May 25, 2018

The secret life of digital images revealed

Michael Smyth and Ingi Helgason
Design of future technologies can be informed by exploration of rituals, behaviours and habits of everyday life through personal photographs.

For the majority of Europeans, sense of place is essentially an urban experience. While that reality may change over time, one enduring feature is the desire to document and record. Digital images have rapidly become the ‘lingua franca’ of the urban experience. Records of places visited, journeys taken and people encountered are the personal and shared memories that comprise sense of place in the early 21st century. But what insights do such stories provide, and do they contain clues about how people might interact with and through the urban landscapes of the future?

Here, we report on two pieces of work that explore the role of digital images in (and how they act as a means of) articulating sense of place. The first, ‘Fragments of Place’, explores how sharing of images—normally hidden on mobile phones—can reveal more about people's sense of place and the nature of this ultimately shared experience. Second, ‘Crossing the Bridge’ sought to make a public space a private yet social place through reallocation of a bridge as an impromptu gallery. Central to both pieces were digital-image creation and the meanings that are assigned to such everyday artefacts.

‘Fragments of Place’

If space can be imagined as a ‘simultaneity of stories so far’,1 then perhaps places are collections of those stories. Our experimental work was designed to explore the sense of place experienced by people engaged in interaction with a publicly sited participative installation. ‘Fragments of Place’ was designed to invite and encourage sharing of people's personal images of a particular time and place. The installation was demonstrated at a public arts-and-music venue in central Edinburgh, UK, for three weeks during the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest arts festival. It consisted of an Internet-enabled computer connected to a plasma screen in the venue's bar area as well as to a projector that displayed the work on a wall in a foyer area (see Figure 1). The installation was populated initially with photographs and text tags created in the early days of the festival season. Participants who wished to incorporate their own images into the dynamic display uploaded them directly from their mobile phones to the installation through MMS (multimedia-messaging service) using a short code. Each image could be tagged using three words chosen by the sender to reflect their own interpretation. On receipt, the image and associated tag words were stored in a database. Subsequent semantic analysis of the tags linked each new image with existing ones containing similar associations. The presentation of more recently received images was prioritized to provide immediate feedback to the sender. This type of tagging introduced an element of surprise into the combinations of displayed images, intended to trigger debate and discussion among spectators. We envisaged that observation of the work and presentation of connected images would provoke the audience into active meaning making.

‘Fragments of Place’ sited in a public arts-and-music venue (screen and projector views).

‘Crossing the Bridge’

Interesting things happen at boundaries—points that connect people, places and ideas—raising process- and outcome-related questions for interaction designers. Sometimes boundaries are explicit but they are more often implicit and unseen, simply routes that connect places or destinations, often travelled but seldom acknowledged. The Old Drava Bridge in Maribor, Slovenia, is one such place (see Figure 2). It silently connects the city, but is central to the heart of the people. It was therefore entirely appropriate that the bridge became the focus for a piece of work undertaken as part of the Magdalena Festival in May 2009.

Old Drava Bridge, Maribor, Slovenia.

An overarching theme was the concept of transitions, i.e., the idea of movement and its impact on body and mind, and in particular how this might translate first into movement within a city and subsequently into sense of place. The Old Drava Bridge has provided a crossing point for the people since 1913, so it offered an interesting location for a ‘cultural probe’ that sought to create playful interaction among people as they crossed the bridge. The aim was to slow down their journey a little and provide a moment for contemplation and reflection, or simply an opportunity to admire the view of the city.

At each end of the bridge, we provided people with digital cameras and asked them to take a photograph while they made their way to the other end. Suddenly, crossing the bridge became a different experience. The act of taking photographs facilitated chance meetings and exchanged glances, and made everyday routines a little more memorable and special (see Figure 3). The camera acted as a lens through which people viewed the city and its population. By making the picture-taking process explicit, participants were made to question and reflect on their choice of image and what it meant to them as an individual and as a citizen of Maribor.

Chance meetings while crossing the bridge.

At the conclusion of the project, the Old Bridge was converted into a gallery to exhibit the pictures taken during the previous two days (see Figure 4). People who had taken photographs returned and admired the work of their fellow citizens, or perhaps they hoped to see their own contribution. For just a few days, the experience of the journey was changed, so something that people do throughout the year—crossing the bridge—was just a little different, somehow more enjoyable.

The Old Bridge re-appropriated as a gallery.


“A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck.”2

While mobile phones are now near-ubiquitous, they are still complex systems and becoming increasingly so as each new innovation is introduced. ‘Fragments of Place’ demonstrated that the interactive experience is about more than the push of a button or the movement of a finger. The creative challenge is that of dealing with a situated experience, which is fluid by nature. Designers will increasingly be tasked with shaping responses to situations in this boundary space where the physical and conceptual worlds merge.

‘Crossing the Bridge’ was a site-specific intervention that sought to create a momentary pause as people moved within a city. The act of taking digital images facilitated reflection, literally and metaphorically a lens through which to view the relationship between the participants themselves and their city.

Both works sought to use digital images as a mechanism through which people can reflect on their identity and its relationship with place. While we acknowledge that photographs capture a moment in time, they also appear to provide insights into peoples' sense of place. Our future work will explore identity—and how it is affected by emergent practices within the urban landscape—by creating new hybrid interactive experiences that include elements of the virtual and physical worlds.


Michael Smyth
Centre for Interaction Design School of Computing, Edinburgh Napier University

Michael Smyth is a reader. He has worked in the fields of human-computer interaction and interaction design since 1987, and has published over 50 academic papers. In addition, he has had interactive installations exhibited at both UK and international conferences, and at arts and design festivals. He is co-editor of a forthcoming book, Digital Blur: Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art.

Ingi Helgason
Centre for Interaction Design School of Computing, Edinburgh Napier University

Ingi Helgason is a researcher and designer currently working on Peach, a European Union-funded project to increase public understanding of presence research. She is studying for a PhD on the subject of new-media art as a resource for interaction design, and has a background in visual design.

  1. D. Massey, For Space, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2005.

  2. S. Sontag, On Photography, Penguin Books, UK, 1979.

DOI:  10.2417/2200906.1721