the lack of privacy!”

  9. Quoted in Christian Parenti (2003)


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Correspondence to Amparo Lasén.

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Lasén, A., Gómez-Cruz, E. Digital Photography and Picture Sharing: Redefining the Public/Private Divide. Know Techn Pol 22, 205–215 (2009).

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  • Digital images
  • Self-portraits
  • Public places
  • Privacy