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Some Thoughts on Camera Phones, Space and Gender
By: Rob Carey

December 12, 2006


For some time, I have been interested in camera phones and their implications for the various concerns this project encompasses. I recently came across the following account by software entrepreneur Philippe Kahn, in which he explains that he invented the device in 1997 to share photographs of his newborn baby:

While Sonia [Kahn’s wife] was doing the real work, I had my digital camera and my cell-phone working together and able to pull email addresses from my laptop. It took a couple of trips to Radio Shack as well as all my sleep for 48 hours. Sophie, our baby, was doing really well and were were able to share picture-messages with friends and family around the world in real time. The eureka moment was when we received messages back from friends and family going: “How did you do this? Where did you get this device?” Within a few days Sonia and I realized that if we could turn a real cool demo into a fully scalable system that could serve millions of picture-mails in real-time we would be building a great business: cool, innovative, exciting and really useful to about everyone

Kahn situates the camera phone’s myth of origin within the most intimate of social units – the family. In so doing, he establishes a neat congruity between the camera phone and conventional snapshot photography. Bogardus (1981), for example, contrasts the intimate nature of family photographs with the worldly nature of other image-making media: “Instead of being a public form of communication, the snapshot - despite its ubiquity - has always been a private one” (p. 114). Similarly, Metz (1985) argues that photography's chief realm has largely been that of domesticity, viz. the picture that commemorates family observances. He claims that “the kinship between […] photography and privacy, remains alive and strong as a social myth, half true like all myths” (Metz, 1985, p. 82).

As of this writing, however, the camera phone is still sufficiently strange as to be unencumbered by similarly commonplace cultural habits or understandings. Kahn’s account makes clear that networked interactivity is integral to the camera phone’s essence; the camera phone is a protean device capable of a broad range of functions, including text-messaging, e-mail, Web browsing, music and video downloads, games and, of course, image capture. It is therefore difficult to think of it as a home- or family-centered medium in the quite same way that Metz and Bogardus thought of the conventional camera. Indeed, the camera phone is exemplary of the various portable wireless technologies that have altered the microsocial negotiations peculiar to what Goffman called the public order (that is, spaces characterized by face-to-face contact among strangers or the “merely acquainted” (1971, p. xi)).

Interestingly, however, some research suggests that everyday camera phone use corresponds closely to traditional snapshot photography, insofar as it involves sharing information with friends and family (Okabe, 2004; Kindberg, Spasojevic, Fleck & Sellen, 2004; Van House, Davis, Ames, Finn, & Viswanathan, 2005). But this raises an interesting question: if the camera phone is contiguous with conventional home photography, why would anyone actually need such a device when a stand-alone digital camera would suffice? Despite the various uses to which camera phones may be put, the instrument appears to confound even some constituents of the camera phone industry itself. For example, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) issued a document in 2004 entitled Click Creatively: Novel Uses for Your Camera Phone, in which eleven of the twelve novel uses could have been performed with a stand-alone camera. Only one – “Let your kids use your camera phone to capture and email a same-day photo to friends during a family vacation” – invoked the camera phone’s interactive capacities. The slightly desperate nature of the CEA’s enterprise is evident in the twelfth suggested use: “Recreate that perfectly presented restaurant meal at home by using your camera phone to take a photo of it next time you dig in!” One could argue that any technology whose prospects depend on a general wish to photograph about-to-be-eaten food is doomed. It would seem, to paraphrase Latour (1997), that the camera phone is a solution to a problem that has yet to be invented. Yet the CEA’s inability to define a distinct role for the camera phone illustrates a critical point: cultural habits surrounding new technologies often arise from concerted efforts to create an ethic of use that defines and directs the user’s engagement (Munir & Phillips, 2005).

Practices surrounding conventional photography, for example, were carefully influenced by interests with a commercial stake in the medium. During much of the twentieth century, for example, Kodak promulgated a vision of home and family to which photography was central (the so-called ‘Kodak moment’). Integral to these efforts was the conceptualization of specific subjectivities for whom the taking of family photographs amounted to a kind of moral imperative. Kodak’s advertising often imposed upon mothers, for instance, the obligation to act as camera-wielding archivists of their family’s history (West, 1999). Indeed, Kodak’s strong association of the female subject and ‘home’ articulated a doctrine of separate spatial spheres for men and women so durable as to be subtly – or not so subtly, depending on one’s reading – reproduced in Kahn’s anecdote. Equally durable, of course, are the various other social practices surrounding photography that Kodak and other concerns worked so hard to create. Today, it is absolutely unremarkable to commemorate notable moment’s in family life – graduations, weddings, holidays – by taking a photograph, even though this notion was once alien to most people (Munir & Philips, 2005).

It is the struggle to articulate a role for the camera phone in society that interests me. Accordingly, I would like to explore a particular effort to construct the camera phone as a distinctive device, one that is integral to everyday life in a way that conventional cameras (or mobile phones) are not. Specifically, I consider a television commercial depicting camera phone use by a young, white, heterosexual couple. (The commercial can be found here).

Entitled “Duty Calls,” the commercial opens with a shot of two feet clad in women’s dress shoes. Various other shoes are strewn across the floor. Subsequent scenes reveal that the feet belong to an otherwise conventionally dressed man in a shoe store. After several intervening shots, he uses a camera phone to take pictures of the shoes he is wearing. In the next scene, the viewer sees a pregnant woman sitting on a couch with her feet elevated, answering her phone. She holds the phone so that the photograph of the shoes appear where her own feet would be. The ad ends with the superimposed text: “here… phones become dressing rooms”.

In one sense, the commercial conceptualizes space and place in a way that undoes the strangeness of the camera phone. It constructs an ethic of use and a context in which the device makes sense: the woman’s use of the device may be viewed as a liberatory act, insofar as it allows her to experience aspects of the world that exist beyond the boundaries of her home. Yet a deeper reading reveals a curious ambivalence: although the camera phone appears to serve its users by configuring spatio-temporality as a customizable phenomenon, it also delineates a sharp, gendered distinction between domestic space and the wider world. Integral to this interpretation is the woman’s obvious subjectivity as a consumer.

In their historical investigation of gender and urban spaces, Bondi and Domash (1998) argue that the growth of a middle-class “culture of consumption” (p. 279) played a key role in reconfiguring the contours of contemporary cities. Prior to the nineteenth century, a middle-class woman’s ability to venture into the city was strictly regulated by considerations of propriety. For such women, socially sanctioned activities in the city included “caring and nurturing activities, such as visiting the sick or infirm” as well as excursions to cultural sites and churches (p. 270). Compared to freedom experienced by a man of comparable position, a woman’s experience of the city’s spaces was relatively constrained. With the rise of a consumer culture, however, a woman’s freedom of movement expanded to include the spheres encompassed by consumer activities. As Bondi and Domash point out, however:

[I]n terms of space, this development could be potentially disruptive, since it required women, the bearers of “feminine” values, to enter the masculine spaces of the city to act as consumers... [T]his potentially disruptive act was neutralized by the development in the nineteenth century of “femininized” consumer space within the city - if women had to be on the streets of the masculine city, then those streets and stores had to be designed as feminine (p. 280).

Thus, a middle-class woman’s identity as a consumer afforded her limited access to certain public spaces in the city – department stores and arcades, for example, which were shaped to accommodate her status as a consumer. A woman’s ability to experience the city’s public spaces was therefore contiguous with her subjectivity as a consumer.

I do not think it is too much of a stretch to identify at least some elements of the foregoing in "Duty Calls". It is arguable, then, that the commercial not only echoes Kahn's myth of origin, but reproduces a longstanding doctrine of separate spatial spheres for men and women. As Nicholson (1983) argues, such spatial separations are as much figurative as material:

The spatial division separating the inner sphere of the home from the outside world had […] a symbolic significance that did not correspond precisely with the spatial division [...] the separation is more adequately understood as a separation between two worlds governed by different norms and values (Nicholson, 1986, p. 43).

Although the doctrine is long-standing, its various historical iterations have proven supremely adaptable. Leslie (1993), for example, offers a compelling argument that the ‘new traditionalism’ evident in much advertising of the 1990s – in which women were situated in contexts strongly suggestive of traditional family values – represents a nostalgic anodyne against the anxieties arising from a radically new and unstable social landscape:

As a traditional sense of place has been eroded by the instantaneity of electronic culture and the proliferation of homogenized landscapes of consumption, it has been replaced by idealized images of community and place, such as the concept of ‘home’ as it was constructed in the 1950s (Leslie, 1993, p. 691).

Indeed, attempts by advertisers to (re)establish the domestic sphere as a primary locus of women’s identity corresponds to various economic and cultural turns, such as post-Fordism, that have altered taken-for-granted social arrangements, both in the home and in the workplace (Leslie, 1993). Concomitant with these shifts has been the exponential growth of information and communication technologies that promise more than ‘instantaneity’ – devices such as camera phones confer on their users the power to reconfigure the contours of their everyday environments so as to modify the experience of conventional spatio-temporal binaries – public/private, work/home, etc. Against this, Motorola seems to offer a deeply ambivalent vision which celebrates the liberatory potential of the new technology, while formulating an ethic of use that etches gendered spatial distinctions into the profound uncertainties of the wireless world.


Bogardus, R.F. 1981). Their "carte de visite to posterity": A family's snapshots as autobiography and art. Journal of American Culture 4: 114-133.

Bondi, L. & Domosh, M. (1998) On the contours of public space: a tale of three women. Antipode 30: 270-289.

Goffman, E. (1971) Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books.

Kindberg, T., Spasojevic, M., Fleck R., & Sellen, A. (2004). I saw this and thought of you: Some social uses of camera phones. CHI 2005, April 2–7, 2005. Retrieved June 6, 2006, from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1056962&dl=GUIDE&coll=GUIDE

Latour, B. (1997) Science In Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leslie, D.A. (1993) Feminity, post-Fordism, and the 'new traditionalism.' Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 11: 689-708.

Metz, C. (1985). Photography and fetish. October 34: 81-91

Munir, K.A. & Phillips, N. (2005) The birth of the 'Kodak Moment': Institutional entrepreneurship and the adoption of new technologies. Organization Studies 26: 1665-1687.

Nicholson, L. (1986) Gender and History: The Limits of Social Theory in the Age of the Family. New York: Columbia University Press.

Okabe, D. (2004). Emergent social practices, situations and relations through everyday camera phone use. Retrieved June 9, 2006, from http://www.itofisher.com/mito/archives/okabe_seoul.pdf

Van House, N. A., Davis, M., Ames, M., Finn, M., & Viswanathan, V. (2005). The uses of personal networked digital imaging: An empirical study of cameraphone photos and sharing. Ext. Abstracts CHI 2005, ACM Press; pp. 1853-1856.

West, N. (1999) Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia. Virginia: University of Virginia Press.
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