Thinking out Loud

In Defense of the Poor Image by Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl talks about the transformation of an authentic image and how it changes through time and in the process becomes something called a poor image. In her paper Hito Steyerl gives a definition of a poor image as an image that has bad resolution, lack of quality, image that is accessible, that was re-downloaded and reedited many times:

“It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.”

She feels that sometimes it cannot even be called an image because it gets degraded to the point of a hurried blur. And in response to this she feels that it is only digital technology that can accomplish something like this. However as she further discusses this there is beautiful change in perception that I could infer.

In her article “In defense of the Poor Image” Hito has divided the poor image based on 6 criteria- Resolution, Resurrection, Privatization and Piracy, Imperfect Cinema, Meaning and How Image is being seen today.

Focus is used as an identifier of class position and being out of focus leads to lowered value in terms of an image. This is very well illustrated by the example of Allen Woody’s movies, where the main character being out of focus was not a mistake but achieved on purpose. And this lack of definition turned out to become a material problem for the artist as he couldn’t get work post this.This indicated how hierarchy of the image is not based on sharpness but more primarily on resolution. The hierarchy of the images has been compared to that of a flagship store where the high end products are given more value by better marketing while the more affordable ones are distributed in the for of DVDs or online –as a form of Poor Image.

Twenty or thirty years ago experimental and essayistic cinema literally started getting invisible as it was expensive to keep them running in theatres and they were deemed too marginal to be broadcast in television and online. Hito claims this development is due to the “connection to the neoliberal radicalization of the concept of culture as commodity, to the commercialization of cinema, its dispersion into multiplexes, and the marginalization of independent filmmaking.”

These kinds of content were kept alive only by certain organizations who would circulate VHS amongst themselves. However with the possibility to be streamed online, things quickly began to change. This was where things started getting interesting. A lot of rare and unseen content began to resurface either as a carefully curated content on Ubuweb or just as a pile of content on Youtube. Because of this, the life of a Poor Image changed drastically, you could now download it, re watch it, reedit it or even improve them. And the new content gets circulated again. The meaning and purpose of image changed.

Through the example of imperfect cinema- Hito quotes Espinosa -“The imperfect cinema is one that strives to overcome the divisions of labor within class society. It merges art with life and science, blurring the distinction between consumer and producer, audience and author. It insists upon its own imperfection, is popular but not consumerist, committed without becoming bureaucratic.

Hito compares poor images to imperfect cinema in the contrary to perfect cinema which represents a flagship store. The possibility of poor images to be distributed more easily and its flexible ethics of appropriation and remix enables a contribution from a much larger group of people. So the users become editors, critics, translators, and co-authors of poor images.

The thing about this situation is that, this medium can be used in both the positive and negative sense. For instance, hate speech, spam, and other rubbish also make their way through digital connections. So it acts like a book and bane.

So this network has become not just a place for fragile new content but also a battleground for commercial and national agendas. And with the large number of contributors, these poor images become popular images. It represents the mindset of the people and the number of people who cared enough to reformat them, edit them, add subtitles in the case of cinema and distribute them further. This throws light on a new perspective towards poor image. Poor image become poor because they get re edited, compressed and travel fast. They may lose quality as an image but they gain speed and meaning because of the number of people who are acting upon it.

This helps because this enable some militant images and essayistic cinema to actually fulfil their purpose of creating an alternate economy of content which have greater meaning in them. As Hito explains-“The poor image thus constructs anonymous global networks just as it creates a shared history. It builds alliances as it travels, provokes translation or mistranslation, and creates new publics and debates. By losing its visual substance it recovers some of its political punch and creates a new aura around it.”

Today with the advent of social media, the meaning of poor image has changed all together. The fast circulating images are now creating new conversations. Opening up opportunities to understand different perspectives from across the globe. So its functioning as a carrier of loads and loads of metadata through time.

So I believe that a poor image may lose its quality, but it has only gotten richer with meaning and content.

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