Accidental people

Street scene. Close up of some people, blurry.

They show up everywhere. We’ve never met, and probably never will. These bodies don’t only appear in Google StreetView, but in my digital photo albums whether I want them there or not. They are most visible when I zoom in. They even get singled out by the “faces” feature of my photo browser, and I’m invited to give them names. With the HDR or panorama feature enabled these people sometimes show their ghostly natures. Unaware of the accidental photographer, these phantom bodies strike inadvertent poses and static attitudes.

People silhouetted on cliff topAttitude is more important than emotion. As well as suggesting a mental view or opinion, “attitude” suggests a bodily posture, pose, disposition or orientation. To have an attitude to something is simply to orient one’s body in relation to it, often to face it. Without knowing what they may be thinking or feeling, and with no script or background music to set the mood, the silent bodies in these photographs have only their attitudes to tell a story.

A person or thing can have “an attitude,” or simply “attitude” in its own right. A person “with attitude” is opinionated in a way that is unselfconscious. “Attitude” also relates to “cool.” “Attitude” connotes impudence and audacity, presented in a way that is calm, relaxed, unexaggerated, undemonstrative and self possessed. Unaware human subjects in digital photographs are good at displaying accidental cool.

For media theorist Marshall McLuhan hot media such as the radio and books require an active imagination, which is to say the listener or reader has to do some work. They also incite action. Cool media such as the television and comics induce soporific responses (ie make us passive). The high bandwidth and constant flicker and spectacle of movement and imagery induces inaction before the television set. The action is all on the screen so the body doesn’t have to do any work. Such reflections promote the concepts of hot and cool in terms of bodily posture and movement, further developing the play between body attitude and “cool.” By this reading digital photography is probably a cool medium.

Street scene. Close up of some people, blurry.Many people think that art, architecture, music, films and landscapes can inspire, that is, induce a mental state of awe. But the concept of inspiration is really a bodily term. Inspiration pertains to animation, invigoration, arousal, inhaling, and rising to a height. The kinds of things bodies do on cliff tops, readily demonstrated through their incidental representation in digital photographs.

Darwinian diagrams showing progression from walking on all fours to standing upright are “inspirational” in so far as they depict postural transformation. When we see the issue of inspiration as such it transforms the critical language of art and architecture that lays claim to inspirational intent (in Expressionism for example), transforming the exaltation of the sublime to matters of bodily comportment. The question of what makes exultant art, architecture, music, film and landscapes becomes a question of what they do with and to the body.

It’s easiest to think of spaces as having effects on the body. Under the analysis of the philosopher, Michel Foucault, architecture is involved in the objects and practices by which the body is rendered “docile.” Foucault’s famous example is of the Panopticon (as developed in the early 19th century by Jeremy Bentham) as a means of encouraging civilised behaviour among prisoners, where inmates and guards alike apparently behave themselves because they are part of a system of surveillance.

People seen through wooden steps at a beachFor Foucault, in the modern era, we organise our architecture, and other hardware, to accommodate transformed power relations. Rather than exercise power by inflicting violence, torture or forced restraint on bodies, modern society has developed institutions, practices and architectures that replace the spectacle of violence with other bodily spectacles, well represented by bootcamp drills, classroom behaviour codes, systems of confinement, aerobics, and even handwriting.

Add to these modes of restraint the presence of digital technologies: keyboards, screens, tablets, phones, wearables, implants — paraphernalia of the body as much as the intellect. Also throw in the ubiquity of digital photography. Do we organise our bodies any differently knowing that we might appear unaware and at any time on CCTV or in a stranger’s digital photo album?

The idea of virtual reality also involves attitude, not least in its attempts to find release from the constraints of the body, ecstasis. The metaphors depicting the ephemerality of cyberspace commonly invoke flying, floating through space, rising through layers of enlightenment, as commonly depicted in cyberspace fiction. Is this a futile attempt to get away from the body and its constraints? Such denial of materiality still foregrounds the animal and human body.

Bodies are ever present, gargantuan or Lilliputian, imprinted, frozen, in high definition or blurred, in attitudes cool and occasional, on hard drives, picture galleries, photo sharing sites and blogs. Perhaps this is a reminder that the creative arts could focus less on minds and feelings than on what the arts do to bodies and attitudes.


  • Foucault, M., Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin, 1977.
  • McLuhan, M., Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
  • See also E-motion.


  1. stever says:

    I’m reminded of simon roberts photo series ‘we english’ by looking at the photo thats at the top of the article. Of course the accidental snapshot referenced is without any trace of intentionality in the first instance. Although being subject to critical analysis here, it probably becomes more like a ‘found’ art object. Personally, I did engage in some imaginative work on viewing the ‘snapshot’, sea sounds, spatial relationships, the action of the negative space (which always for me denotes a silent, sublime presence with the signifier of the sea and its sounds…….what is outside the frame ? We can only guess, a seaside visit or a return to flooded dwellings ?

    For me, it is a ‘hot’ medium …….. alternatively, must a sound designer be beachified in every generation for the benefit of those who have no cognitive aural recall ?

    I recieved a wonderful letter once, it was from the library informing me that Foucalt’s discipline and punish was now overdue and they would be levying a fine.

  2. Discipline and punish … pushing around tiny people … puts me in mind of Cyriak’s animations

    Eskmo, We Got More (Official Video)

    and the work of artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer


  3. Huang Hsiao Ying says:

    Here is another interpretation of attitude. Attitude, in Taiwan, has become an inspired symbol especially for young men who are enthusiastic in basketball. Attitude with green colour, is designed by a basketball star who worked for Taiwan Beer’s basketball team in 2005. It means positive, passionate and fighting for your/our own dreams. The basketball team published a documentary film also called “Attitude”, which is a story about how this basketball team became championships in serial seasons of SBL (Super Basketball League). Many young people (perhaps aged from 15 to 22) are inspired by this basketball team and regarded attitude as a belief encouraging themselves not to forget their ideals and be brave for dreams. I think it has become a “hot-blood” culture existing in young groups. “Attitude,” as a visible body, is interesting for observing how it’s presented in media.

  4. stever says:

    Thanks for the links, lots of things to digest there – Cyriak seems to be a cross between Terry Gilliam and Lidl.
    Not that i’m knocking Lidl, i’d like to recommend a visit to the Leith branch, where I once saw a Lady customer sporting a Ringo Starr tattoo on her upper arm.

    Perhaps an extreme case of social media forcing people to alter their bodies, but pertinent nonetheless to our August discourse.

    Further thoughts on the alteration of our bodies in relation to surveillance, the yang of which could be the wandering around as though one was a celebrity waiting to be plucked from obscurity – which has been happening since King David were a lad.

    Yes, the pushing around of ‘little’ people – I think Hemmers work nails it down more effectively, he’s not trying to sell anyone anything (Cyriak seems a tad fond of Advertising deals, TV slots and awards), he’s trying to create a space in which people can interact and oddly seems to create the best piece of digital media i’ve seen.

    There was some sort of Similar piece by an ECA worthy at frieze and Edinburgh art festival, a camera obscura type thing. Of course with Edinburgh being Edinburgh, the people didn’t interact at all, more of an anonymous gawking; rather like what must be a fairly monotonous task – viewing surviellance camera data.

  5. Bing Liu says:

    It is very interesting of the theory of hot and cool media. In China, the ordinary thinking of radio and book is opposite to the Canadian Professor Mclucan. The radio always company people to sleep. I have a question of the hot media. If the book is a hot media, which require an active imagination, then how to explain the hobby that many people prefer read some books before sleep.
    In classic Platonism they think body is the origin, which produce the sin. in this case, the virtual reality can free human’s mind and take us into a new world which only appear in our imagination. Is it a metaphor that people hate their body and try to get over it?

  6. Xi Ge says:

    I don’t think there is any “real” cool media, because our cognitive process is active per se. Take films or television as an example. We always need to form our own “fabula” in mind no matter how the plot of the film is demonstrated to us. Sometimes the process of “fabula” is made so easy by certain film style, so that we feel passive. This is one of the basic theories of David Bordwell.

  7. S. ZHANG says:

    Here is an interesting example of accidental people.
    The photo series ‘Invisible Bikes’
    These ‘cool’ pictures depict invisible things do exist sometimes. Shadows on the ground are the proofs.

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