What do pictures want?

Sophie Day

20 December 2019

Sophie Day

20 December 2019

WJT Mitchell’s title to his 2004 book is ‘What do pictures want?’  Why do we behave as if pictures are alive, possessing the power to influence us, to demand things from us, to persuade us, seduce us, or even lead us astray?

Steve McQueen’s Year 3 (2019) involved mass participation and includes 3,128 photographs, two-thirds of London’s 7-year olds. Class pictures of these 76,000 children are on display in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries until May 2020, but available slots for school visits are fully booked.  These are classic school photographs –  wide angle, everyone visible, most children in uniform, sitting and standing in three or four rows by virtue of the traditional low benches, and the children framed by familiar accoutrements of school gyms and halls. The images are arranged in blocks of colour from top to bottom of the gallery walls.

Year 3 at Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain (photograph, Sophie Day)

In addition to the gallery display, McQueen was committed to exhibiting class photographs on billboards on older, mid-20th century shop gables and houses in London’s further reaches as well as prime advertising spots in the centre. The London arts organisation, Artangel worked with PosterScope and leading companies for outdoors locating and marketing, to site billboards across the city but outside the borough in which the photograph had been taken. At least one billboard should be sited so that it was easy to visit from the relevant school. Cressida Day from Artangel told me about the logistics of placing billboards across London for two weeks in November 2019, ahead of the exhibition at Tate Britain. Fifty-three schools appeared on around 600 sites which were put up with paper and paste in 48 sheets for one billboard, 96 for a double space. Such spots are hard to find in central London where most advertising is now digital. Only digital, in portrait format, is available in some boroughs such as the City of London while paper and paste offers the necessary landscape format. Pasting up is a dying art and takes a year to learn.

Year 3 billboard by A12 extension, east London (photograph, Sophie Day)

I was interested in this vision of a mass public seeing itself. Billboards and exhibition evoked repeated hopes for London’s future, as Harry Thorne found in reviews from The Guardian, The Times, Arts & Collections, ArtDaily and The Telegraph.[2] One teacher expressed delight about the public display of pictures of children she taught with special needs. They are mostly invisible, she said, and are not part of publics. Of course, they want (to be on) a billboard.  No one ever sees them. Comments on twitter’s #Year3Project read, “The … is so cool! We’re used to numerical data on populations, but here you can SEE a cross-section of London, …” and, from a participating school,  “… we are the art work. We are the audience.”

Apparently less than half of London’s schools now take year pictures and the photographs that are still taken do not follow past practice, replacing images of children in serried rows with movement and activity. A web search for school photo will come up at once, however, with an offer to find your old class picture for you. You might then imagine or trace your cohort forward in time from the recent past.[3]  I wonder if the evocation of collectives on billboards through practices that used to be common jolted spectators into asking about London’s future. The sense of collective, including year groups, was orchestrated by public institutions through widely shared events that moved you predictably from school photos, through education in general, and into work placements, health checks, jobs ….  As public institutions themselves are severely trimmed and as their role or value is celebrated less often through school photos and equivalent markers, what sort of London will appear with these Year 3 children? How will it be recognised and by whom?

Measures were adopted to safeguard the audience and portraits, but different kinds of public emerge in relation to digital media. Advertisers follow voluntary restrictions within a 100-metre area around schools and refrain from advertising alcohol, e-cigarettes, fast food, sweets, gambling or lotteries. The display of Year 3 images on billboards followed the same guidelines. In addition, there were to be no adverts from these sectors next to Year 3 portraits.[4] In consequence, more billboards ended up in the underground network than expected, where TFL’s policy on advertising is more stringent.

Were the audience to these pictures in need of safeguards? Perhaps Year 3 pictures would affect their surroundings and so the companies placing the billboards as advised by NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) officers, wanted to create child-friendly environments. If ‘the artwork was also the audience’ (above), would an audience of young people would come to look at the billboards in person, where they would be protected by these guidelines? But pictures of billboards that then circulate on social media (and here, for instance) cannot take these protective measures with them. What do these images want from their audiences? To be seen from what distance, in what context? How do these images and their audiences differ? If the images show ‘People Like You’, do they – in turn – like you?

Geotargeting and geofencing are increasingly important to out-of-home advertising. You may be looking at a billboard that is looking at you.  Data such as gender, age, race, income, interests, and purchasing habits can be used by companies to trigger an advertisement directly or to show ads in the future that they will have learned are appropriate, perhaps to Year 3 parents at school pick-up time and  teenagers in the evening. Once your phone has been detected, an advertising company can follow up with related ads in your social media feed or commercials at home on your smart TV.[5]  Artangel also used geolocating technology to target ads via Facebook or Instagram and direct people to Artangel’s website to find out more about the project.

Roy Wagner’s comment on the early Wittgenstein provides an appropriate gloss. Rather than picturing facts to ourselves, Wagner suggested, “Facts picture us to themselves” (The Logic of Invention, 2018).

[1] With thanks to Cressida Day, Celia Lury and Will Viney

[2] Harry Thorne, What All the Reviews of Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ at Tate Britain Have Got Wrong. Frieze, 15 November 2019 at

[3] The early days of Facebook would be remembered by some parents of Year 3 pupils: TheFacebook, as it was then called, made an online version of Harvard’s paper registers which were handed to all new students. They had photos of your classmates alongside their university ‘addresses’ or ‘houses’.

[4] 38 billboards were never put up in consequence. In a digital equivalent, where you cycle through six images in a minute, you would have had to place six school photos one after the other to avoid neighbouring advertising.

[5] See Thomas Germain, Digital Billboards Are Tracking You. And They Really, Really Want You to See Their Ads. CR Consumer Reports, November 20, 2019 at