“Quick! Take a picture!” “Get a snap!” “Film this!” “Hurry and record!” “You’ve gotta put that on Facebook!” Sound familiar? Well it should, because these are the stock phrases of the photo-mad digital world in which we live.
Recording events on iPads before we think to breathe them in, snapping pictures with people we barely know at parties and choosing to live life’s greatest moments through a lens—welcome to the swanky, flashing modern era of the Hunter-Uploader Society. Here, human experience takes place in the virtual arena: a pixelated playground where fun is only possible—existent, even—if our online persona displays it. The premise is a virtual self-projection to bedazzle others, and an unquenchable thirst to shoot events as they happen, to capture everything visually on our small, slim, sleek technological toolkits.
Immersed in the social media age, we also strive to share our digital meat. We spread our finds of fleshy snaps across the celebrity-infatuated, gossip-throbbing cyber savannah. We want to get in on the act, participate, be acknowledged as someone who “has a life”. We want to be “liked”, “followed”, “retweeted”. Be it “the wildest uni nightlife”, “the most romantic relationship”, or “the most Kodak-esque family lifestyle”, we want to create a sumptuous gallery for others to lust after on their screens.
Recent statistics from Media Bistro reveal that in 2013, 16 minutes of every hour online was spent social networking, and more than one in seven people in the world have a Facebook account. This is no passing Tamagotchi trend. With a whopping 300 million pictures uploaded to Facebook every day via Instagram, it is safe to say that these digital currents run far deeper.
So “why?” I hear you chirp. Well, in a capitalist world stickered with brand giants left, right and centre, the purpose of our digital escapism could not be clearer. Terrified of being swallowed by the logo sphere of conformity, we strive to blog, snap, edit and tweet our own unique brands.
Is anyone else just a teeny bit terrified? Worried about this warping of reality, the blurring of existential lines, the excessive compulsion to capture which cripples our lived experience? Because there is a difference between living in a moment and documenting it.
Just recently, I attended a Year Six production of West Side Story. I was puzzled by what went on in the front row, where practically every audience member watched the entire production through the lenses of their iPads. I was similarly puzzled on holiday last summer by the many girls taking pictures of everything, from a kebab stand to smashed glass, to Portuguese bartenders they had barely slurred two words to.
Such compulsive snapping is far more than the recording of memories. It is a certificate of presence, an unhealthy method of proving our existence: if you aren’t in pictures of the party, you weren’t there.
This is overkill. Our obsession with capturing moments and building our cybernetic personas is taking us out of the moment itself. Dwelling behind the lens, active participation dissipates and we become mere recorders. We are stuck with digital archives of unlived moments, attempts to create memories before they have even taken place.
Given the transience of life, photography is undeniably a wonderful thing. And indeed an unstoppable one—today more photos are taken in two minutes than were taken in the entire 19th century. They preserve detail and memory, with the ability to prompt remarkable nostalgic sparks in those experiencing mental deterioration, such as Alzheimer’s patients. They are also invaluable for raising awareness of the darker parts of our world, as demonstrated by photojournalistic work in war- and poverty-stricken areas.
War photojournalism in particular plays a hugely important role in stirring public opprobrium. Take, for instance, Ron Haviv’s gratuitous images of Bosnia, Eric Bouvet’s of Chechnya, or, currently, John Cantlie’s of Syria. That mass awareness in turn pressures political leaders to pursue alleviative international action. In mid-August 2013, David Cameron increased Syrian emergency aid to £175 million, a decision which followed directly from the viral spread of Amnesty International’s shocking video footage of Assad militia’s abuse of Syrian civilians.
However, though the essence of photography may be to “facilitate the experience of time as a singular and unrepeatable event” (as Roland Barthes so poignantly put it), with the exception of sensational war work, we must remember to celebrate and absorb moments through the superior, more personal means of our eyes, too. Transience should not be feared or fought, but accepted as something beautiful in its own right. We can’t capture everything.
So we have to strike a balance, not a pose; to ensure that, in the words of Jamiroquai, this “virtual insanity” doesn’t swallow our reality. Constantly taking pictures and seeking tags, locations and event links to boost our online presence diminishes our offline experience. So, just for a bit, let’s put our “upload to Facebook” mind-sets aside and simply face up and look.