Essay Review:

In Defense of the Poor Image by Hito Steyerl

Review by Sofia Ohmer

I recommend Hito Steyerl’s essay In Defense of the Poor Image, not only to those engaged with art or photography but to everyone interested in the concepts behind pictures themselves. Since the start of the digital age, images have inundated our everyday lives. Not only do we  access and see them but we also  produce them ourselves. Steyerl defines the “poor image” as images with bad quality and resolution — copies of the original. What is the inherent power of these downloaded, uploaded, shared, and re-edited pictures?

At first glance, the high-resolution picture may seem more impressive and magical than the pixelated one. Still, Steyerl argues that high-resolution pictures “are conservative in their very structure” since they are produced through high-end technologies associated with economies deeply embedded in our capitalist society.

This fetishization of the original and the commercialization of the cinemas relegated  the “poor image” to the margins. Left unseen, non-conforming visual cultures like experimental cinema became almost invisible, only kept alive through a few committed organizations and individuals. Supported by the shift from state-controlled media to privatized media production, the poor image displays the decline of  non-commercial cinema. Yet, this privatization also increases piracy and appropriation, thus opening up new spaces for the poor image and its circulation. With new technological inventions and platforms like YouTube, the poor image rises back to the surface. This new media merges art and life, consumer and producer, audience and author, and thus creates a more democratic "mass film production: an art of the people." Enabling a way for more groups to participate in the production of images.

Nevertheless, the platforms and spaces of the poor image are "a battleground for commercial and national agendas," — not merely platforms for positive democratic participation. Alongside experimental material, we find hate speech and spam. Audiences transform into editors and critics in this new production system. Therefore, even though the poor image works against the capitalist system, it ends up "being perfectly integrated" into contemporary society. With its high frequency and speedy attributes, it fits in our information system that thrives on short attention spans.

Inside this commercial system, the poor image creates an alternative economy, which is no longer anchored within the frame of state corporations or nations, allowing the sharing of marginalized content. This new shared history allows people to build alliances and provokes new discussions. It “shows the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable” and functions as a snapshot, showing the various sides of the crowds that circulate and create them, and therefore, showing our realities. Steyerl’s essay allows us to see  “poor images” in a new light. Mirroring our society, these images show us the often overlooked aspects of contemporary daily life.

Read the article here.

Additional text here.