Saturday, 20 September 2014

Visual Consumption?

For some time now I've been intrigued by the idea that we can consume not only with our mouths, but also with our eyes. As researcher Jonathan Schroeder (2002, p. 3) argues, "We live in a visual information culture. In no other time in history has there been such an explosion of visual images. And yet we seem to pay little attention to them, we do not always 'understand' them, and most of us are largely unaware of the power they have in our lives, in our society, and how they function to provide most of our information about the world."

With this concept of visual consumption for inspiration, I decided to conduct a simple experiment for this week's blog post. What are the iconic images of Ottawa? If strangers wanted to learn more about our city, what would they learn? I entered the phrase 'iconic images of Ottawa' into a Google search, clicked the 'images' tab and sat back to see what would happen.

The first image was a pretty traditional one featuring tulips and the the back of the Parliament buildings, which technically means it's an image taken from Gatineau, right? It's a perspective of Ottawa taken from beyond the technical city limits. Or, to push the point a little further, from 'outside.' The second image featured the War Memorial and the Chateau Laurier hotel. This is also somewhat to be expected, except that it made me wonder if perhaps it's appearance was linked to the fact that we aren't all that far away from Remembrance Day on November 11th. Could some Ottawa tourist promotions be using this image?

The third image I didn't associate with Ottawa at all - a rather nondescript looking apartment tower that could be located anywhere in the world. The fourth showed the new Convention Centre, fair enough, and the fifth? A glass of beer. Really? That's an iconic image of Ottawa? So I scrolled quickly through the first 20 or so images and recognized one of the Banff Springs Hotel. On the other side of the country. Yo, Google! What's up with that algorithm?

What else did I find? Lots of images of the Peace Tower, of course. And one of Maman, Louise Bourgeois' truly iconic sculpture in front of the National Art Gallery. That thing really creeps me out. I have yet to go within 15 feet of it, much less stand under it for the now 'mandatory' iconic tourist photo. Just looking at it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Yikes! Look at the size of that thing.


I noticed that almost all of the images were taken during daylight, even though the Parliament buildings look beautiful when lit with spotlights at night. What does this say about our city? Could that old saying about Ottawa really be true? Do we roll up the sidewalks at 10 p.m.?

What did I notice was missing? Well, for starters there were no images of the Central Experimental Farm. Ottawa is my hometown and I've grown up visiting and travelling through the Farm. I'm never so busy that I can't take a relaxing drive through the lane of trees with their branches forming a canopy over the road. How could it not be iconic of Ottawa? 

There were also no images of the Museum of Nature. The 'sinking museum' as we used to call it, after a rumour circulated that it was built on quick sand and was gradually, year by year, sinking. As kids that was part of the fascination, would it be gone by the next time we visited? As you can see, it is still very much here. In fact, it has a beautiful new addition. 

Notice anything else missing? Almost all of the images were taken during the summer! Is this some kind of plot to attract tourists, or are we as a group just putting our best face forward? Where's the snow? What about our so-called World's Longest Outdoor Skating Rink?? Just to even the score, I found a couple of those images to share with you. 

Ah yes, mushy snow and skating on the Canal. That's Ottawa!

But notice something else about my choice of iconic images? Finally, there are people in Ottawa! I guess we truly are a Northern people - we only come out in winter. Or at least that's what you might think if you relied on the images in Google for your information. 

Is there something to this idea of visual consumption? What do you think? If the idea intrigues you, check out Schroeder's book. It's in our library!

And, now, to leave you with one of my favorite iconic images of Ottawa. That's right people, it's all about the food! And here, in Canada, we queue up to eat the tails of our iconic national animal...


Schroeder, Jonathan E. (2002), Visual Consumption. London and New York: Routledge.


  1. It is interesting to think about how people picture Ottawa. I personally never knew about the experimental farms before I came to Carleton. But having seen them, that whole area is very nice.

    On the topic of Google Image search, the deeper you go, the more the images become "questionable". While searching for images for my Las Vegas segment, I came across some pictures that dwelled into the "Not Safe for Work" category. Could not expect anything less from vegas through.

  2. So true, Anthony., The one image I really liked finding was of the band Rush. I wish Ottawa could take credit for them!

  3. I was surprised that next to the Parliament Buildings, the top images did not include those of the Rideau Canal.

    I completed a co-op term at Alcatel Lucent last Spring and during my term I was part of a "knowledge transfer" in which employees from Mumbai travelled to Ottawa to be trained and prepared for outsourcing. It was interesting to get their perspectives on our city - some of the first things they said they were looking forward to seeing while in Ottawa were the Parliament Buildings (surprise surprise!) and the Rideau Canal/Winterlude/snow!

    Definitely interesting to see the conflicting views on what is considered to be an "iconic image of Ottawa." I would have assumed that the Rideau Canal is one of the main, if not the main attraction the city has to offer... and is what draws tourists to the city year after year!

    - Stef Reid

  4. So the last image of the Beaver Tails now has me craving Beaver Tails and I'm not even in Ottawa right now--see what pictures can do to someone!?

    Seeing the pictures you posted from typing into Google 'What are the iconic images of Ottawa?' has me questioning why certain pictures, as you mentioned have not been included-- such as the Canal, Beaver Tails, Parliament at night, the Mosaic Light Show at Parliament. I mean, I have only been living in Ottawa for a little over 2 years for school so maybe I am wrong, but those are the 'pictures' that pop into my mind when I think of Ottawa-- I guess it's all about perception.

    I wanted to see all the photos that showed up when you type in 'What are the iconic images of Ottawa' for myself-- and yes I noticed the beer, and weirdly, a lot of KFC. But what I personally noticed pop up the most is tulips, the parliament building (obviously) and pictures of tanks and war-- maybe a common theme of fighting for freedom and becoming Canadian? Since Ottawa is the capital of Canada, all of those pictures to me (besides the beer and KFC) seem to resemble fighting to be Canadian!

  5. Great post Professor Neilson, I definitely agree that we consumer with our eyes in addition to consuming with our mouths. After reading this post I felt compelled to redo the search you did and see if anything has changed. Like Mikayla above me, I was confused about a number of KFC images, as well as the random apartment building, beer, and a graffiti panda. But the most surprising is probably that the first two images returned are of royal guards in Britain - what gives?

    Having lived in Ottawa my whole life, I'm confused about the lack of what I would consider "authentically Ottawan" imagery. Why are there hardly any photos of Ottawa in the winter? (After all, we only have two seasons - winter and August). Where are the images of the Byward Market, Confederation Square, Scotiabank / TD Place, or an out of service OC Transpo bus? I feel that the original search may have been too specific - searching for "images of Ottawa" seems to return a much better picture of our city than when you include "iconic". However, when doing this new search, Google is kind enough to offer the suggested completion of "images of Ottawa shooting". I guess that's something we're known for now, too.

  6. This post really got me thinking about the "Do we really roll up our sidewalks at 10pm?" because of them being all daytime photos. So I wanted to see if that was true for just Ottawa, so I searched "iconic images of Montreal" to see if there would be nighttime images and I was truly just interested to see what would come up. I got lots of pictures of smoked meat, bagels, the olympic stadium, Farine Five Roses, and lots of nighttime city pictures. For the most part it was staged pictures of buildings during the summer in the daytime, just like the ottawa pictures. But the fact that there were a handful of nighttime photos showing off the night life of montreal, makes it seem like yes, unfortunately Ottawa may roll up their sidewalks at 10 pm.

    The one thing that really caught my attention was that when searching "iconic images of Montreal", no winter images at all show up. Which is mind blowing as we live in a climate to which we have snow covering the ground 5 months a year!! Which is the same for Ottawa as well. So then I decided to go search "Ottawa in the winter" and the results that I got, I truly believe should be coming up in the "iconic images of ottawa" search. Ottawa is the Capital of Canada, and Canada is known for its snow, because we all live in Igloos up here in Canada right? No but seriously, our city is so beautiful, a fresh sprinkling of snow on the ground transforms everything and makes it that much more beautiful to look at (great tourist attraction too!!). The google search needs to do a better job in choosing our iconic ottawa images.

    Thanks for getting my brain spinning about all this, was an interesting topic that I otherwise would not have thought to look up.

  7. Having only been exposed to Ottawa for three years now I found it quite surprising to find I too feel many images paint a misleading image of what Ottawa has to offer. Even before coming to Ottawa I knew two things for certain, it's cold and it snows a lot and none of the pictures show this. Perhaps you are right its a way of breaking the stigma that all Ottawa has to offer is cold and brutal winters or it may simply be Ottawa looks more appealing in the winter.

    A very interesting post that really makes you wonder how big of an impact the internet has on our perceptions of what cities have to offer and how often are individuals expectations not met when visiting a new city.

  8. I definitely have to agree with you regarding all the pictures being taken in the daytime. Having grown up in Ottawa I've seen the city at night, and it is a nice place, even more so in the winter with the Parliament Lights. I also find with these pictures though that they mainly only show an area that would take you 20 minutes to walk and see each spot.

    The first picture you posted taken from Gatineau kind of makes me think about how I catch a lot of people talk like Gatineau is actually part of Ottawa because it's so close. I mean I kind of understand them, until I started to understand geography I thought the museum of history was in Ottawa just because you could still see Parliament from the cafeteria.

    Another interesting thing I noticed, as I figured I'd see if maybe your post helped Ottawa's iconic image search change to show all of Ottawa all the time, but now the first picture is one that was not even taken in the country. All I see now is a Royal Guard standing outside of Buckingham Palace...cause that really showcases Ottawa's beauty.

    But overall, I'd say it's pretty important for Ottawa to fix this so that if people interested in visiting for the 150th birthday in 2017 will actually know what they are going to be seeing when they arrive.

  9. It is extremely interesting to read this post. I love to travel and the first thing that I do before visiting a city is complete a quick Google search to familiarize myself with the landscape and culture. Google images will show you the major tourist attractions, perhaps even places to eat but there is no indiciation as to what the culture of that city is like. Perhaps because it is difficult to capture the culture of a city in an image. When searching "Ottawa" in Google the images look absolutely beautiful but the city seems boring and empty. Where are the people? What is the culture like? Ottawa has tons to offer tourists - extremely friendly residents, great food, great bars and who could forget Winterlude? It is a shame that Google does not fully capture the true beauty of our nations capital.


  10. This post made me think about many things. Primarily, why it is that after a lot of exposure to the many beautiful iconic areas on a daily basis that people become unappreciative? As a country, Canada identifies itself as a multicultural and relational therefore it is interesting that when someone would search "Iconic Images in Ottawa" in the Google search engine that it wouldn't display these traits visually. Instead the Ottawa's Icon or symbol is a glass of beer, or a bunch of different significant buildings. I suppose it would be because it would be difficult to capture a picture of Ottawa’s iconic traits rather than taking a picture of the touristic areas. I suppose that is why for residents in Ottawa, living in a visual information culture where we consume also with out eyes that it begins to become less valued.

    Overall, the pictures were beautiful with the sunny 2PM snapshots, and it was a funny post to read. It would be more beautiful if the best part of Ottawa which is the collaboration of society was to be visually captured.

  11. As many of my friends in the class, I am so surprised that I only see the pictures of Ottawa during the days and mostly in the summer. I have lived in Ottawa for more than 5 years. I explored many parts and went to so many events during winter, fall and summer in Ottawa. I am also into photography, therefore taking pictures is essential and crucial to myself. I questioned myself “ Why there is no pictures of Ottawa at night or in the fall and in the winter” “ Those are the best moment and best time to capture the best moment of the sightseeing in Ottawa”

    Like many friends, I typed “ Iconic Image of Ottawa”, I am so surprised to see so many unrelated pictures about Ottawa. As my knowledge, the reason because of there is a city also named as Ottawa in United States. But If I type “ Iconic Image of Ottawa Canada”, there are more interesting pictures but they are not enough to represent how beautiful Ottawa is.

    When I was in Europe during Summer 2014, people asked me about how is Ottawa? First thing, I talked about the winter and how we have the longest skating canal in the world. I talked about experience with the cold, the slippery ice, the flavourful hot chocolate, delicious beaver tail pastry and great great time with amazing friends. Next, I talk about the light show in the Parliament during Summer time. That is the unique light show talking about Canada’s history for everyone including Canadians and tourists. For me, those things are the most attractive ones. Rather than that, I would mostly agree with this blog.

  12. The part of this article that caught my attention was the idea of visual consumption. I have never thought about it that way but it is extremely relevant to my life. I think I am a visual consumer, the visual appearance of products and places is what catches my attention. I read in one of my text books for this semester that people are happier what they have an experience rather then receive something of value. I would agree something like a vacation would be much more satisfying to me then a nice new expensive hand bag. I value beauty especially in the world around us, The beautiful landscape of Ottawa was one of the main reasons I chose this as my school. The setting is so beautiful in the summer and winter, most importantly Ottawa had the city feel I was used to in Toronto and the beautiful nature I was used to from living with my family in the country. Ottawa is so beautiful I want to share it with everyone I know back home.
    The best part about enjoying visual consumption is that it is free !