Is an image simply an image, or is it more than that? Is an image an expression of female empowerment, a transaction, pornography, a commodity, or even a crime. Images are more than just pixels depicting something, an image is capable of becoming many different things, as University Medallist and Sociology graduate Jessie Liu reveals.
Jessie, who graduated this past July with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and Bachelor of Science (Psychology), and was awarded the University Medal for her outstanding academic work, explored the topic of naked loan selfies in her Sociology Honours thesis. This phenomenon, most prominent in China, saw people offering loans through social media, using apps originally intended to facilitate borrowing from friends and family. Instead these strangers solicited loans, requiring naked selfies identifying women seeking loans to be used as collateral. As Jessie recalls, it wasn’t an easy topic to approach.
“At first I was interested in looking at pictures of the self like selfies, then I came across this phenomenon while in China and didn’t initially want to write about it. Ethically, I didn’t know how, I felt uncomfortable about writing about it, and remain reflective about whether having more people know about it is a good thing. It may prompt more traffic to some websites, but I eventually decided it was important to write about.”
Jessie’s research into selfies touched on many sociological themes, and considered the many ways we conceptualise such images.
“It has been conceptualised as a demonstration of female empowerment. Through an art history perspective for example, women have been objects of depiction and now they’re subjects. A lot of selfies, predominantly selfies are produced by women and in particular young women. Another lens is as an object of communication, and one of the other lenses which is more about public discourse is as an expression of narcissistic millennial young girls.”
Focusing on the naked loan selfies, Jessie’s research traced the journey of the images as they became different things, with a different character and implications. Images that began as collateral became a commodity when released, being traded and even sold as pornography. This alone raised complex questions about the women involved, about legality, and about government censorship. When the Chinese government moved to censor the images on popular web forums, was it because it was pornographic, and what did this imply about the women involved? Alternatively was it because the images related to unscrupulous loan arrangements?
“Why is it becoming illegal? Because it constitutes pornography? In which case the women implicated become pornographers. On the other hand it could become illegal as it becomes usury, where a loan has a very high interest rate, like shark loans and the images are tied to those. What does it mean for the women involved and for the image?”
Jessie has been awarded the University Medal, recognising her outstanding academic endeavour and completion of First Class Honours in Sociology.
“I am very honoured that I was given the University medal. I definitely wasn’t expecting it. There are just so many fantastic people at the ANU. I am very honoured and very grateful."
Associate Professor Helen Keane, Head of ANU School of Sociology conveyed the pride felt of Jessie’s recognition.
“Jessie’s achievement reflects the outstanding quality and originality of her honours research. We’re immensely proud of her, and of all the talented students who contribute to the research culture of our School through the honours program.”
The calibre of Jessie research was demonstrated again recently, when she delivered her work at the 2018 Society for Social Studies of Science conference in Sydney. It is a rare honour for Honours research to be delivered at a major international conference likes this one.