‘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 phrase contours of the photo-mad digital world we live in. Recording events on iPads before you 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 a virtual arena, a pixelated playground where fun is only possible – or rather existent – if our online persona shows it so. The premise is a hunt for a virtual projection of a fun, bubbly and interesting self for others to be bedazzled by, an unquenchable thirst to shoot events as they happen and capture everything visually on our small, slim and sleek technological toolkits. With our immersion in an age of social media we also strive to share our digital meat, spread our finds of fleshy snaps across the celebrity infatuated, gossip throbbing cyber savannah. We want to get in on the act, participate, be approved of as ‘having a life’. We want to be ‘liked’ to be ‘followed’ to be tweeted about, to hold a sumptuous, exuberant gallery of a desirable life for others to peer at longingly through their screens. In a capitalised world stickered with brand giants left, right and centre the purpose of our outlet of digital escapism just couldn’t be clearer. Terrified of being swallowed into the logo sphere of conformity, we are trying to blog/snap/edit/tweet/shape and create our own unique brands.
Anyone else just a teeny bit terrified? About this warping of reality, the blurring of existential lines, the excessive compulsion to capture which is crippling and diminishing the experience itself? There is a difference between living in a moment and documenting it. For example, just recently I was fortunate to attend Tetherdown’s Y6 school production of a West Side Story in which I was most puzzled by the way two members of the audience watched the entire production through the recording of their iPads. I was similarly puzzled on holiday by the number of girls who were taking pictures of everything from a kebab stand to smashed glass to Portuguese bartenders they had barely spoken two slurred words to. This compulsive snapping mode has become far more than saving a memory. It has become a certificate of presence, an unhealthy manner of proving our existence; if you weren’t in the pictures of that party, you weren’t there. This is overkill. Our obsession with capturing moments and building our cybernated personas is in fact taking us out of the moment itself. As we increasingly dwell behind the lens, the active participation dissipates and we become mere recorders, stuck with digital archives of unlived moments, attempts to create memories before they’ve even taken place.
Undeniably of course in light of the tragic transiency of our waking moments, photography is a truly wonderful and indeed unstoppable thing (with more photos being taken every 2 minutes than the entire world took in the 1800s) Not only to preserve details, memories and even prompt remarkable fleeting sparks in the eyes of those who’re mentally eroding (as seen particularly with Alzheimer’s patients) but also in raising awareness of the darker parts of our world as seen in photojournalistic work in poverty and war stricken areas. However, though the essence of photography may be to facilitate the experience of time as a singular and unrepeatable event (as Roland Barthes poignantly put it), we must be careful to celebrate and absorb these jewelled moments through the superior, more personal tools of our eyes too and accept transiency as something not to be feared and battled with but as something beautiful in its own right. We can’t capture everything.
So, we have to strike a balance, not just a pose, ensuring this virtual insanity (as Jamiroqui tunefully foreshadowed), doesn’t swallow our reality. Constantly taking pictures and seeking tags, locations and event links so as to boost our online presence is to diminish our presence in reality. So, just for a bit, let’s put our ‘upload to Facebook’ modes aside and instead face up and look.