Topping from the Viewfinder: The Visual Language of Virtual BDSM Photographs in Second Life

Shaowen Bardzell


The paper explores the mutually constituted relations between avatars, space, and artifacts depicted in virtual photographs from Second Life’s BDSM (bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism) communities. Photographs were sampled from thousands of user profiles of Second Life users who explicitly associate themselves with one or more BDSM communities or groups. Using visual analysis and social semiotics, I describe the visual language of these images, and with them, the grammar and symbolism of power and submission, of individual and institution, and of photographer and viewer. The visual language of these photos sheds light on the nature of these communities, including the social and computer-mediated interactions of their participants, and helps explain why virtual BDSM is such a compelling form of play and source of aesthetic innovation for thousands of Second Life residents.


Visual language, sexuality, virtual BDSM, identity, Second Life

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