Digital Natives: Text

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Written by Mihailo Vasiljević
translated in english by Katarina Radović and Maja Milanović

From the beginning of photography, one of the greatest fascinations has always remained with us – capturing the human figure on a light-sensitive surface. People have always been the most frequent motif for photographs. However, writing or talking about photographs which represent people almost always involves a set of problems, some of which have been inherited from the history of painting. Reading portrait photographs, which make up only a part of all photographic representations of people, is not possible without thinking about the persons represented. But, without a written or spoken explanation, the spectators of photographic portraits remain deprived of everything except the momentary appearance of the portrayed. The meaning of photographic portraits is reduced to a series of visual data, which may or may not be visible in a particular photograph – gender, skin colour, the choice of clothing, posture, facial expression and background, which sometimes reveals the interests, class or profession of the person represented. Even if they can be read, these facts do not reveal who the photographed person is – his or her origin, education, attitudes, name and character.

Without additional information about the context in which they appear, we cannot be certain in most cases about the precise reasons behind the creation of portrait photographs. In this sense, photographs that represent people accentuate in a particularly ambivalent way the habitual instability of the photographic meaning. However, it does not usually make much sense to pose questions about the reasons behind the creation of photographs of people, because even further behind them there stretches a long history of the representation of the human figure and a rich history of photography.

Regardless of which of the many social fields they circulate in, photographs of children almost always carry an echo of inequality, because they are most often created in the world of adults. We have been taught that photographs of children, probably more than any other photographs, have a self-evident and indisputable purpose. Whether they are taken by parents or by professional photographers, some understandable a priori reasons, primarily related to family and growing up, almost always stand behind them. On the other hand, numerous photographs of children have been used in advertising and especially in the fashion industry, and the reasons behind their creation are completely clear.

These issues have been intensively explored in the portraits from the series Digital Natives, on which the Franco-Serbian  artist Tijana Pakić has been working since 2018. The title of this work is related to the determining factor, i.e., the generation of children born in the 21st century for whom the digital world of computers and high-speed Internet is the normal  environment. Despite the precisely formulated conception of the work, these dignified portraits of children do not invoke an easily accessible explanation. These straightforward and direct photographs represent serious and thoughtful young people aged between 7 and 11. Behind the carefully arranged studio portraits of the young Parisians stands an unobtrusive but obvious photographic skill, as well as an awareness and knowledge of the historical formulations of the portrait image. Discreet lighting, unpretentious poses and calm expressions – they are the elements with which Pakić creates her photographs which, despite the abundance of similar photographic representations,  attract unequivocal intellectual attention.

Almost all of Tijana Pakić’s works so far have included the photographing of people, and their success would not have been possible without her open and well-intentioned attitude towards the persons she is working with. Whether they are people from her close environment or people she does not know, her sincere dedication and penetrating intuition have clearly enabled her to  produce images whose blade is not blunted by her humane attitude. Photographs of people have always been at the centre of her interest and research on various topics – growing up, sexuality, family and everyday life, such as in the works Self-Portrait (2001), Untitled (2003), Čarolije (2007-2008) and 54m2 (2020). Digital Natives is not the first project in which Pakić has worked with children – in her work Čarolije she photographed Roma girls aged between 8 and 15 from the Belgrade area, with the aim of presenting them in accordance with their own wishes – the models chose the clothes, background, poses, make-up and jewellery. In that work, the artist used the language and glamour of fashion photography, with the clear goal of avoiding the stereotypical representations of Roma.

Similar to the work MagicDigital Natives can be understood as a subtle critique of the beautifying mechanisms of fashion photography. Although these portraits may seem to have been created within the norms of the fashion industry, upon closer examination it becomes clear that this is not the case. Unlike the photographs in Magic, in which the newly created fictional world is a stage for a sort of reversal of fashion photography’s postulates, the realism of the photographs in Digital Natives is unambiguous. In the process of creating this work, no retouching was used and many imperfections present on the models’ skin, hair, and clothing are visible in the photographs. The wide range of variations of these almost imperceptible but important details includes everything from scars and moles to food stains. These characteristics would not be particularly significant if they were not a positive sign of direct realism of these photographs. In contrast to fashion advertisements where models are just mediums for a certain look or mood, photographs from the Digital Natives are primarily dominated by the strong presence of the young people. The fact that this presence is achieved in a clearly affirmative way is also indicated by their unimportant but visible imperfections. Thanks to the specific representational model used, this work is an eloquent and honest statement of liveliness, which is always a convincing indicator of artistic success.

The dual role of  model and photographer is one of the many elements of the digital environment that has been common to these children since their birth. By choosing her title carefully, Pakić emphasises that, in the context of photography, it is precisely the awareness of the availability and the ease of the making and viewing as well as sharing of electronic images that makes the difference between this generation of children and all previous ones. Thus, at a time when more photographs are being taken than ever before, these children are uniquely used to being photographed and looking at their own and others’ photographs. The question remains to what extent this technological situation is crucial for shaping the understanding of the representation of oneself and of others – that is, for shaping the attitudes the portrayed can have towards themselves and towards others.

The children presented in the project Digital Natives come from, and sometimes merge distinctly different genetic backgrounds. We can say that numerous genetic mixtures, which in some cases include as many as four completely different origins, are a unique characteristic of the contemporary moment of Western metropolises. In this sense, these photographs become subtle signifiers of diversity and a new positive reality. It can be noted that the photographs from Digital Natives basically go against the rhythms of nervous acceleration characteristic of the contemporary moment. The calm determination of the portrayed and the reduced studio environment stand in contrast to the ubiquitous uncertainty of the 21st century. Looking at these portraits, we do not at first think of such problems  as ecological catastrophe, political turmoil and consumer apathy. However, without any doubt, the generation to which these children belong will experience all the good and bad consequences of the current decisions. This fact casts a shadow over the security and strength which the representations of these young people radiate.

Thanks to the specific respect that Tijana Pakić feels for her models, in these photographs we see young people whose appearance and attitude evidently surpass not only their age, but also the reality itself. Serious and thoughtful, these young people do not seem worried about their future, although in their gaze it is possible to recognise something like a special awareness of the place they occupy in this world. This knowledge is probably something they will only later become aware of, but it is visible already in the subtle flash of these photographs – and always will remain so.