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October 14, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Tilted Head, Raised Eyebrows

The internet was originally intended to be a text-only paradise, free of all the complications that come with photographs. It didn’t work out that way. The internet is ruled by images now, from the salacious YouTube thumbnail to the vandalised Snapchat selfie to the gigantic wedding album. How should one navigate this new onslaught of pictures?

 

I.

The front camera isn’t very good, but you don’t have a mirror handy.

The app opens in seconds, a smiling ghost sliding away to reveal a pixellated reflection, your face lit by the screen’s glow. You will sit up, turn a light on, pull a face and then press the button. The button is nothing but an arrangement of pixels that respond to the heat of your thumb, freezing the rest of the pixels in place. These pixels are you. Kind of.

Your eyebrows weren’t quite there. You will try again. You will look cute this time.

You will get it right this time. You will press send. Snapchat will take these pixels, move them halfway around the world, then move them almost all the way back. Your friend will smile.

II.

We’ve always told each other stories.

That’s what sets us apart. Fuck opposable thumbs. Animals can communicate, can excrete pheromones to get each other horny or screech loudly to indicate danger, but they can’t spin a yarn. Humans tell stories, constantly, and it makes us who we are.

We tell stories through a process of abstraction. There is no way to just show someone how something went down, but we can describe it with language, re-enact it with movement, or draw it with a picture. This process, called ‘mediation’, is inherent to any kind of storytelling. Your selection of words or movements or ink contribute to this abstraction, this removal from ‘actual events’, whether you like it or not.

When photography emerged in the early 19th century, it seemed to change this. This was an authentic representation of events, untouched by the artist’s brush or the author’s opinion. Photography was scientific, methodical, precise. This was entirely untrue—photographers make choices too, in framing, in developing, in choosing what to photograph—but the fix was in. Photos were real. Photos told a thousand words. Photos were supreme.

Photography became the ammo of our personal narratives, both our flashback-triggerers and our markers of significant change. You didn’t frame diary pages on the mantle, or bore relatives with your collected airline tickets, or treasure your birth certificate. You took photos, and you valued photos.

Throughout this upheaval, a sense of beauty remained. The compositional principles that governed painting for centuries applied to photography too. Thus, two forms of photography emerged. Photography as art (‘Appreciate these tones please’, ‘Look! a penis’, ‘The bottle represents alcoholism’), and photography as documentation (‘I went here’, ‘My family is healthy’, ‘Three gunshots to the head’.) For most of this time, photography was kinda hard. It was expensive, inconvenient, limited by the physicality of its form. When each photo cost a considerable fraction of a dollar, you didn’t take so many.

As we are all aware, the last decade has completely changed this. A baby born this year will have more photos taken of it in two months than their grandparents likely had in their entire lives. 20,000 photos are uploaded to Instagram every minute, 14 million snapchats are sent every hour, and 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. We do it large.

III.

“It’s not weird to take a photo of plate of food. I feel like it used to be. . .”

Dr Michael Daubs is a Media Studies Lecturer at Victoria University.

“Film and the physicality, by limiting photography, kind of made every photo a little special.” Special, and slow—even polaroids take a half a minute to develop. “You know right away, now, if you cut off someone’s head, or your eyes are half-closed. If your candid moment doesn’t look the way you want it to, you delete it, and try to recreate that spontaneity.”

But spontaneity, recreated or not, now reigns.

Snapchat is a smartphone app that allows you to send photos and videos to people which self-destruct within ten seconds being viewed. You’ve probably heard of it. Snapchat subverts the notion of both artistic photography and documentary photography. Instead, it fosters conversational photography. Your picture is the message, as ephemeral and unplanned as a line of Facebook chat. “The idea of using images to communicate isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination,” asserts Daubs. We have, after all, been sending each other postcards for decades. But Snapchat makes this all the more convenient, all the more ephemeral. 99 per cent of Snapchats will never be seen again. These are moments shared, not moments memorised.

Snapchat’s popularity can be attributed to an emerging cultural cynicism, argues Daubs. “It kind of started with reality TV, which everyone just watches to mock. It’s a healthy dose of scepticism with the kind of oversharing that social networks encourage.” Facebook and Google want you to put as much of yourself as possible online, not for any altruistic ‘connectivity’ reasons, but because it lets them target their ads with more precision. They want your photos stored, analysed and catalogued. Photos are the main reason people use Facebook in the first place, and act as a perfect lock-in. The more photos you put on Facebook, the harder it becomes to leave.

Snapchat rejects the permanent database, the enduring profile. Snapchat is a decidedly non-digital digital application—it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing we are used to doing on computers. But much of modern photography does.

IV.

Consider, for a moment, Google Images search.

A sea of imagery, a grid of organised pixels, a keyword-orientated wall of colour. Google can’t work out what’s actually in an image, not perfectly, so it uses the surrounding words to establish content. It works the other way too, the “search with an image tool” producing keywords and similar images from an inputted picture. This huge bank of images—seemingly every publicly available image online—is further refined and catalogued by an army of Tumblr and Pinterest users, tagging, recontextualising and editing images in a myriad of interconnected ways. Suddenly, your innocuous news photograph is plastered with captions and bounced around Reddit with reckless abandon. Suddenly, your dinner features on 400 different “roast” boards. Suddenly, the photo you took of a friend is tagged #girl #white #vertical #vintage #grainy #cute and used as inspiration for an eating disorder.

“It’s much easier now to create a database, to create an archive, and some people will consider this when they create images,” observes Daubs. “I know someone who has an archive of nothing but beer glasses that they take when they go on vacation. This guy is not an artist; he’s just a guy who goes on vacation and drinks beer.” Organisation seems relatively harmless, but to Daubs, the database can mean more than that. “You’re almost at this state now where there is a premeditation of our daily existence—before we take a photo or even leave the house we are already considering ways we can mediate that day, can take a photo, we’re considering how to create this curated narrative of our lives.”

Databases create patterns, homogeneity. We want photos to fit our blog’s aesthetic, to not clash with the other photos on our Instagram grid. Without meaning to, you become a curator. Of your work, of others. Consistency is now important to you; you now realise you have a ‘personal brand’. Apps have sprung up to enable this consistency. The app ‘Everyday’ overlays the last photo you took with the one you are currently taking, allowing you to line it up to the pixel. What’s it for? Selfies, duh.

V.

Of all the words the internet has produced, ‘selfie’ is one of the most hated. Selfies are the ultimate marker of ‘what’s wrong with our generation’, an immodest habit of narcissism that goes hand in hand with our supposed entitlement complexes. Daubs disagrees. “I actually don’t think selfies have much to do with narcissism at all. It’s almost the exact opposite of that.” He points to the motivation behind selfies, which he doesn’t believe is pride. “People don’t take selfies because they think they look great, they take them so people tell them they look great.”

He’s not alone.

“The right self-portrait directs others to see us the way we desire to be seen,” writes Casey Cep in Pacific Standard. “A selfie suggests that no one else in the world sees you as you truly are, that no one can be trusted with the camera but you.” Selfies are about control. You can use the front camera to get your expression just right. You can delete anything you deem unworthy. You get to shape the whole narrative.

“People who take selfies want to remind others that they exist,” argues Daubs. “It’s kind of a way to reassert one’s existence.” One can’t control a lot of our experience in the real world, but our online existences are ours to shape as we please. Selfies, writes Cep, allow us to create our perfect self. “Staging the right image becomes the mechanism for achieving that desired identity.”

But it’s not always just aspiration—sometimes it’s reclamation. Control means young girls—the ones who are taking most of the selfies—shape how they would like to be seen, away from the male gaze of most photographers. Just compare the provocative photos Rihanna takes of herself to the pervy photos the paparazzi manage. If you’re the one in the photo, why shouldn’t you be in control?

VI.

No message is quite as scary as “tagged four photos of you”. The rush to your laptop. The eternal loading screen. The dismay as you realise how many more photos remain untagged. Most of us have some sort of anxiety about how we appear to the world, and as our lives move online, it’s only natural for this anxiety to follow suit. We have entire databases of ourselves to maintain now, libraries of our likeness which we struggle to control. Our obsession with images has existed for millennia, but has finally met its match. We don’t just use photos to tell stories any more, the photos are the stories. That’s why you imagine the old world in black and white, or Iraq in grainy night vision. Our simulation is much more important than our reality.

It’s estimated that around ten per cent of the 13.1 trillion photos ever taken were taken in the last year. It’s impossible to come to some kind of moral conclusion or summation about such a gigantic force of human culture.  All you can do is stand in awe.

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