Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.TP.13.2.6 | PDF

(Dis)Affect, Pho­tog­ra­phy, Place
Patri­cia Prieto-Blanco

(Dis)Affect, Photography, Place

Patri­cia Prieto-Blanco
Migrants are con­nect­ed for a vari­ety of rea­sons (Leurs and Prab­hakar 2018, p. 247), and in a myr­i­ad of ways (Cabalquin­to 2018; Özdemir, Mut­luer, and Özyürek 2019; Gen­cel Bek and Pri­eto-Blan­co 2020). Draw­ing from a larg­er project of ethno­graph­ic nature (Pri­eto-Blan­co 2016b), this paper argues that pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices advance social­iza­tion in transna­tion­al fam­i­lies, and that each prac­tice acti­vates cer­tain rela­tion­al affor­dances to sup­port bond­ing and famil­ial inti­ma­cy. This also serves to offer an alter­na­tive read­ing of phat­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion (Mali­nows­ki 1923) as an emotion-based process. Final­ly, the paper pro­pos­es to under­stand (dig­i­tal) pho­tog­ra­phy as a medi­um of (inter)action and expe­ri­ence for transna­tion­al families.
Les migrants sont liés entre eux pour un grand nom­bre de raisons (Leurs and Prab­hakar, p. 247) et d’une myr­i­ade de manières (Cabalquin­to 2018; Özdemir, Mut­luer, and Özyürek 2019; Gen­cel Bek and Pri­eto-Blan­co 2020). S’inspirant d’un plus grand pro­jet de nature ethno­graphique (Pri­eto-Blan­co 2016b), cet arti­cle argu­mente que les pra­tiques pho­tographiques aident à la social­i­sa­tion au sein des familles transna­tionales et que chaque pra­tique active des poten­tiels rela­tion­nels pour soutenir les liens et l’intimité famil­iales. Cela per­met égale­ment d’offrir une lec­ture alter­na­tive de la com­mu­ni­ca­tion pha­tique (Mali­nows­ki 1923) comme un proces­sus reposant sur les émo­tions. Enfin, l’article offre une com­préhen­sion de la pho­togra­phie (dig­i­tale) comme un moyen d’(inter)action et d’expérience pour les familles transnationales.


While for many cur­rent con­stel­la­tions of hard­wares, soft­wares, and, ana­logue objects (poly­medi­a­tions, Her­rmann and Tyma 2015) rep­re­sent a shift brought about by the con­text of COVID-19 and remote work/socializing, a com­plex land­scape of new medi­a­tions has been present in the every­day of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies for years now (Madi­anou and Miller 2012). This paper uses a con­cep­tu­al frame­work focused on the con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of pho­to­graph­ic exchanges with­in “socio-tech­ni­cal” pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices (Lehmuskallio and Gómez Cruz 2016) and poten­tial emo­tive char­ac­ter of pho­to­graph­ic exchanges to ana­lyze (dig­i­tal) pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices in eleven Irish-Span­ish fam­i­lies for eigh­teen months. The research design was par­tic­u­lar­ly informed by nar­ra­tive inquiry and visu­al soci­ol­o­gy (Bach 2007; Bell 2013; Squire 2015), and three research meth­ods were orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped for this research—three phased con­sent process, visu­al­iza­tion of cir­cle of ref­er­ence, and the home tour of pho­to­graph­ic dis­plays. All par­tic­i­pants par­tic­i­pat­ed in four stages: a nar­ra­tive inter­view with a pho­to-elic­i­ta­tion ele­ment; a sec­ond nar­ra­tive inter­view fol­lowed by a visu­al explo­ration of their pho­to­graph­ic dis­plays at their homes; semi-struc­tured inter­view about their pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices; and in three fol­low-up inter­views. For read­ers inter­est­ed in the method­olog­i­cal approach and research design, allow me to refer you to a pre­vi­ous piece of mine (Pri­eto-Blan­co, 2016a). The aim of this paper is to argue that pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of Span­ish-Irish fam­i­lies com­ple­ment ana­logue “third places” (Old­en­burg 1989, 23) by sub­si­diz­ing social inter­ac­tions and advanc­ing (infor­mal) social­iza­tion. It will be argued that suc­cess depends on the “rela­tion­al affor­dances” (Kono 2009) of the technology/medium employed, and that con­crete affor­dances (pub­lish­ing, index­i­cal­i­ty) are acti­vat­ed to sup­port strate­gies of inclu­sion and exclu­sion (bound­ary work). The next sec­tion pro­vides the the­o­ret­i­cal con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of the argu­ment, before find­ings are pre­sent­ed and sub­se­quent­ly discussed.

Literature Review

Although the schol­ar­ly use of affor­dances has been incon­sis­tent (Wright and Par­choma 2011, 249-250), it is a term that allows the explo­ration of inter­ac­tions between humans and non-humans—i.e. Bruno Latour’s hybrid actor (1999, 181), or Ian Russell’s “Hume­dia” (2007). Affor­dances are always framed by sys­tems, which include arti­facts, actions, and social con­texts. Tet­suya Kono pro­vides a more com­pre­hen­sive and prag­mat­ic def­i­n­i­tion of the term: “Affor­dances are the dis­po­si­tions of the envi­ron­ment; an indi­vid­ual can inte­grate some of them into his or her action” (369). Thus, affor­dances are nec­es­sary con­di­tions for action pro­duced and main­tained by con­ven­tions, and when per­ceived ren­der inten­tion­al respons­es pos­si­ble (Kono 361, 369). Images need media to become vis­i­ble, our bod­ies being one of those (Belt­ing 2001). They are “trans­mit­ted in the inter­play between media car­ry­ing images and bod­ies direct­ing their atten­tion in per­ceiv­ing them” (Lehmuskallio 2012, 40). Often the images car­ried by media are of our bod­ies, which Mikko Vil­li describes as “medi­at­ed pres­ence” (2015). Some­times, the medi­a­tion of pres­ence allows for tele-cocoons to emerge, “[…] a zone of inti­ma­cy in which peo­ple can con­tin­u­ous­ly main­tain their rela­tion­ships with oth­ers who they have already encoun­tered with­out being restrict­ed by geog­ra­phy and time” (Habuchi 2005,167), such as I will argue below, kin­ship mak­ing. Obvi­ous­ly, not any place is a tele-cocoon, but could any place become one? How would this happen?

By look­ing at the affor­dances acti­vat­ed through con­crete prac­tices, I believe we can start out­lin­ing pat­terns of inter­ac­tion between peo­ple and images/objects. For instance, my research with Irish-Span­ish fam­i­lies revealed that social process­es such as social­iza­tion of young chil­dren (read below), go on through pho­to­graph­ic exchanges and relat­ed visu­al prac­tices. Their visu­al prac­tices were organ­ised in social set­tings around shared under­stand­ings and objects. Antoine Hen­nion argues there is a process of attachment—affective attach­ment, one may say—that reveals rela­tions between peo­ple and things as well as between peo­ple, and that does not need to be ben­e­fi­cial, as attach­ment could sig­ni­fy “a bind, restric­tion, restraint, and depen­dence” (2012, 4). The way we relate to each other—or using Hennion’s vocab­u­lary, attach to each other—is emplaced and expe­ri­en­tial, and “con­cerns shared his­to­ry, com­mon prop­er­ty and shared objects” (Jamieson 1998, 200). It is exact­ly this impor­tant con­nec­tion of emplace­ment between human and non­hu­man actors that is high­light­ed here with the aim to explore in depth the social life of (dig­i­tal) pho­tographs, thus advo­cat­ing for an approach to media that accounts for the social rela­tions exist­ing in and through mate­r­i­al worlds (Edwards 2002, 2009, 2012), as well as for their “ever more com­plex orga­ni­za­tion­al pat­terns” (Couldry and Hepp 2016, 35-36).

Work­ing with Span­ish-Irish fam­i­lies was fun­da­men­tal to explore social process­es that go through media, because their spe­cif­ic geo­graph­i­cal set­tings meant that fam­i­ly mem­bers lived in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and inter­act­ed phys­i­cal­ly face-to-face at best a hand­ful of times a year. They turned to dig­i­tal media to medi­ate social inter­ac­tions, there­by sus­tain­ing affec­tive rela­tion­ships and extend­ing their home beyond their house (Rose 2003, 9-15). In spite of their seem­ing­ly tran­sient and ephemer­al char­ac­ter (Mur­ray 2008; Grainge 2011), dig­i­tal media offer the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fre­quent and con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, co-pres­ence (Vil­li 2015) and tele-cocoon­ing (Habuchi 2005). This sug­gests some degree of per­for­ma­tive force1 (Austin 1961, 119, 287). Pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices com­prise three stages: par­tic­i­pa­tion, rep­e­ti­tion, and emplace­ment, which fos­ter and sus­tain emo­tion­al inter­ac­tions among mem­bers of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies, and are sup­port­ed by flex­i­ble poly­medi­a­tions and some con­crete affor­dances (pub­lish­ing, index­i­cal­i­ty). At the same time, as research par­tic­i­pants explain below, their fam­i­lies often include cho­sen fam­i­ly mem­bers who live in near geo­graph­i­cal prox­im­i­ty. In form­ing “fam­i­lies of choice” (West­on 1997) that sup­port their emplace­ment and sense of belong­ing, transna­tion­al fam­i­lies con­tribute to the con­tem­po­rary elas­tic­i­ty of fam­i­ly, and of friend­ship (Wat­ters 2009; King-O’Riain 2015). Fam­i­ly and fam­i­ly mak­ing no longer depend on rules, but on feel­ings of affec­tion (Beck-Gernsheim 1998; Jamieson 1998; Gabb 2008), which may explain why even peo­ple “nor­mal­ly liv­ing alone” are exten­sive­ly involved in fam­i­ly rela­tions (Inglis 2015, 75). Con­tem­po­rary family—whether transna­tion­al or not—seems to respond to an ongo­ing process of nego­ti­a­tion ongo­ing as a com­mit­ment and nego­ti­a­tion as a vari­a­tion in respond­ing to indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive sit­u­a­tions of prox­im­i­ty, dis­tance, and propin­quity, many of which are medi­at­ed. Could pho­tog­ra­phy be thought as a tool of kin­ship making?

Con­stel­la­tions of hard­wares, soft­wares, and ana­logue objects (poly­medi­a­tions) offered these Irish-Span­ish fam­i­lies oppor­tu­ni­ties to nego­ti­ate feel­ings of famil­ial affec­tion, by cre­at­ing places that fam­i­ly mem­bers inhab­it, even if only momen­tar­i­ly. I sug­gest that mutu­al par­tic­i­pa­tion is present in pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies, and that pho­tographs are employed as social objects (Engeström 2005) cir­cu­lat­ing with­in existing/developing larg­er every­day media prac­tices. Pho­tographs are used to do inti­mate bound­ary work. How could this medi­at­ed bound­ary work be best observed? This paper argues that ethnog­ra­phy and nar­ra­tive inquiry allow for the affec­tive expe­ri­ence of medi­at­ed attach­ments to be observed/explored. Through empha­sis on field­work sto­ries, this paper argues that, in transna­tion­al fam­i­lies, pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices are process­es of attach­ment, where­by affect is artic­u­lat­ed. But, as one might say, the proof is in the pudding.


Photographs that travel

Celia, a Span­ish migrant liv­ing in Ire­land and moth­er of two, explains that when an image appears in her What­sApp, she knows that some­body has inten­tion­al­ly sent it, and the image still retains “the mag­i­cal mean­ing” and the sense of per­ma­nence that she attrib­ut­es to ana­logue pho­tographs. Celia’s phone was on the kitchen table while we talked about the pho­tographs she had recent­ly shared. She took it and start­ed show­ing me some. She was explain­ing how she only takes pho­tographs with her cam­era phone and how these are a way of trans­form­ing geo­graph­i­cal dis­tance into emo­tion­al close­ness, for exam­ple between her chil­dren and her cousin, who lived in Ire­land with them for over nine months. Ever since, they have kept in touch reg­u­lar­ly, main­ly through phone messaging.

Celia: “It’s been four years since. Four years of rela­tion­ship real­ly. […] I send her loads of pho­tos, most­ly of the kids so that they have a rela­tion­ship. I like to keep her post­ed on our day-to-day lives. For exam­ple, I have also sent her pho­tos of the recent snow­fall”2.

In Pedro’s case, geolo­cat­ed and syn­chonized pho­tographs allowed his fam­i­ly mem­bers abroad to “have a walk around the house.” Gala’s sto­ry of her daughter’s prom night includes a pho­to­graph trav­el­ling by phone from Ire­land to Spain, and by foot in Spain from Gala’s cousin’s phone to Gala’s mother’s liv­ing room. As these insights reveal, send­ing pho­tographs to rel­a­tives who live far away is a com­mon prac­tice for transna­tion­al fam­i­lies. More­over, they sug­gest that net­worked pho­tographs not only medi­ate phys­i­cal pres­ence by giv­ing the illu­sion of being there, but also medi­ate social pres­ence by giv­ing the illu­sion of being togeth­er. A con­nec­tion is estab­lished over dis­tance that allows for dig­i­tal third places to emerge. The ques­tion of gen­er­at­ing a com­mon place, of emplace­ment of their pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices, aris­es again. And my sug­ges­tion is that: a) pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies respond to con­nec­tiv­i­ty, reflex­iv­i­ty, and mate­r­i­al emplace­ment; and b) it is through synaes­thet­ic, dis­cur­sive, and prag­mat­ic qual­i­ties that transna­tion­al fam­i­lies make their inten­tion­al choic­es among the myr­i­ad of medi­a­tion choic­es at their disposal.

Let’s look at the pho­to­graph of prom night in more detail. Gala made use of the affor­dances of propin­quity and pub­lish­ing to share the image of her daughter’s prom imme­di­ate­ly, and only to whom she want­ed to. In this case cam­era phone pho­tog­ra­phy didn’t fix the unex­pect­ed or spon­ta­neous, nor did it enhance phone com­mu­ni­ca­tion per se (Riv­ière 2005, 177-178). Instead, it pro­vid­ed a con­nec­tion and a sense of belong­ing to those involved in the visu­al prac­tice (pro­duc­ing, shar­ing, stor­ing, view­ing). The plat­form used to share the pho­to­graph, What­sApp, allowed Gala to imple­ment con­trol strate­gies regard­ing inclusion/exclusion. Here and in fur­ther exam­ples below, it becomes clear that Irish-Span­ish fam­i­lies per­ceived What­sApp as a tool that allows for social co-pres­ence to be gen­er­at­ed and man­aged for a par­tic­u­lar group. I believe that the clear para­me­ters of pub­lish­ing present in What­sApp par­tial­ly explain its pop­u­lar­i­ty regard­ing the shar­ing of more inti­mate images.

[Talk­ing about ways in which she shares images]

Celia - [talk­ing about her arti­fi­cial sister-in-law (cuña­da pos­ti­za)]: “With her for exam­ple, the way to keep in touch, although I don’t know if you are inter­est­ed in it, we have made a blog about cook­ing so then we take cook­ing photos.”

Patri­cia: “Ah, well that is ok.”

Celia: “It is a way of main­tain­ing the relationship.”

Patri­cia: “I will ask you for the address of the blog.”

Celia: “Ok, well so far we only have a cou­ple of things. She has pub­lished some and she has added her sis­ter and her sis­ter--in-law also. For exam­ple my arti­fi­cial sis­ter-in-law has uploaded pho­tos of her daugh­ter. The oth­er day my cousin, I mean the father, who is my real cousin, and my god­daugh­ter, well we all shack up togeth­er but […] They two made a pota­to tor­tilla togeth­er, although as far as I know my cousin is not into cook­ing, but well, the two of them made it. And there are pho­tos of her [Celia’s god­daugh­ter] adding the eggs and mix­ing them and so on. But, well, what would have been amaz­ing is a pho­to­graph of my cousin because he was wear­ing a glo­ri­ous apron, one of those that make you look like a Greek statue.”

Celia knew about the apron because, par­al­lel to the pro­duc­tion of con­tent for the blog, there was an exchange of snap­shots in What­sApp between her and her arti­fi­cial sister-in-law.

The choice of medium/technology, i.e. the con­fig­u­ra­tion of the poly­medi­a­tion, whether it involves cam­era phones, video con­fer­enc­ing or social media (or sev­er­al at the same time, as we are start­ing to observe with regard to home­work and COVID-19), seems to respond as well to bound­ary work, to fre­quen­cy, and rel­e­vance. Belonging/membership(s) is man­aged through both vari­ables. Mes­sages are gen­er­at­ed and shared as often as required by the group, inas­much as they are rel­e­vant to the group. And as they do so, they bring about a sense of con­ti­nu­ity to the rela­tion­ships they medi­ate. The dia­logues in which dig­i­tal pho­tographs are often embed­ded have no fore­see­able end, despite being con­tin­u­ous­ly inter­rupt­ed. Pedro: “My sis­ter is more prone to send pho­tos. But that is not the norm. The norm is that it [the pho­to] leads to a con­ver­sa­tion: ‘Hel­lo, how are you doing?’ And then you talk about oth­er things.”

In fact, con­ti­nu­ity (which can be inter­pret­ed as the com­mit­ment of keep­ing in touch) is a key ele­ment of pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies. The shar­ing of pho­tographs gen­er­ates a tem­po­rary and par­tial oblit­er­a­tion of phys­i­cal dis­tance. It also cre­ates a space of shar­ing inti­mate­ly, a tele-cocoon. Like oth­er places of infor­mal social­iza­tion, tele-cocoons seem to also respond to belong­ing, con­ge­nial­i­ty, spon­tane­ity (Old­en­burg 1989) as well as to con­ven­tions, norms, and rep­e­ti­tions. In short, we may want to con­sid­er tele-cocoons as medi­at­ed third places, and explore how dig­i­tal pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices seem to ensure that the social­iza­tion process will go on. It will be for­ev­er resumed. Thus, the shar­ing becomes as impor­tant as what is being pic­tured (Lob­inger and Schreiber 2017). In oth­er words, image con­tent is con­tex­tu­al­ized through socio-mate­r­i­al and affec­tive processes.

[Talk­ing about the ways in which they share images impacts on the images they share]

Maria: “It depends, if they [their chil­dren] are au naturel or in their pyjamas…”

Pedro: “That is true, if the chil­dren are naked for exam­ple I do not like to send pho­tos of the chil­dren naked via Inter­net. From the waist up that is ok. I mean, if they are in the bath­tub and you can’t see it, ok. And I am care­ful that they are not exposed. But it gives me the creeps, you know. And then those pho­tos in which… So it is somebody’s name day and you go to sing to their bed and every­body is in their pyja­mas and they have bad hair and so on, well I might send those pho­tographs to par­ents and sib­lings and that is it.”

Maria: “And to one very good friend. Yes, some­body who knows me but not the neighbor.”

[Talk­ing about the pho­to­graph she took on her daughter’s prom night]

Gala: “Well, yes. Not the ones I took, but the ones that thou­sands of peo­ple who were there took, yes. Those are on Face­book from that night. But not mine. […] I believe I showed this one to some­body from Dario’s fam­i­ly or… no… no it was to my neigh­bours. My neigh­bours, yes, I showed it to them.”

[Talk­ing about the ways in which she shares images]

Yessi­ca: “Not by email. Nor­mal email, no. I would say that among us, well maybe a lit­tle less with my broth­er who lives here [Ire­land], but 99% [of the time] what works real­ly well is Face­book. Also there is my brother’s daugh­ter who is a teenag­er now and she has Face­book. […] but it is get­ting out of her hands because she already has three hun­dred and fifty friends and he told her ‘you need to do a selec­tion of peo­ple who are real­ly your friends and the ones who are not.’”

The field­work sto­ries sug­gest that pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies revolve around shar­ing, co-pres­ence, and belong­ing. They pro­duce, share, and store pho­tographs in a myr­i­ad of ways, using net­worked tech­nolo­gies and iso­lat­ed ones (as we shall see below). In the midst of choice and dif­fer­ence, there seems to be a con­stant: pho­tographs are treat­ed as active tes­ti­monies of every­day life, i.e. as index­i­cal signs. The affor­dance of index­i­cal­i­ty, which “[…] is only real­ized and sig­nif­i­cant as it is acti­vat­ed, as it were, by par­tic­u­lar prac­tices (Rose 2010, 29), seems to be acti­vat­ed through­out. The same applies to the affor­dance of pub­lish­ing. When the affor­dance of index­i­cal­i­ty is acti­vat­ed, there is a need to con­trol the poten­tial effects of shar­ing: reach­ing unin­tend­ed audi­ences, stress, and dis­com­fort. Because while the index­i­cal nature of emo­tion­al traces of pho­tographs sure­ly shapes the shar­ing process, the affor­dance of pub­lish­ing ulti­mate­ly deter­mines who is in con­trol, and there­fore how pho­tographs are shared. As Yessi­ca puts it: “It is a mat­ter of not los­ing con­trol over the dis­tri­b­u­tion of my pho­tographs.” Pub­lish­ing in social media dif­fers from plat­form to plat­form, but par­tic­i­pants expressed very sim­i­lar views when it came to their per­cep­tion of it and the strate­gies of con­trol they had in turn devel­oped. Hence, again, plat­forms such as What­sApp, which allow for great con­trol regard­ing pub­lish­ing, were pre­ferred by transna­tion­al fam­i­lies. Index­i­cal­i­ty and pub­lish­ing seem to be acti­vat­ed through­out, even when the pho­tographs are not digital/digitally mediated.

Yessi­ca: “And why in the liv­ing room? Because we spend 80% of the time in the liv­ing room […] We play here. Well, I am also a woman, I am a bit … I mean I also like that when peo­ple come for a vis­it … I don’t know, but not hav­ing pho­tos on a wall is like there is no life in the house. I don’t know, but that is how I see it.

Patri­cia: “Where else do you have photographs?”

Yessi­ca: “In the cor­ri­dor. Yes, here for exam­ple I have the pho­tographs of my sister-in-law’s wed­ding. Up there we have the fam­i­ly, well the sib­lings anyway.”

Patri­cia: “These pho­tographs are more formal.”

Yessi­ca: “Yes, that is it. These ones are here because they hired a pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er for the wed­ding, and the pho­tographs came out real­ly beau­ti­ful and great to be enlarged. So I chose the ones that suit­ed me best, which were the fam­i­ly, my son with the tele­phone because it is very cute, and myself with my son because my daugh­ter wasn’t here yet […] and then over there was anoth­er of the whole fam­i­ly, but I am not sure how but when using the stairs it broke […] so I replaced it with one of us four.”

Patri­cia: “Of the fam­i­ly now”

Yessi­ca: “MY, MY fam­i­ly now. On St. Patrick’s Day.”

Ana­logue pho­tographs are per­ceived as a con­stant pres­ence in the fam­i­ly. Their mate­ri­al­i­ty not only offers dura­bil­i­ty but also sta­bil­i­ty, a cru­cial fac­tor when it comes to social­iza­tion. One could argue that paper-based pho­tographs trans­mit a sense of onto­log­i­cal secu­ri­ty, because as ana­logue objects, they exist in the world and hold a degree of per­ma­nence. Pedro com­ment­ed, “So to speak, peo­ple look at dig­i­tal pho­tos for five min­utes, and they like them, but that is it, then they save them onto their hard dri­ves, and they do not open the pho­tos any more. But then when you go back, my par­ents have some on the fridge. So I think it is worth [to print them] and so we give it more impor­tance.” It is no coin­ci­dence that Pedro men­tions the refrig­er­a­tor here. Using the refrig­er­a­tor as a dis­play allows for spa­tial­ly dis­tant fam­i­ly mem­bers to be incor­po­rat­ed into the every­day life of the house­hold. Refrig­er­a­tors become “a kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­tre […] where one can place infor­ma­tion in the con­fi­dent knowl­edge that one’s fel­low house­hold mem­bers can then have no excuse for say­ing that they did not see it” (Mor­ley 2007, 263). In hous­es where the refrig­er­a­tor is pan­elled, an alter­na­tive dis­play was avail­able, and placed around the kitchen/eating area. Celia had a notice board next to the refrig­er­a­tor; Pedro and Maria cre­at­ed a fam­i­ly col­lage. Like refrig­er­a­tors, these dis­plays are con­stant com­pan­ions of transna­tion­al fam­i­ly life.

Medi­at­ed inter­ac­tions are fun­da­men­tal for transna­tion­al fam­i­lies if only because face-to-face encoun­ters are very lim­it­ed. The rou­tines linked to cook­ing and meal shar­ing explains why fam­i­ly pho­tographs coex­ist next to spaces for the chores of every­day life. Accord­ing to recent soci­o­log­i­cal work on kin­ship (West­on 1997; Beck-Gern­sheim 1988; Gabb 2008; Inglis 2015; King-O’Riain, 2015), a proac­tive atti­tude is fun­da­men­tal in order to cre­ate, reaf­firm, and sus­tain fam­i­ly ties. Dig­i­tal pho­tographs seem to func­tion as prompts for fur­ther inter­ac­tion, while pho­to-objects may be seen as aide-de-mem­oires that con­tribute to lev­el­ling out the irreg­u­lar pat­tern of interaction/participation of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies. The com­bi­na­tion of every­day life, domes­tic­i­ty, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion make refrig­er­a­tors very dynam­ic sites of exhi­bi­tion. The effi­cien­cy asso­ci­at­ed with invoic­es and errands inter­sects with process­es of fam­i­ly-mak­ing. The act of keep­ing in touch responds to the affec­tive and the chore-like.

Some­times these ana­logue ver­sions are used to con­tain mis­for­tune, a prac­tice that is far from new, but in fact strong­ly resem­bles the Vic­to­ri­an tra­di­tion of using the par­lour to dis­play images of the deceased, often dec­o­rat­ed with dried flow­ers, hair, and tex­tiles. The emo­tion­al chal­lenge that per­ma­nent and tem­po­rary absences pose is par­tial­ly mit­i­gat­ed through these images. In the case of Yessi­ca, she placed the last pho­to­graph of her father on her refrig­er­a­tor (the image shows him hug­ging her son and anoth­er of his grand­chil­dren). The acti­vat­ed affor­dance of index­i­cal­i­ty allows Yessi­ca, her part­ner, and her chil­dren, to treat the pho­to­graph as if it was alive (Lehmuskallio 2012). The index­i­cal­i­ty accounts for its authen­tic­i­ty and tes­ti­mo­ni­al role; the punc­tum pierces twice: dis­tance and absence (Vil­li 2014). In this par­tic­u­lar case, it is almost as if the real affor­dance of the refrig­er­a­tor, pre­serv­ing food, had been trans­plant­ed into the pho­to­graph (trans­formed into a per­ceived affor­dance of affect, per­haps?). In Gala’s house there were also ana­logue pho­tographs of deceased fam­i­ly mem­bers. They were locat­ed on top of a chest of draw­ers, which is placed between the eat­ing and the liv­ing area. In transna­tion­al fam­i­lies, print­ed pho­tographs respond to con­texts of ana­logue pho­tog­ra­phy, such as fram­ing and exhibit­ing on walls, man­tel­pieces, or albums. The ubiq­ui­tous but frag­ile co-pres­ence that dig­i­tal means such as video calls and phone mes­sag­ing offer, is com­ple­ment­ed by paper-based pho­tographs, in which time has frozen. Pho­tographs on refrig­er­a­tors are an expres­sion there­of, but there are others.

Pedro and Maria do in fact do more than that. On the door of their liv­ing room, they have a large col­lage dis­play­ing all fam­i­ly mem­bers in Slo­va­kia and Spain. Pho­to frames are present in every room of the house except for the bath­rooms. They send ana­logue pho­to Christ­mas cards to rel­a­tives and friends every year. And Pedro’s moth­er cre­ates her own “poster” to cel­e­brate every birth­day and name day of a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly, which she prints, lam­i­nates, and sends. The one below had arrived a few days before one of our encoun­ters to mark Pedro’s and Maria’s daughter’s birthday.

Figure 1: This handmade “poster” combines the flexibility of digital manipulation with the robustness of printed photographs. Being laminated speaks to durability and to Pedro’s and Maria’s fondness of hanging images around the house. The central image depicts the grandparents together with the grandchild during one of their visits, which manifests the networked character of this seemingly analogue print.

Dig­i­tal and ana­logue pho­tog­ra­phy and pho­tographs coex­ist in the every­day of Irish-Span­ish fam­i­lies, and both seem to respond to dif­fer­ent social process­es. Dig­i­tal prac­tices respond to every­day desires and pres­sures of shar­ing cer­tain instants, medi­at­ing expe­ri­ences, and bring­ing worlds togeth­er; while ana­logue prac­tices seem to respond to ques­tions of dura­bil­i­ty and remembrance/memory. It is almost as if the ana­logue trans­mits a sense of onto­log­i­cal secu­ri­ty because ana­logue objects exist in the world only as they are, and hold a degree of per­ma­nence. The dig­i­tal seems to trans­mit a sense of togetherness/belonging, but one that responds to rel­e­vance, and thus needs to be end­less­ly renewed/re-expe­ri­enced/re­sumed.


Phatic Photography

The pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of Irish-Span­ish were impact­ed by a myr­i­ad of tech­no­log­i­cal and and socio­cul­tur­al fac­tors. In addi­tion, avail­abil­i­ty and use of new media are also impact­ed by media lit­er­a­cy migra­tion and buy­ing pow­er (Madi­anou and Miller 2012; Pon­zane­si and Leurs 2014). In the field, the cost of cam­eras, cam­era phones, lap­tops, and prints was men­tioned as a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor to the prac­tice. For exam­ple, for Yessi­ca and her hus­band, the pur­chase of a dig­i­tal cam­era (as a lux­u­ry item), could be jus­ti­fied only by a big event, in this case, their first preg­nan­cy. Pedro and Maria invest on prints and oth­er tech­nolo­gies of dis­play (dig­i­tal frames for instance) and inter­ac­tion (a smart­phone) so that their par­ents can see their grand­chil­dren. A few months into the field­work, Celia men­tioned she was work­ing on an ana­logue album for her god­daugh­ter (Celia did some ana­logue black and white pho­tog­ra­phy before hav­ing chil­dren), and that it was going slow­ly because it was both dif­fi­cult and expen­sive to craft. Towards the end of the field­work, Yessica’s moth­er was hand­ed down a lap­top so that she could be more present in the Irish lives of both Yessi­ca and her brother.

The poly­medi­a­tions employed by transna­tion­al fam­i­lies work as aff­fec­tive cur­ren­cy (Ahmed 2004, 118-120). Emo­tions are attached to the con­stant­ly resumed com­mu­nica­tive exchanges with­in the fam­i­ly, which often involves pho­tographs. Many of the sto­ries of medi­a­tion of Span­ish-Irish fam­i­ly life were described as alter­na­tives to spend­ing time togeth­er in per­son. Celia talked about their cook­ing blog in these terms; so did Dario about a blog he had going with his dad; Pedro and Maria talked about grand­par­ents read­ing good­night sto­ries to their grand­chil­dren over Skype; Yessi­ca explained how she would “go out for cof­fee” with her mum over Skype, and how every now and then she would look at pho­to albums and prints with her own chil­dren, some­thing that Gala, her hus­band, and their two daugh­ters also did. The medi­a­tion of kin keep­ing involves ana­logue and dig­i­tal out­puts. It is a com­plex prac­tice in which dif­fer­ent affor­dances are acti­vat­ed to sup­port the devel­op­ment of social ties based both on nor­ma­tive and elec­tive frameworks.

As we con­tin­ue to see, pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies are essen­tial­ly a series of repeat­able and cus­tom­ary acts, where­by affect is medi­at­ed and tele-cocoons emerge, allow­ing for inti­mate inter­ac­tions to take place in them and through them. Celia, Gala, Pedro, and oth­er par­tic­i­pants con­sid­er pho­tographs as exten­sions of expe­ri­ences shared with oth­ers, and as such, they are not just click­bait: they are con­sti­tu­tive and the result of ongo­ing rela­tion­ships. When present in the rou­tines of every­day life (whether on the door of the refrig­er­a­tor or as a back­ground image on the screen of a cam­era phone), pho­tographs enable par­tic­i­pa­tion in place-relat­ed affairs (Agnew 2011, 23-24), acti­vate social sol­i­dar­i­ty, and con­tribute to cre­ate a sense of belong­ing. In this con­text, pho­tog­ra­phy is being in trans­for­ma­tion. It cre­ates a mode of action where­by actors visu­al­ly share tac­it and inter­sub­jec­tive knowl­edge. As social objects (Engeström 2005) and objects of affect (Edwards 2012), shared pho­tographs allow transna­tion­al fam­i­lies to engage affec­tive­ly. They expand pos­si­bil­i­ties for inter­ac­tion over spa­tial dis­tances. Dis­tinct tac­it knowl­edge is devel­oped around shared pho­tographs, which both imbues them with agency and per­for­ma­tive force. Pho­to­graph­ic exchanges are much more than the casu­al swap­ping of snap­shots. These back and forth inter­ac­tions, seem­ing­ly impromp­tu and casu­al, respond to an appeal for emo­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion and, arguably, func­tion at a phat­ic level.

The phat­ic is the com­mu­nica­tive fac­tor that reg­u­lates rela­tion­ships of prox­im­i­ty and social con­tact (Mali­nows­ki 1923). Process­es of inclu­sion and exclu­sion in a group are in the first instance phat­i­cal­ly man­aged through inter­ac­tions that are social­ly and mate­ri­al­ly locat­ed. The orig­i­nal­i­ty of phatic­i­ty in the dig­i­tal era resides in its ubiq­ui­ty and imme­di­a­cy, but the phat­ic acts are still emplaced, struc­tured, and con­tex­tu­al­ized by a com­mu­ni­ty. The phat­ic ele­ment of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy allows for an engage­ment with the rec­i­p­ro­cal, inter­sub­jec­tive, and often tac­it knowl­edge and actions that pre­sup­pose, but are also the fab­ric of, con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices. Con­nect­ed­ness and empa­thy are estab­lished phat­i­cal­ly in first instance.

In short, for transna­tion­al fam­i­lies, phat­ic inter­ac­tions acti­vate three dimen­sions of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: social bind­ing, expe­ri­ence shar­ing, and medi­at­ed cohab­i­ta­tion. The engage­ment in these cus­tom­ary, repet­i­tive, and always emo­tive inter­ac­tions results in what I call the “phat­ic com­mu­ni­ty” (Pri­eto-Blan­co 2010). With­in phat­ic com­mu­ni­ties, exchanged pho­tographs func­tion as both ini­tia­tors as well as out­comes of estab­lished phatic­i­ty. The pho­tographs exchanged work as exter­nal­iza­tions of shared expe­ri­ences, and as such, they are enablers of com­mu­ni­ty via both imme­di­ate iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as well as antic­i­pat­ed remem­brance. Pho­to­graph­ic exchanges estab­lish and sus­tain kin­ship in spite of dis­tances apart. By the struc­tur­al rep­e­ti­tion inher­ent to these exchanges, social cap­i­tal is cre­at­ed (Pri­eto-Blan­co 2017). Chil­dren are social­ized in larg­er fam­i­ly units, and pho­tographs become intrin­sic ele­ments of net­works of social sup­port. As per­for­ma­tives, shared pho­tographs are felic­i­tous only for the phat­ic com­mu­ni­ty.3 Senders and receivers become bond­ed in phat­ic inter­ac­tions (Lob­inger 2016; Jänkälä, Lehmuskallio, and Takala 2019; Ehrlén and Vil­li 2020) that take place in phat­ic zones, where cul­tur­al expec­ta­tions have the poten­tial to become mal­leable, flex­i­ble, and expand­ed. There­by, expe­ri­en­tial con­texts are rein­forced, inter­sub­jec­tive knowl­edge is devel­oped, and implict knowl­edge sur­faces along with the acknowl­edg­ment of fail­ure to com­pre­hend the cul­tur­al oth­er (Loen­hoff 2011). This moment can pro­duc­tive­ly lead to a fur­ther explo­ration and gen­er­a­tion of empa­thy towards cul­tur­al and social difference.

As Roswhita Breck­n­er dis­cuss­es, pho­tographs are cre­at­ed with the inten­tion of sur­pass­ing real­i­ty by adding some­thing new to it. The process of visu­al­iz­ing moments, as well as look­ing at the result­ing images, brings about a unique and strik­ing phe­nom­e­non (Erschei­n­ung) as well as poten­tial for change (Breck­n­er 2014, 128). The Span­ish-Irish fam­i­lies who col­lab­o­rat­ed with me cer­tain­ly shared pho­tographs in phat­ic zones, and these images pre­cip­i­tat­ed process­es of inclu­sion and exclu­sion as well as rede­fined the abil­i­ty to act upon social real­i­ties. The near future will tell to what extent dig­i­tal pho­tographs con­tin­ue to sus­tain and devel­op (dis)affect over time and space, par­tic­u­lar­ly if their dis­tri­b­u­tion as auto­mat­ed actions fur­ther evolves.

Fur­ther­more, the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of phat­ic pho­tog­ra­phy pre­sent­ed here has impli­ca­tions for the wider research and dis­cus­sion of phatic­i­ty. The analy­sis of data and the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work pro­posed here can be fur­ther expand­ed by schol­ars inter­ro­gat­ing inter­per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the dif­fer­ent func­tions of lan­guage. This inves­ti­ga­tion has unveiled the pro­duc­tive val­ue of the phat­ic dimen­sion of every­day, inti­mate visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion, demon­strat­ing that it is fun­da­men­tal in process­es of social­iza­tion of transna­tion­al fam­i­lies. Min­i­mal com­mu­nica­tive acts through which pres­ence is reaf­firmed are acts of emo­tion, vary­ing in degree of depth but strength­ened by per­pe­tu­ity. The (dis)affective nature of phatic­i­ty leads to the cre­ation and cor­rob­o­ra­tion of cir­cles of ref­er­ence and to the estab­lish­ment of inti­mate modes of inter­ac­tion. Even the barest form of phat­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion encap­su­lates tac­it and inter­sub­jec­tive knowl­edge, being thus an instance full of con­tex­tu­al­ized mean­ing. This line of research was timid­ly point­ed out by Bro­nis­law Mali­nows­ki (1923) and only sig­nif­i­cant­ly devel­oped by oth­er schol­ars (La Barre 1954; Ruesch 1972) since then. The present inves­ti­ga­tion sig­nals the poten­tial of the phat­ic to fur­ther under­stand emo­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion and its medi­a­tion, and points to a num­ber of ways to fur­ther expand the work herein.

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  1. Austin acknowl­edged the poten­tial of non-ver­bal means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to per­form as suc­cess­ful­ly as ver­bal means, as long as they are con­ven­tion­al, i.e. cus­tomized to the group. The­o­ry of lan­guage is applied here from the stand­point that lan­guage is in con­stant evo­lu­tion and that it is co-con­struct­ed by users, tech­niques, and tech­nolo­gies in place. It is worth men­tion­ing that lan­guage the­o­ry has already been employed to research prag­mat­ics of media use (Lang­ford 2001, 2006).

  2. This and all oth­er quotes have been trans­lat­ed by the author for the pur­pose of read­abil­i­ty. The orig­i­nal lan­guages of quotes were Span­ish and Spang­lish.

  3. Even if approached more sim­ply as signs, exchanged pho­tographs are still always tak­en, dis­trib­uted, and recalled in ref­er­ence to the shared expe­ri­ences they point to, whether that expe­ri­ence was lived togeth­er at the moment of image pro­duc­tion, and/or whether it takes place across gen­er­a­tions and loca­tions, or time and space—either way the para­mount ele­ment of “phat­ic com­mu­nion” (Mali­nows­ki 1923) remains.