Found Photo Fodder

Found Photo Fodder

I haven’t commented much on the death of Google Reader, and while this post is marginally about RSS (and, really, about tagging within RSS), I don’t really have much to say about Reader that adds anything meaningful to all of the excellent things that have already been written.

Instead, this post is about found photos, sources for those photos, and the use of such photos in professional presentations.

Over the last few years, I’ve received some minor kudos for developing conference presentations that are visually arresting and compelling. I’ve heard lots of good feedback from folks whose opinions I value about the effectiveness of my presentation style, which is heartening.

During the first couple of years that I worked on developing this ethos, I predominantly used striking images that I found on the web (hence my use of the term “found photos,” which, technically, is different from the actual definition of found photos or vernacular photography, but not unlike that definition either, but that’s for another post…). Indeed, when preparing a presentation, I would often begin with the images, mining Google Reader posts for visuals that evoked or supported ideas I was trying to convey verbally.

After giving a talk, folks would often ask: “Where do you find all those cool images?” In reply, I would usually joke that it was a “trade secret.” But really, it was just simple sifting and winnowing using RSS.

In Reader, I subscribed to several image-intensive feeds, many of which were from Tumblr. These feeds have always made my RSS experience a pleasure, for mixed in with discourse-heavy posts from fellow academics, tech blogs, and news sites were often incongruent and arresting photos. Over the years of using Reader, I probably looked at 100,000 or more photos.[1]

When I stumbled across an image that was striking for whatever reason—and I learned to develop a sense of what would make an interesting and effective slide-ready image—I would simply use Reader’s tagging function to label the post “photos.” That’s it. When it came time to prepare a talk, I’d open my list of posts tagged “photos” in Reader and simply j/k my way through, looking for visuals congruent with the scope of my presentation.

I had thousands of posts tagged “photos” in Reader,[2] which means that I had my own archive of visuals that might evoke the presentation ethos I’d developed over time.

However, over the last two years I’ve moved away from using such found photos in my presentations, preferring instead to use my own images to support my work for two main reasons. First, I’ve been developing approaches to using visual research methods in qualitative studies of writing, and consequently, many of my talks have covered this work. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve been working hard on developing rhetorically engaging visuals of my own, honing a visual phronesis related my academic work alongside the verbal and written craft.

Regardless, when Reader died, so too did thousands of tags. This is but one example; I also used tags to code data in Reader, I used tags to mark items related to research reading, and I used tags for a variety of other things (one of my favorite tags was “holy shit,” reserved for a bevy of truly amazing and awe-inspiring posts).

I moved to Newsblur in mid-June, and I’ve been very happy with the service. No tags, though, and no import for the archive of tagged items from Reader users (there are some other options, I realize, but that’s not the point of this post).

And yet, I still have the desire to single out arresting images. In the old days of Reader, I would sometimes publicly share such images. Since Newsblur doesn’t support tagging but does offer some of the social sharing features that were once part of Reader, I’ve been using the “share” feature to collect interesting found images.

It’s not a workaround, but a totally different way of thinking about the images I find arresting. Since I’m sharing these publicly, I’m thinking more about why I find the images striking, whether others will find them similarly striking, and what my sharing them says about me and my visual ethos.

If you ever wanted to tap into the archive of images I used in presentations a few years ago, or if you simply would like another image-intensive feed in your own RSS reader, feel free to add my Blurblog, a feed of nothing but images that I once would have tagged “photos” in Reader.

  1. Who knows for sure? I’m basing this on the fact that a couple years ago Google released statistics for individual Reader users. When they did, I learned that I had already surpassed 300,000 total read items, the maximum count they’d render for a given user. Again, that was a couple years ago, at least. My feed list has always included a healthy amount of photoblogs, and “reading” posts from such feeds takes just a second, particularly if the image doesn’t immediately hold my attention. Could be I looked at 50,000 images, could be I looked at 300,000. Regardless, I explored (and continue to explore) a crap-ton of images as part of my everyday routine. I’ve thus honed certain visual sensibilities alongside my daily academic reading and writing.  ↩

  2. In actuality, I had more posts tagged “photos” than Reader could actually render, should I want to mine them to the earliest such tagged occurrence. Google’s API limits, even in the good old days, stopped me from seeing more than a few thousand.  ↩


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