“A portrait! 

What could be more simple
and more complex,
more obvious and
more profound?”

Charles Baudelaire, 1859

Earlier this year, I knocked on the door to my daughter’s bedroom, then entered. She was doing her homework, so the scene looked like this: Opened textbooks surrounded her computer, and on the screen were several open documents and windows, music was coming from its speakers. Two open iChat windows showed her friends, Katie in one window, and Nick in another. They were both in their bedrooms, presumably also doing homework. As soon as I entered, I whispered ‘Hi Ava.’ She hit the mute button so her friends couldn’t hear me. You never know when your mom is going to say something that will embarrass you.

iChatting is particularly popular among young teens. It is how they hang out when they’re not physically together. It’s a simulated presence. They often don’t even talk or look at each other. They just do their homework, sometimes get up and do something in another part of their room, get interrupted by parents or siblings, and occasionally exchange gossip, clever comments, or homework problems. They especially like sarcasm. They often IM others who are not in the chat, so you can typically hear the clicking of the keyboard.

IM-ing, Facebook, YouTube, iChats — the explosive growth of these forms of connective media is a reality that kids are growing up with, and one that older adults are adapting to. Every parent, without doubt, has worried about the effects of all this technology on their tender children. We have only a very short history of grappling with some of the larger issues that technology introduces, and the lightening speed at which change occurs makes reflection and analysis almost impossible.

As early as 1953, the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” posed the fateful question: To what should we ascribe the dynamic, seductive power of technology? For Heidegger, technology was a paradox, and his resolution to that question became increasingly complex involving both the possibility for intense human creativity and utter human devastation.

As I left her room, I thought about how the medium of video chatting is indeed dynamic and seductive. It’s a new form of social networking but — unlike cell phones or instant messaging — the exchange is primarily through imaging. That’s when I thought: Can a social site become a portrait? And what would that portrait look like?

The resulting project, Liminal Portraits, chronicles my investigation into the teenage world of social networks and iChatting. Adolescence is a particularly transitional time in life, a time when teens are experimenting with and forming their identity. And with today’s wired kids, they have the opportunity to create virtual identities — every time they log on to a computer.

By creating remote images with teens using iChat on multiple computers, my project explores a new form of portraiture, one that crosses social networking technology with the project of photographic portraiture to investigate this new form of the virtual self, which, like my adolescent subject, is liminal  — and constantly changing.

— Laura Sackett