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“The Image” Concept in Anthropology and Philosophy


An image is simply defined as a visual representation of something meaning to reproduce its likeness (Marriam-Webster, 2020). This can be photographic material, pictures, paintings, and even human memory and imagination. This paper will seek to explore “the image” in its many forms from a range of perspectives and the role it continues to play in human anthropological and philosophical history. Among the types of visual images that potentially reflect the truth, a photograph inevitably stands out, which, regardless of technical intervention and manipulation, has the categorical sign of a fact. There are several philosophical connections between photography and reality that transform throughout time, presenting a list of unresolved ethical issues, the main of which remains to be the lack of freedom in its broadest understanding.

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The Image

The art philosopher Hans Belting suggests that the anthropology of the image stems from the body. It is a living medium that can think, create, remember, and recognize images with all its senses. The body itself represents images, turning into them, and then generating the physical exemplifications of said images. Belting indicates that there are mental images and there are physical images. Art and media are just representations of images, that are cyclical in duration. Belting indicates in his theory that there is a potential coordination between mind, body, image, and its finally medium. The relationship is in a constant state of change, as technology or imagination comes into place. Representation is offered by the image through human existence. The suggestion is that the image goes beyond being a product of perception, but as a result of personal and collective symbolization. However, the images need to be physical (regardless of medium) to be seen.

The Image as a Tool: Dualism

There is a number of philosophical schools that deal with the aspect of perception in regard to a given object, which the image is meant to represent, which can be applied to the concept of image. The image can be used as a way of constructing reality, expressing political and ideological concepts, changing or trying to directly reflect reality. The function of image depends on the philosophical interpretation of the perception of the surrounding world by human consciousness.

The concept of ethical dualism, which states that there are two separate, antagonistic realms of good and evil that are in conflict with each other. Another philosophical approach is that of direct and indirect realism. Initially introduced by Aristotle and developed by his follower Thomas Aquinas, direct or naïve realism suggests that that everything in this world is experienced and perceived as is and by conscious means. Meanwhile, indirect realism suggests that all perceived of the real world but an internal representation. This forms what is known as an epistemological dualism, where the image is either reality or perceived reality, and one has no definitive proof of either.

It is at this point that the use of image as a tool should be discussed. The image is used as an instrument in marketing, entertainment, information. However, it is mostly in advertisement there are images shown that on one hand seem to portray reality, but on the other hand are a complete work of fiction, which represents the concept of epistemological dualism. Most often, photography follows the interpretation of ethical dualism in the theological philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, who affirms the relativity of moral and ethical ideas, in particular the categories of good and evil.

People are driven to perceive something (product, politician, event) as either good or evil, a constant struggle in a supposedly binary world. In the words of Larroque, “modernity has been built on the idea of a fundamental divide between nature and culture, humans and non-humans, the world and the spirit” (2020). Nature and reality assume a multitude of meanings, but the hyper-relativism of modern society driven by images manipulated to represent reality is establishing this dualistic perspective.

There is also the philosophy of monism, with its vast tradition from pre-Socratic to modern philosophers such as Bertrand Russell. Monism seeks to solve the problem of differentiation of perception, asserting the unity of consciousness, body and perceived object. The concept of image, applied to this school of thought, can be interpreted as a way of representing such a reality, giving confirmation of the correctness of human perception.

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The philosophy of direct realism interpreted through photography, may imply that it is this medium that is able to objectively express reality. Modern mathematician and philosopher Hilary Putnam, following the ancient tradition coming from Aristotle, asserts the reality of objective features and processes. According to the philosophers of direct realism, there is no median between a person’s perception and reality, which can also be expressed by a captured visual image. Documentary and social photography can ideologically represent the philosophy of direct, objective realism. However, photography as a conceptual phenomenon can also be perceived in the context of indirect realism, which speaks of the subjectivity of any perspective.

The Image as a Document of Truth

The photographer influences the process of creating a picture with his real choices and the technical means used, while the aesthetic characteristics of the creator of the photograph are important as well. The factual, documental value of the photograph may be appreciated in terms of photographer’s aesthetic intentions. There is a logical notion that the less aesthetic aspirations and professional skills a photographer has, the closer the photograph is to documentary and, accordingly, to the real world.

Photography, as a type of media, belongs neither to documentation nor to art, since it can be interpreted ambiguously. Photography is not a reflection of the real world, its indisputable proof, but at the same time, its creation cannot in any way be attributed to an act of fantasy. The photographer reveals some hidden truth of life, visiting people’s lives, but avoiding intrusion into them, which is different from any more traditional art form of previous centuries.

Currently, photography has a direct impact on reality, on the principles of human behavior. The standard of beauty is put forward in connection with the fact that reality will be documented on film. That is why people posing for the camera tend to look photogenic, which becomes tantamount to attractiveness (Butkowski et al., 2019). The principle of photography as a documentation of reality is in fact so strong that reality is actually framed according to the requirements of the camera.

At the moment, photography goes beyond the documentation of fact, becoming a structural element of the system of state order. In first world countries, it makes sense to consider using image capture to spy on people. Initially, surveillance systems were positioned as a crime prevention tool. Fixing real events around the clock potentially should prevent crime in society or contribute to the calculation of criminals. However, the ethical implications of such an observation are enormous. Even 70 years ago, the dystopian novel “1984” described a totalitarian society in which observation of people was a natural norm. In this society, identity and diversity were erased, while freedom of thought was tantamount to a crime.

Surveillance of people from an anthropological point of view may imply doubt about their decency and ability to lead a humane existence. It is necessary to describe in this fragment the concept of a panopticon, which implies a structure where a single mechanism observes people. People do not know if they are being watched at a particular moment in time, they are deprived of the opportunity to check this (Tirole, 2021). This potential observation deprives them of the motivation to commit unethical acts, but has a devastating effect on the individual. A person limits himself in actions regardless of moral implications, transforming the personality into more and more limited.

At the same time, an interesting moral is demonstrated by the story of the fatal accident in which Princess Diana died. On that tragic night, none of the 17 security cameras captured the incident itself, being directed in the other direction. This has spawned a surge of misinformation, including conspiracy theories. However, there is a simple explanation – all the cameras were directed at the store, the owner of which bought them to protect property. This story demonstrates that often surveillance can be used directly for commercial purposes, and that the task of protecting capital is more important than providing general security.

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Scandalous disturbing photos that appeared after the death of the princess speak to the demand for shocking content in modern culture. The truth of photography can be interpreted by the feet as the principle of showing the hidden, which may have the characteristics of the taboo. Hence, in society and popular culture there is a demand for scandalous and offensive images – in a sense, they are symbolic demonstrations of hidden truth.

As surveillance systems flood into major cities, mass media is also becoming the property of the faceless powers that be. The image in modern media can be distorted and manipulated depending on the political commitment of the subject. The struggle to assert the truth of the narrative has characterized American media policy over the past few years. World political news is full of examples of the closure of certain resources or access to them in connection with the spread of fake news. In recent years, it has become clear that the power structure, regardless of the political side, will seek to control the news or its interpretation, which makes the concept of truth vague, individual and subjective. Social media in this aspect allows to independently navigate in a variety of information sources, often demonstrating a subjective perspective. Thus, a person has the opportunity to create one’s own, collage representation of the truth, looking at one event from several points of view.

The distortion of information that a person encounters in the everyday innovation space imposes a certain individual responsibility on them. The buyer beware principle should be applied to evaluating a photograph for documentary and factuality – if a person believes deliberately false information, it is their fault only. That is why in the modern information space one cannot be naive, since any information, including figurative information, can be checked for authenticity and original source.

Real Value of the Image

Establishing ubiquitous surveillance systems is inherently counter-ethical, especially given the novelty of the technical innovation. People’s personal data, their visual images that can be used with malicious intent, end up in countless databases with dubious reliability. The safety of this data is in question, but even more terrible is the question of how much personal data at the moment does not belong to truly personal and safe.

Facial-recognition cameras embedded in billboards to target audiences is a fact that can be taken symbolically as a hidden capitalist principle behind surveillance systems. One can only guess what data archives such face recognition systems interact with. In the modern world, targeted ads based on saved browsing history have already become the norm, which has diversified the market and made it as split and niche as possible. The real value of information about a person is proportional to how much money you can get from them.

However, such commercialization of private information in the offline space could cause protests and a widespread negative reaction. People tend to separate categories of activity on the Internet and real activity in such a way that the information they leave on the Internet is perceived more as a persona than a real person. Surveillance by advertising commercial systems of habits in life demonstrates a literal intrusion into the foundations of privacy. One must remember that targeting involves isolating the maximum amount of personal information in order to process it with artificial intelligence. This use of information is not much different from state surveillance – where security turns into control, concern for the client turns out to profit from them. However, the more people observe the same media, the more explicit its strategies become. Probably, with the intrusion of obvious surveillance into real life and the human body, people will want to reduce these commercial surveillance strategies. It is required to imagine a society so hungry for individualized consumption that it will be ready for this tacit contract with the practices of corporations that permeate everyday life.

Me, Myself, and I

Some of the previous sections discussed the role of social media and how images are utilized there. However, both in social media and in one’s private collection, the images represent an inherent timeline of one’s life. Each image, no matter how random, is associated with a specific moment, feelings, or action. Social media represents a selected collection of images that are representative of people’s lives. Therefore, it can be argued that in the context of modern digital technology, the collection of images leads to museification. This term can be defined as the non-institutional transformation of an object into a museum (Ruy & de Almeida, 2020). It is following similar principles of exposing artifacts that are intended for admiration, contemplation, or knowledge

Ethnographic research suggests that social media has brought on the advent of self-museification practices in regard to image sharing on the platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and others. In many instances, the shared images fall under specific categorizations that respond to external, context-based scenarios that fit within premediated social expectations of the expected audience. Museification means to create shared representations largely mimic that of worldmaking, as it represents reality but portrayed in a way that is heavily fictionalized (Stoicescu, 2019). This is why social media can be considered highly deceitful, as it only presents the ‘highlights’ of people’s lives, not their true life, ironically similar to a museum.

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Individual and Collective Freedom

An image inherently represented a utopian ideal, being a memory of the past as well as of the current reality. In the instances described above, the image is perfected for either marketing, social media, or propaganda/influencing purposes. Nihilism suggests that there is no inherent truth, postmodernism indicates that even if there is a truth, nobody has unbiased access to it. Meanwhile, neo-conservatism recognizes the value of traditions and customs, but has no desire of returning to the past which is undesirable. Both philosophical stances pursue the utopian elements of stable stories, canon, and reality. Images can be used to represent these ideals that in a ubiquitous manner.

Freedom is a state of a lack of restriction, in terms of action, movement, and creation. Collectively, if all people are free, it is to the degree that people are free individually. Any collective and collaborative action is just one element that people have the freedom to engage in. Freedom is difficult to capture, but various means of creating images, such as photography, art, and others have long been tools of freedom.


The image enables people to find a voice, discover identities, exercise the freedoms of ‘speech.’ The image is also a means of free personal expression and creative freedom. The images seek to capture the moments of freedom, both individual and collective, in the moment, generating artifacts of moments past. A photograph can be not only a documentation of a fact, but also a significant of a personal connection between people. Hence, photographs of relatives have such a deep symbolic meaning for people. Of course, photography can be interpreted from aesthetic positions, but it should be remembered that initially this type of art was used as a confrontation with conventional ideas about beauty in search of something interesting. Images are freedom but realized in a conceptual way to be preserved even when individuals and societies have moved on.


Butkowski, C. P., Dixon, T. L., & Weeks, K. (2019). Body surveillance on Instagram: Examining the role of selfie feedback investment in young adult women’s body image concerns. Sex Roles, 81, 385-397. Web.

Larroque, C. (2020). Nature beyond dualism. Web.

Marriam-Webster. (n.d.). Image. Web.

Ruy, A.T., & de Almeida, R.H. (2020). Territorial museification: Fundamentals of a concept. Revista Brasileira de Estudos Urbanos E Regionais, 1–21. Web.

Stoicescu, A. (2019). Self-museification practices – photo sharing in youth cultures on social media. Web.

Tirole, J. (2021). Digital dystopia. American Economic Review, 111(6), 2007-48. Web.

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