Living in a visual culture

jack laytonby Jack Layton

In September of last year Instagram passed its 400 million user mark[i], racing past twitter for daily users. Whilst within Twitter, it’s well known that tweets with videos or embedded photos do far better than those that are singularly text based. The way we communicate is becoming more visual.

This can be seen in any number of trends from the social media we use, to the rise of people getting tattoos. I’ve a hypothesis that whereas an angst-y teen may have once scribbled poetry, or written a song for their guitar, today people are more likely to express aspects of their identity with a tattoo – an inherently visual expression of self.

The importance of the visual permeates everyday interaction as well. Last month I had surgery for a long term injury. All of a sudden I found myself loping (the appropriate verb for walking with crutches) around London. What was most striking, was the distinct shift in how people acted towards me. People gave up their seats on the tube and on the bus, made an effort to get out of my way on the street; and I was regaled with endless stories of skiing accidents, football tackles, and tumbles down the stairs. London revealed itself as having the capacity to care.

This struck a chord; all of a sudden the internal challenges I had been facing from an injury and the invisible affect this had been having on my mental wellbeing over the last two years had a visual expression. With a visual cue strangers and acquaintances alike were incredibly sympathetic and empathetic. The visual facilitates, but also precludes, certain forms of interaction and communication. A minor bout of depression is less likely to prompt an extension of help, than a sprain with a bandage and crutch.

The significance of the visual rears its head in more sinister ways. As I loped around London with my cast and crutches, I was visible in a way I hadn’t experienced before. People responded to the visual difference I presented with everyday acts of kindness, however it can also prompt more problematic interactions.

It is important to acknowledge the role visual difference plays in everyday instances of racism. In the sociology of multiculturalism, it is well documented how racial differences affects mundane interactions on the street[ii]. This can range from the slight alterations in body language as someone with different skin colour gets on a bus[iii], through to the CCTV cameras operating in airports that automatically calculate how ‘risky’ an individual is[iv] – where race is an important factor in the algorithm.

In the 2004 film Crash it is the effects of everyday prejudices of seeing someone with different skin colour that animates the drama. In one sequence two black men walk along a busy middle class street discussing the effect of racial prejudice. A white husband and wife approach from the other direction. Seeing the men, the woman pulls closer to her husband – an almost instinctual precognitive response to difference. Seeing this action and taking offence, the two black men pull out a gun and steal the couple’s car. The message is simple – mundane racism perpetuates and amplifies social tensions. Visual difference is integral to how the world is interpreted and experienced.

In a more contemporary context I think it would be fair to suggest that visual racial difference has become a shorthand for migration – it is how the concept and process of migration is understood and experienced. But visual racial difference isn’t migration.

The UK’s net migration for year ending December 2015 was 333,000, or 0.5% of the UK population[v]. Yet, according to the 2011 census, the non-‘White British’ population was 19 million[vi], or 19.5% of the UK population. I think this suggests at why migration is perceived as such an important issue by so many, the experience of visual difference inflates a contextually small number. In part this explains why people worried about ‘migration’ are not convinced by the Westminster elite, that can recite annual figures – when this doesn’t connect to their everyday experience of seeing people or stores that look ‘different’.

This disconnect between experience and discourse is damaging. It focuses policy efforts in the wrong direction. Rather than address the issue at hand, of how to live in an increasingly globally integrated society where encounters with difference are more and more frequent; the focus is on how to preserve a romanticised idea of the past. To control borders, rather than challenge the images we have of what Britain should be like. Britain is less white now, and will get less white – that doesn’t make it any less British.

My point here is that when society is experienced and interpreted in a visual register, it is necessary to consider the consequences of this. How the process of moving from one country to another (migration) can become inflected with racism when it is interpreted with a visual vocabulary; a visual vocabulary that has an idea of what it means to be British (predominantly white), and what it means to be foreign (predominantly BME).

How the visual affects our perception of things is also interesting to consider in relation to the EU (bear with me, I know our EU referendum special was last month, but I can’t help it, it’s everywhere!)

We view politics as happening when Cameron and Corbyn stare at each other across the dispatch box in the House of Commons. This adversarial style of politics isn’t the most efficient or effective, but it creates an image of two sides hashing it out, progress being made. On the other hand, the politics of the EU, with its committees, councils, and commissioners feels less concrete. The thread of democratic legitimacy connecting power to the people too diffuse. In the popular imagination the EU is not transparent; it happens over in Brussels – somewhere far away that can’t be seen. A reliance on a visual vocabulary affects how we understand politics.

The importance of the visual even stalks the metaphors we use to talk about politics. In day to day discourse difficult topics need to be ‘discussed in the open’, or ‘have a light shined upon them’, ‘illuminated’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people wishing to ‘see the facts’ about the EU. We trust things that can be seen, or as the Brexit campaign has capitalised on, imagined. Brexit simply needs to conjure the image of green and pleasant lands, an island nation intact, to communicate a notion of sovereignty. In contrast, the ideals of universal human rights and international liberal democracy that the EU represents is a far more difficult picture to paint.

This is not to discount the valid criticisms of the EU, but I think it is interesting to consider how the importance of visuals affects our relationship towards the institution. Just because something can be simply visualised, doesn’t necessarily mean it is the better option. Moreover, understanding something visually isn’t necessarily the most useful way of engaging with the world.

Rather than end on a bleak notion of some issues being fundamentally flawed because of their inability to be visualised. I want to suggest that the challenge has been met in creative ways. In particular, the recent film Eye in the Sky, offers a careful multifaceted look at the effects of drone warfare. How chains of command stretch across geographic space, and how multiple people are implicated in a difficult decision: to kill or not to kill. It provides a message that is thought provoking and empathetic, not judging but drawing out the moral dilemmas at the heart of contemporary war. And, it is effective because it is visually engaging. It communicated a complicated, abstract issue, and lays it out to a broad cinema-going audience.

Society being more visual can be problematic. But in recognising that, effort can be focused on telling careful and engaging visual stories.



[ii] Tonkiss, F. (2006) Space, the City and Social Theory; also Amin, A. (2012) Land of Strangers

[iii] Wilson, H. (2011) Passing propinquities in the multicultural city: the everyday encounters of bus passengering. Environment and Planning A, vol. 43, pg. 634-649.

[iv] Amoore, L. and De Goede, M. (2008) Risk and the War on Terror

[v] ONS Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: May 2016,

[vi] ONS 2011 UK Census,

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