Shake, noise and bad resolution: strategic uses of the poor image in contemporary ethnographic documentary film. Film Philosophy Conference 2019

This research with the Department of Film and Screen Media at University College Cork is funded by the Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship scheme.


In her essay on the “poor image”, artist Hito Steyerl argues that in visual culture there exists a “class system of images”, where high-end, high-resolution ‘rich’ images exist in opposition to low-end, low-resolution, compressed and degraded ‘poor’ images. As visual literacy develops alongside Internet technology, this class system has become recognisable to all. Technological progress has made it possible for many people to afford to buy high- resolution, high-quality, video equipment. Seamless autofocus, anti-shake and stabilisation mechanisms, and high-resolution capture in cameras make it easier to make high quality, professional-grade videos for relatively little money. This conference presentation seeks to examine the use-value in a repudiation of the ever-growing standards of image quality and resolution in experimental ethnographic documentary film. Through an examination of the work of artists and filmmakers who incorporate the limitations and faults of the technology they use into their films, such as installation artist Ben Russell and filmmakers from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, this presentation will ask what an aesthetic of ‘poor imagery’ brings to ethnographic documentary film. It will argue that the qualities that are desirable in ethnographic film, such as reflexivity, spontaneity and authenticity are amplified with lower image quality, and that an oppositional standpoint to video with high- production value which has become synonymous with corporate marketing and big-budget film can be useful to ethnographic filmmakers.

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. 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.

The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction. The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance. The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.

The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its filenames are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright. It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology. Not only is it often degraded to the point of being just a hurried blur, one even doubts whether it could be called an image at all. Only digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place.

Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores. They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images—their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism. Poor images are dragged around the globe as commodities or their effigies, as gifts or as bounty. They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification. Poor images show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable—that is, if we can still manage to decipher it.
Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image, e-flux journal, November 2009.

“We certainly don’t think of our, or anybody else’s cameras… as producing a singular kind of knowledge, and we tend to distrust artistic claims to knowledge in any form. Our own relationship to our cameras, and the images they produce, seem protean and plastic. They largely exceed our control, and even our consciousness.”

We Are Somatic Creatures: Hila Peleg in Conversation with Rosalind Nashashibi, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and Ben Russell , Documenta 14 Reader, 2017,anthropologists%20can%20also%20be%20recidivists.