Flickr Fascination

On Images and a Little Innovation

The very best images capture something of the movement that brings a moment alive, the idea central to a new understanding. They drag the viewer in and speak to the senses of what has been and what might have been, just beyond the frame. For every fact they leave a promise, an invitation to return later to think again. I mentioned in a previous post how Roy Blumenthal’s artwork on Flickr does just that. Roy offers his electronic paintings under Creative Commons licences, which are superb invitations to revisit, use, reuse and share. But the more I’ve been using Flickr to find the images that populate my posts – that explain, contradict or reinforce what I mean – the more frustrated I’ve grown with its Creative Commons search function.

Flickr is a fantastic resource for any blogger and an endless source of fascination for me. It offers something for everyone, from the truly weird and the powerfully stated to the deeply experimental and the blandly pornographic. That’s the whole point – it draws people in, allows them to share their efforts with those who are likeminded, or who might well become likeminded after a browse or two.

By every indication, Flickr groups, the virtual communities that form around certain styles, subjects and themes, are very much alive and well. As Clay Shirky observed in Here Comes Everybody, even the most ad hoc groups on Flickr serve the valuable function of allowing people to organise themselves without organisations. Photostreams featuring social movements and protest rallies abound.

But that’s also a problem. Ask Flickr to search for images labelled ‘poverty’, for instance, and you’ll soon see countless photos of middle-class white people protesting about conditions in the third world. It’s all a little abstract. You’ll also find the stunning and equally moving photography of Gregory Smith, founder of the Children at Risk Foundation in Brazil, which is a saving grace. Finding an image that speaks to you is a moment to treasure – a precise point in time at which you can learn something valuable. But finding another ‘make poverty history logo’ is a hollow experience. It leaves little else to say.

Thankfully there’s an alternative way of searching Flickr for Creative-Commons-licensed images. When I was speaking on the Everyday Extraordinary Lives Show podcast the other day, Mike Seyfang mentioned to me a web application that’s been around for a while and seems to have quite a few happy usersflickrCC.

Created by Peter Shanks, the application presents 36 images in miniature on each page. Click on one and it will enlarge in a side panel, from which you can download it or link to the Flickr photo page. All this, not incidentally, is made possible by Creative Commons licences that encourage downloading, sharing and reuse. It’s a great deal faster than the Flickr search function, but even more importantly it produces relevant images straight away. Type ‘poverty’ into flickrCC and you’ll see it – the logos are in the minority.

FlickrCC is like a second, tentative step along an endless digital shore. In a very narrow sense it easily collects and displays the flotsam of our twenty-first century lives. But it also reaches beyond the waterline and dredges out the inspiration and provocation that photo after photo nestled deep within Flickr can offer. And that really is a case of the image exceeding the frame.

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