Imagery and Power under Capitalism in the era of The 'Photographic'

Updated: Jan 4

An essay exploring the power and limitations of images ensconced within the neoliberal capitalist system of the West, through a synthesis and critical examination of contemporary theory and practice.

Photography’s ability to speak of universal truths has long been debated; whilst its indexical qualities have been applied in the likes of crime forensics and within the realms of documentary photography; a genre which historically has prided itself on its depictions of life ‘as is’. In the artistic world – photography has long been another medium and tool with which artists have sought to represent a reality as opposed to depict it indexically, exactly.

The aforementioned alludes to the kinds of power images have as entities in their own right as to their ability to evoke emotion, decide fate, depict/portray our inner visions and incite memories. But how effective is their power, really, when we consider them within external environments of socio-economic, political, consumption-driven infrastructures such as the neoliberal, capitalist West? An infrastructure in which images play a key role in the decision making and behaviours of respective citizens (through advertising, political campaigns or the ‘social’ for example).

Changes in structural circumstances of image creation and reception relate directly to their subsequent meaning and effect. This is only exacerbated by the move from physical, analogue photography into the digital, dematerialised, mobile, imagery of the present day; the ubiquitous streams of images of which we now have unfettered access at any place, any time – free to reencounter ad infinitum.

What power do images have now? What power might images have in the future? What has happened to time in relation to memory, in relation to images? How do digital and analogue technologies behave differently as regards the above?

In order to answer these questions, I will consult the written works of contemporary theorists, artists and practitioners, such as Mark Fisher, Joan Fontcuberta and Grafton Tanner, to outline the current discourse; highlighting points of both agreement and disagreement and seek to illuminate any gaps in which there may be scope to further this discussion

The texts I have chosen are: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009), Ghosts of My Life (2014) and Post Capitalist Desire (2021). The late Mark Fisher was a theorist whose work was concerned with popular culture and its connections to the socio-political realms of the Capitalist West (Stubbs, 2017). Fisher’s writing in later years focussed upon the ‘hauntological’ (a combination of haunting and ontological) remnants of the socialist-Utopian “hopes and ideals of the 20th century”, or “lost futures” (Stubbs, 2017) once promised in a bygone era, subsequently absorbed by post-Thatcher, present-day neoliberalism. Fisher was a founder and commissioning editor of publishers Zero Books and Repeater Books – both of which sought to introduce the world to the new, contemporary theorists of the present (Reynolds, 2017). Fisher was a lecturer and programme leader of the MA in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London at the time of his death, during which he was writing his subsequently-never-finished book ‘Acid Communism’ – the basis of which he taught in his position as a “mentor to young writers” (Reynolds, 2017) through a series of lectures. The completed lectures in the series were transcribed and edited into what has since become ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ – released through Repeater Books – by former student and now active writer and blogger, themselves, Matt Colquhoun – through which Fisher’s teachings live on and continue.

Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse (2016) and The Circle of the Snake (2020). Tanner, whose work is primarily concerned with nostalgia, neoliberalism and ‘Big Tech’ (, 2021) is a lecturer at the Department of Communication Studies, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, University of Georgia and is also a part of the Zero Books cohort.

Jörg Colberg’s Neoliberal Realism (2020), published by Mack Books as part of their ‘Discourse’ series of essays on photography; Mack Books is a contemporary, award-winning independent publishing house within the field of visual arts (, 2021), Dr. Jörg Colberg is an educator, writer and photographer whose website Conscientious Photography Magazine ( has become “one of the most widely read and influential websites dedicated to contemporary fine-art photography.” (, 2021)

David Levi Strauss’ Photography and Belief (2020). Strauss, an art critic and poet, received an Infinity Award for Writing from the International Center of Photography in 2007 and has since been chair of the graduate program in art writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York (, 2021).

The Foundation for Visual Arts, Krakow’s 2016 exhibition and accompanying catalogue, The (Un)Becomings of Photography – On Reaggregating and Reassembling the Photographic and Its Institutions (2016) Edited by and with an Introduction from Lars Willumeit including also essays by John Tagg and Duncan Forbes.

And, finally, The Post-Photographic Condition – a 2015 exhibition from Le Mois de la Photo a Montréal and its accompanying exhibition catalogue – Edited by and with an introduction from Joan Fontcuberta and including essays from Suzanne Paquet, Fred Ritchin, David Tomas and Derrick de Kerckhove. I include these exhibition catalogues as I believe their relevance in their text/visual documentation of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ to the dissemination of contemporary work within the visual-arts world to be of significant importance to this discussion.

With these aforementioned texts I aim to outline the current discourse; highlighting points of both agreement and disagreement and seek to illuminate any gaps in which there may be scope to further this discussion.


Fisher (2014, pp. 9 - 12) argues that in the last twenty years the Internet and subsequent technological advances in mobile telecommunications under capitalism have changed the fabric of everyday lived experience beyond all cognition. He suggests that culture has “lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present.” This inability to “achieve aesthetic representations of our current experience” he states as “a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism...a pathological symptom of society incapable of dealing with time and history”. The present has essentially become an amalgamized representation of repeated styles and ideologies, a metabolised absorption of bygone cultures and indeed countercultures, now incorporated into the system of capitalism itself in the form of aestheticized commodities. This temporal ambiguity of the present means it is no longer ‘clear’ or easy to establish and define the specific characteristics of present ‘culture’ as an entity in its own right.

Colquhoun (2021) elaborates that this process of absorption and technological advancement under capitalism is so rapid that what we consider as the present is constantly changing at a rate that outpaces what we as humans are capable of physically articulating and representing at any given time. The instability of this continuous present, or “extreme present” (Chiocchetti, F. and Stein, L., 2016, p. 86) leads to societies seeking out stability in the ‘what is known’ and ‘stability’ of the past, oftentimes represented through nostalgic iconography, imagery and subsequent aestheticized commodities.

This extreme present is arguably a tool with which capitalism subjugates and controls its subjects; Forbes (2016, p. 78) posits that “In a state of emergency,” such as a breakdown in temporality, “historicism identifies only with the victors, ignoring the real conditions of cultural production - burdensome to investigate - in favour of a procession of great treasures.” If history is indeed ‘won by the victor,’ this history ignores and rejects the many nuanced lived experiences of those at the time in favour of a singular, diluted narrative dictated by those with the power to do so: the capitalist elite. It is a curated ‘falseness’ that includes objects and ‘relics’ imbued with significance as to said narrative at the expense or exclusion of the social contexts and their respective ‘becomings’ – the nuanced processes through which these artefacts came in to being.

The amnesiac, pre-recession, nostalgia-tinged selective memory of capitalism is problematic in that, as Tanner (2020, p. 11) explains, “Filtering memories out of one's mind is a natural part of remembering [but] this can be a dangerous move for society to make, especially when we forget the atrocities for our history.” Tanner (2020, p. 46) expands further that the past was a time with a “cadre of its own problems” and that to portray it differently is “toothless and safe”.

What role does imagery play – specifically – in enabling this ahistorical extreme present under Western Capitalism?

Photography, at least in its analogue form, has historically been regarded as a process of chemical ‘fixing’, a method through which segments of a given ‘present’ may be fixed (rather, captured) for future viewers (readers) – a process by which memory is assured through photography’s imbued ‘evidential’ qualities – its adorned assertion of ‘proof’ that ‘this thing happened because it has been photographed.’ De Kerckhove (2015). We as viewers can return to these photographs in order to recollect a given moment in time, however, we must be careful here to outline that these respective image-derived memories are specific and unique to that of the viewer; whilst ‘this thing happened because it has been photographed’ – the lived experience of this moment, or the emotions evoked through viewing/reading any image – regardless of whether the viewer/reader was ‘there’ themselves at the time of the photographs making, will differ depending upon the respective viewer/reader at any given moment in time (De Kerchove, 2015, Ritchin, 2015).

This effect is measurable in both the personal / private space – through the use of printed family photo albums, for example – and in the public ‘urban’ space in which the imagery of advertising campaigns (which rely heavily upon their imbued semiotics and coded language) “fought hard to colonise consumers’ thoughts” (Tanner, 2020, p. 59) throughout the capitalist developments in the years prior to 9/11, and the subsequent invention of social media.

With the invention of the internet, advances in mobile telecommunications, social media, the “digital condition”, as De Kerckhove, (2015, p. 138) explains, has “dramatically affected space, time and self...the main parameters of our lives.” Digital technologies have created a present in which all information can be accessed at all times, the past recalled instantly – with much of this information now disseminated through imagery, transferred and received in ubiquity via the participatory, sharing economies of social media applications such as Instagram and Facebook (Willumeit, 2016). With cameras now in most mobile phones, anyone can make an image instantly... these “amateurs”, as Paquet (2015, p. 151) explains, “rampant in social media networks today...put their faith in the testimony of the photographic image...’what I see has been here’. For amateurs...are believers.” It is arguably belief in the image that is most effective at measuring the efficacy of the image as a method of coercion and control.

If we do indeed believe what we see, then the nostalgic imagery of the pre-recessional past imposed upon us in the present, with its tendency to distort the past through misrepresentation, Tanner (2020, p. 87) argues “encourage[s] the public to view the present as unfixable or, worse, in need of an authoritarian figure to police citizens... this popular manifestation of nostalgia encourages widespread amnesia during a time when historical awareness is badly needed.” In the instability of the continuous extreme present, ubiquitous commodified nostalgia and its associated imagery present a safety and comfort in the ‘stability’ of the ‘known’ past. These representations however open the doors for authoritarian or dictatory modes of governance and control, with those in power – the capitalist elite – able to decide effectively what the past ‘looked’ like according to their own agenda in the present.


Fisher (2014, p. 109) describes this state of existence as a “theoretically pure anterograde amnesia”, brought about through a warp[ing] of the experience of reality by a wielding of power; a “cognitive dissonance” (Fisher, 2014, p. 95) in the subjugated. Imagery is implicated within this representation of reality through the likes of ‘reality television’ or ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, in which we as viewers are encouraged to believe that what we are seeing is indeed the “unmediated” (Fisher, 2009, p. 48) ‘real’ or reality. The “insoluble dilemma”; whether the behaviours of those filmed were altered by the presence of cameras, leads to an evasive ‘hyperreality’ – the transformation of the commodified aesthetic representation of reality into what is to be understood as factual reality itself.

This dematerialisation in the digital era is the result of an “infinite visual avalanche” (Fontcuberta, 2015, p. 11) in which we are all simultaneously both producer and consumer of imagery; the spectator or user reintroduced into the spectacle (De Kerchove, 2015) “where [nearly] everything in the world... now has a double...circulat[ing] in a parallel flux.” (Paquet, 2015, p. 150) “We inhabit the image, and the image inhabits us.” (Fontuberta, 2015, p. 6).

This power of the image as to its ability to represent ‘reality’ therefore ultimately hinges upon belief in the image itself (Strauss, 2020, Ritchin, 2015) and technical images (that is images made with apparatus, or the digital as opposed to analogue film) behave differently between machine and machine, and human and machine. “Belief requires...connection, some reciprocity... [analogue] photography is a reciprocal intervention, and so involves belief.” (Straus, 2020, p. 64). Imagery’s transformation into digital ‘data’ – no longer the analogue, tangible objects imbued with belief – their “recording of light” (Willumeit, 2016, p. 21, De Kerchove, 2015, p. 138), rather forever malleable, changeable series of data points – their “recoding of light” standardised into homogenised digital file formats, such as JPEG, (Willumeit, 2016, Paquet, 2015) means that they now function independently of belief (Fontcuberta, 2015). Machine learning and algorithms allow for independent, autonomous accumulation of data – capital in this sense becomes image, “turn[ing] being into having, and having into appearing, and it has turned appearances into a commodity, leading to estrangement and alienation.” (Straus, 2020, p. 64).

Ensconced within the “new visual order” (Fontcuberta, 2015, p. 6) over which the screen holds primacy, the image as arguably the main vessel of information (De Kerchove, 2015) and its subsequent transference, abundance and access, its “decisive...encylopedization” (Fontcuberta, 2015, p. 18), leads to overwhelm; a panoptical world of surveillance (Tanner, 2020) and “universal voyeurism” (Fontcuberta, 2015, p. 18) in which ubiquitous overabundance of everything leaves us with “little meaning” (Ritchin, 2015, p. 145) an apathetic desensitisation, or insensitivity (Fontcuberta, 2015) of sorts.

This dualistic belief/disbelief in the image means; on one hand, if images we are presented with under capitalism are in fact representations of ‘reality’ whose purpose is further subjugation and coercion (Colberg, 2020) into the participatory sharing economies of capitalism through the “distortion of the significance of events and destroying credibility” (Strauss, 2020, p. 65) – it can be difficult to distinguish between what is advertising and what is not (Tanner, 2020) – the likely result is rather disbelief in the image. On the other hand, we need to be able to believe in images and what they depict if they are ever to be successful tools for inciting actual change: Imagery can be used to present representations of what this change ‘might’ look like, for example – and these images have to ‘come from’ us.

This duality signifies a tipping point of sorts; either images, inclusive of ‘the photographic’ (imagery beyond the notion of the analogue, chemically-‘fixed’ photographs of yesteryear) are left to become continually absorbed into capitalism to be used and appropriated as a tool for its own gain – or – their potential for change and consciousness raising recognised as a tool for ‘good’; a “Weltverbesserungsmaschine” (Willumeit, 2016, p. 22). Highlighting its perhaps unique potential power as a tool for a coercion – whichever side of the socio-political fence. How might this be achieved? The answers are likely linked to our desires.


Desire is perhaps best separated into two fields: the individual level of desire, and that of collective, societal desire. Fisher (2009) argues that our individual desires are incorporated into the capitalist structure and sold back to us as a means of pacification and distraction. Our needs and wants are used as control mechanisms in this way by capitalism. Collective desire, for example, desire in the form of attempts at different ways of living, embodied in the counterculture of the 1960s hippie movement, are in the present day “captured and neutralised by capitalism itself” (Colquhoun, 2021, p. 10) in the form of appropriated imagery and nostalgic aesthetic commodity. This monopolisation of desire by capitalism means that it is always one step ahead – the likelihood of any deviance from this control-society status quo is unlikely (Fisher, 2021).

The image is intrinsic to desire which is intrinsic to control – it is through the assistance of imagery within advertising that our desires are sold back to us (Tanner, 2020). This is further evidenced in the aforementioned methods of nostalgia appropriation through imagery; the likes of which may present a more ‘stable’ view of the past. It is through technological advances, their subsequent consequences as to the present-day ubiquity of images of the past, that this desire to “escape and retreat into the past is commodified...” allowing us to “...control the present state of things by reclaiming what is lost.” (Tanner, 2020, p. 10).

Technological advances have rendered the ‘fixed’ image somewhat obsolete as they transform into the malleable or ‘changeable’ – the unstable; a data ‘flow’ of ubiquitous digital imagery (Forbes, 2017). Fontcuberta (2015, p. 6) describes this transformation as a replacing of the desire for “immortality” by a desire for impermanence and synchroneity; desire understood here as belonging to Capitalism. However, on an individualised level, the desire for the historical perspective of the indexical image will arguably not dwindle, it may in fact grow stronger – as we seek a ‘truth’ and stability in images – an evidence or proof (Strauss, 2020). Belief and desire can be understood as reciprocal in this way; unless we break from traditional utilitarian understandings of desire, of ‘pleasure’ – its potential for appropriation and manipulation will continue in a self-perpetuating manner under capitalism (Fisher, 2021). What is needed is new terminology, language and theory to analyse the complicated nuance of desire in order to fully understand its integration within the capitalist system. Only then, can its capacity as a motivator for change (out of capitalism and into a post-capitalism society) be accurately measured.


Belief and desire as relating to the image also correspond to how we think of and shape our identity, both individually and collectively. Fisher (2021, p. 174) describes collective identity as perhaps best understood as a physical materiality, a set of “properties that we know and possess” – this works on a number of levels: a grouping of people by race, sex, gender, geography, for example – this is made proportionate with individual identity when attention is diverted away from commonality into individual subjectivity – rooted in desire and belief. It is arguable that commonality in shared identity is neglected in favour of marginalisation and individuality under Western capitalist neoliberalism which has long benefited from canonisation, through which the exertion of powers by way of privileging some voices, historically Caucasian, “heteronormative, male perspectives” (Tanner, 2020, pp.83-84), over others – has led to over-simplified accounts of history and narrow classifications of shared identity. This marginalisation excludes the nuanced lived experiences and perspectives of the majority. This is propped-up by the curation of artworks in institutions and museums in the culture sectors, deemed significant as to the narrative of history decided by the elite – who have historically been the gatekeepers to the culture world (Forbes, 2016, Tanner, 2020).

Simultaneously, this push for marginalisation by capitalism has also had a homogenising effect on identity through economic globalisation. “Networked photographic media and phenomena play a major and ever-growing role in this condition, as both productive and receptive portals of identity formation and life-world construction.” (Willumeit, 2016, p. 21). The network of the Internet has allowed for a Benthamian ‘panopticon’ with which we are able to ‘see’ everything and everyone; whilst we are encouraged into subjective individuality by neoliberalism – we are indeed able to ‘see’ the ways in which we are alike – our commonalities – through the imagery of the Internet. This contradiction has essentially confused our perspectives as to our individual identities and that of our collective whole.

In the same manner that history is won by the victor, photography has historically been a tool for oppression; the affluent having say in how they are portrayed and depicted (if at all) as opposed to the poorer, who have often been vilified and exploited through photography – their images made, decided,by a photographer with their own inherent bias (Colberg, 2020). In the present era of mobile camera ubiquity, in which the “number of mobile devices...” mobile phones, likely most of which have cameras in-built “...operating worldwide is expected to reach 17.72 billion by 2024” (, 2020), photography (imagery) and the social, the private and the public (Tanner, 2020) have become further entwined (Forbes, 2016, Strauss, 2020); it may still be considered a tool for oppression, but the method of oppression has evolved.

Capitalism encourages participatory identity ‘performance’, or subjective curation, through image-based social media applications such as Instagram and Facebook. Veiled as a ‘freedom’ through which people may represent themselves how they wish to be seen, they also function more disturbingly as tools for normalising self-censorship, self-policing and self-surveillance – effectively doing capitalism’s work for it. If you do not participate, Willumeit (2016, p. 12) argues, you essentially “do not exist” in the era of the digital and the digital image.

Paquet (2015, p. 151) elaborates further arguing that the profusion of images within “cyberspace” are the resultant outcome of the “frenzy of the snapshot”; with its direct connotations of colonialism and “conquering” – an illustrated evidence of having been somewhere at a certain time. There is an attached affirmation of self and a confirmation of existence – the evidential image imbuing within us a kind of pseudo-agency whereby we may consider ourselves as individuals separate from the system.

Capitalism encourages us to think that we have agency through individuality, but are we, as individuals, really in control? Or are we coerced tactically and deliberately based upon our aggregated desires through data points? Through a combined scarcity of time and encouraged over-productivity we are tactically distracted and coerced into pacified apathy when it comes to imagining / creating change outside of our prescribed ‘norms’ (Tanner, 2020).

Fisher (2021, p. 165) hypothesises that identity (as part of a solution) may provide an answer through a reappraisal of its understanding: If identity is considered a ‘fixed’ state of being, an “...are” or “...have been” – when consciousness is introduced – a fluctuating state of becoming as opposed to a fixed ‘being’ – sets in, a transformation takes place as to the agency of that identity. A process of reification in which we understand our identity to be one ‘thing’, consciousness intervenes as we discover or imagine something ‘new’, our identity changes to embody this new understanding – becomes another ‘thing’ different from the ‘thing’ before. Therefore, it is not necessarily about how we identify now, in the present, it is about how we might identify or say we ‘are’ in the future. A “hyperstitional” (Fisher, 2021, p. 165) willing-to-existence. Consciousness as part of identity in this sense is an active willing-to-be of a particular state of being – or a perpetuating state of becoming as opposed to being. It is a process of actualisation of ideas, perhaps better understood herein as ‘consciousness raising.’

This is true at both the level of the individual and at the level of group, societal consciousness – in which it may arguably become easier to imagine alternate ways of living than those of Western capitalist neoliberalism.

When we combine consciousness raising and the varied visual mediums of ‘the photographic’ there may be ways to envisage and illustrate alternatives to capitalism.

Imagery and the Future

Capitalism has thus far absorbed various artists’ aesthetic attempts at critique and rejection of the status quo (notably imagery) – rendering their intended messages and semiotics null and void – whether through the marketisation of the cultures industry or cuts to arts council funding and higher education (Fisher, 2014); striking at the heart of the very base of people who may critique the system through a process of gradual defunding and subversion through appropriation into commodified aesthetics. Countercultures “ punk... [are] dead as soon as [they] are reduced to an aesthetic style.” (Fisher, 2021, p. 7). When a movement or ‘struggle’ becomes commodified or iconified, it implies that the struggle itself has since passed – has finished. It gives the illusion of a reality of present ‘stability’ which leads to a reluctance and apathy to change the existing present. (Fisher, 2021).

If we are to understand the Real as “unrepresentable” (Fisher, 2009, p. 18) within the representational reality of capitalist realism, then one approach to dismantling this façade would be to highlight the inconsistencies within this representation when they arise – to highlight the ‘actual’ realities when possible. De Kerchove (2015, p. 140) argues that “photos are already at distance from experienced images exude extreme realism and can be manipulated so easily, they become the same, in effect, as paintings.” – digital photography is the epitome of the representation of the real in this sense; so how effective might they be as tools for creating change?

Possible answers discussed presently argue that we need to reconsider the terminology surrounding imagery. Images, with their ‘coded’ subliminal meanings – their visual languages and semiotics – play a vital role in contemporary capitalist society. Capitalism thrives on illiteracy of the written word – it promotes simplification and instantaneity – the ‘fast-talking’ of imagery. Not only in the ‘physical’ space of the high street billboard, but in that of the digital – internet, ‘virtual’ space.

What constitutes as imagery in our present day has evolved from material, tangible form – constructed and disseminated physically – to incorporate moving image, digital construction and computational effects (intangible, malleable digital ‘files’) - transferred digitally from device to device, therefore, if we are to discuss digital imagery using terminology and visual literacy previously reserved for the analogue photography of the past, we “expose...the error of categorising images with labels that digital technology has rendered obsolete.” (Fontcuberta, 2015, p. 18): an ““unbecoming” of photography and the “becoming” of the photographic” (Willumeit, 2016, p. 6).

The transformation of imagery has implications for the photography institution at large; as the digital space of the Internet becomes the contemporary ‘site’ at which the ever-increasing profusion of imagery (and culture) is consumed (Paquet, 2015), the institution (its museums and galleries) will have to rethink “ terms of the way it operates, what it shows, and how it addresses its public.” (Forbes, 2016, p. 73)

If ‘the photographic’ is reduced to the umbrella-genre of ‘post photography’ it becomes reified, aestheticized and commodified – packaged so as to uphold “conservative neo-formalism” under the banner of existing canonical “institutionalised art discourse”, undermining its efficacy as a “social technique” (Forbes, 2016, p. 77) or tool for ‘consciousness raising’. Tanner (2020) suggests that what is needed is an abolition of the canon – so that what may be created in its place is a more “complex cultural history” – one devoid of “pastiche... or parody... and [their subsequent] complicat[ing] of history” (Tanner, 2014, p. 34) and indeed a more complex imagining of the future (Colquhoun, 2021), led by freelance image curators and contemporary image-based artists outside of the institution: “those voices on the margins of the art world closer to the rapidly evolving social ontologies of the image.” (Forbes, 2016, p. 77).

Where the visual post-modern artistic forms of pastiche have failed arguably lie in their lack of open critique, ultimately becoming commodified themselves, subsumed unto capitalism by way of ironic commodification, thus complicating consciousness further instead of elevating it (Tanner, 2014). Instead, appropriation might be pushed further into the realms of a “dematerialisation of authorship” (Fontcuberta, 2015, p. 7) in which the creation of the work perhaps more overtly illustrates imagery’s changed status and social ontology in the digital era: politicising it through highlighting its present-day function as an essentially ‘authorless’ visual, transferrable and shareable, codified knowledge receptacle (Forbes, 2016).

Some other forms of artwork manage this overt critique with relative success: ‘Vaporwave’ is a cultural movement, comprising of music and visual art that seeks to “retroactively upend the progress of history by dissolving the notion of temporality altogether or by trashing the icons of our past.” (Tanner, 2014, p. 49). Vaporwave, whilst produced digitally, samples and appropriates the pre-existing music, sound and imagery of pre-recessional capitalism which, when listened to and seen in the present, draws attention to the ‘lost’ futures promised by capitalism in the past. “As a new method of Internet-produced punk” (Tanner, 2014, p. 49) it is produced under pseudonym, ‘released’ (most often) for free and seeks to disrupt our present understanding of history. In this way, vaporwave might be understood as a form of consciousness raising – a ‘revealing’ of the Real. It is a type of ‘Hauntological’ art that, much like photography with its “capturing of lost moments” (Fisher, 2014, p. 152) simultaneously represents both a presence and an absence.

Appropriation can “dislocate established narratives, break habits, allow new associations to coalesce.” (Fisher, 2014, p. 189); by appropriating or adopting existing imagery we imbue in them new meanings, subversions (Fontcuberta, 2015) – there is potential to undermine the ‘realism’ represented through imagery produced within and by capitalism. To illuminate the aforementioned moments of ‘reality’ through alternate representations. This way, collage and the montage present ways in which we make think differently about imagery and how we may move forward into something ‘new’.

The open (free) content movement is also an example of anti-establishment, anti-institutional visual activism; “creat[ing] modes of collective learning and knowledge production” (Willumeit, 2016, p. 21) through the expanding subcultures of do-it-yourself methodology, for example, the proliferation of self-published ‘zines’ as a form of rebellion against the institution (Forbes, 2016) and a reliance upon the Internet to disseminate visual media (and subsequent knowledge).

The advances in virtual technologies, involving immersive digitally created image ‘environments’ allow for the imagining of worlds different to our own reality. Whilst this may be a useful tool for visualising change from the status quo, Tanner (2020, pp. 100-101) argues that the desire for the future, and the “craving for the unreal” may ultimately distract from the problems at hand within the present – with many choosing to “leave realism behind.” Much like the existing problems of the institution and its selective narrative of history, virtual reality may suffer the same fate if its “totalising capabilities” (Tanner, 2020, p. 97) are shaped and moulded by capitalism – and not the many voices of the subjugated. Thus, virtual reality itself becomes another commodified tool for oppression.


Photography has transcended into the ‘beyond-photography’ – it has transformed from our historical understanding into something else: ‘the photographic’ (Fontcuberta, 2015) – an amalgam of different visual media that renders our prior understanding of photography a mere “art form” (De Kerchove, 2015, p. 140).

The general consensus appears to be that, in the era of the digital image (the photographic) under capitalism, attention needs to be paid to these changes in the relational ontology and social qualities of the image – this change should be forefront – highlighted – and overt within the creation of the imagery and in its resultant outcome. These image works, coupled with an expanded visual literacy and terminology may provide means through which consciousness may be raised as to the power that images have (and have always had) within the socio-political realm of present day, and indeed historic, capitalism (Colberg, 2020, Fontcuberta, 2015, Paquet, 2015, Chiocchetti, F. and Stein, L., 2016, Willumeit, 2016, Fisher, 2009, Forbes, 2016).

Without this proposed expanded, updated visual literacy, terminology and understanding as to the ontology of the image and its place within contemporary capitalist society, it is my understanding that any attempt to counter the historic coercive powers of imagery within capitalism may themselves be at risk of subsumption unto capitalism itself. ‘Zines’ in their post-internet punk conception may become a commodified, aestheticized style themselves if their creation is not coupled with an open-content (free-knowledge-sharing) dissemination. Visual representations of counterculture, through appropriation of existing imagery, risk reification if their intended subversions are not made overt – their criticism of the status quo not made obvious to the viewer.

Image-based artworks of specified authorship (understanding authorship as ownership – a founding pillar of capitalism) risk an imbued contradiction if they seek to criticise capitalism and retain ownership themselves.

The virtual space of the Internet may be the final frontier: the last space left to be colonised – either by ‘Big Tech’ capitalism – or by the ‘communities’ of the world; a reclaiming of a new ‘public’ space – if it can be called that. In the virtual space where we are ‘free’ to take on new identities and ‘be’ different to who we are in the ‘real’ world – De Kerchove (2015, p. 138) argues that photography in fact plays “the dominant role in this evolution.”

Based on the above, imagery’s power and limitations within capitalist society are linked directly to our ability as producers and consumers of images to continually re-think, re-correlate and re-construct our understandings of what images encompass. Through a continued process of consciousness raising there may be hope to constrain the infrastructural power of capitalism over imagery and control our own visual narrative, one formed of the many complex, nuanced lived experiences of society at large; “a political fight be fought in and over seemingly unrelated domains, such as the world of magazine covers...” (Colberg, 2020, p. 32) and their homogenising effects as to their representations of our culture at large. Times of instability, such as our continuous ‘extreme’ present, are opportunity for consciousness to be raised, change to be made and for the ‘new’ to emerge. “They... present opportunities to undo wrongs and install rights - together - as humans on a mission for planetary citizenship!” (Willumeit, 2016, p. 7).


Chiocchetti, F. and Stein, L. (2016) ‘An “Anti-Glossary” of Photography and Visual Culture’, in Willumeit, L. (ed.) (Un)Becomings of Photography – On Reaggregating and Reassembling the Photographic and Its Institutions. Krakow: Foundation for Visual Arts

Colberg, J. (2020) – Photography’s Neoliberal Realism – UK: Mack Books (2021) Is Seeing Believing? Available from:

(Accessed: 26.04.21)

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#photography #advertising #capitalism #capitalistrealism #semiotics #visualliteracy #consciousnessraising #power #belief #digital #network #digitalimagery #thephotographic #identity #time #memory #representationvsreality #desire #controlsociety

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