There are more cameras around than ever before, and more photos are being taken than at any other point in history. Personally, I do not think that is necessarily a good thing.
Is this my first grumpy old man article? I think this might be my first grumpy old man article. Is 33 too young to be writing this? Oh well, I'm doing it. Here we go. Buckle up.
I am lucky to be just old enough to have grown up before the internet and handheld tech were ubiquitous, so it has given me a nice perspective on how their growth has influenced our individual experience (or at least mine) and culture at large. I remember life without these things, and I live life having largely embraced them.
Photos Were Special
Smartphones and social media have vastly changed the average person's relationship with photography. Before social media, for the average person, photography was a means of creating records of important life events: family vacations, the birth of a child, etc. Due to the inherent nature of film, its cost, and the way we related to photos, we brought the camera out for less occasions, and when we did bring it out, it was a tool with which we engaged sparingly, relatively speaking. Photos were often soft, had red-eye, were over- or underexposed, etc., but none of that mattered most of the time, because photos were almost meant less as the memories themselves and more as an impetus, a trigger for a memory or emotion. Looking at a photo would remind the viewer of that time or invite a conversation about it. Image quality issues also mattered less simply because there was no way around them short of spending a lot of money and receiving some level of training on equipment that was not as automated and user friendly as it is today.
Of course, if you wanted better photos, the type you might frame as family heirlooms, you could hire a professional, and people frequently did for special occasions: weddings, family holiday portraits, senior pictures, etc. These were the sorts of shots that were more of a documentary nature, meant to forever denote and archive a pivotal life event.
The Incessant Need to Document and the Obsession With the Perfect Shot
Now, a lot of that has changed. Digital means you can take as many photos as you want essentially without incurring additional cost. The advancing capabilities of smartphones mean that pretty much anyone can take high-quality images in a variety of situations — at least situations that are normally encountered on a daily basis. Those two things in combination have led to two things: an incessant need to document and an obsession with the perfect shot.
We document more situations than ever before, many of them things that not too long ago would be so universally considered to be mundane or of poor quality for recording that no one would dream of committing them to electronic (film) memory. And it is a weird thing when you stop to think about it, because the purpose of documenting is preservation for revisiting something later. And yet, how often do we take that terrible concert video with blown-out sound, never to watch it again? Does anyone revisit their shots of their avocado toast on their phone's camera roll? Absolutely, many things we point our smartphone cameras at are well worth preserving: birthdays, a special date night, etc. But so many others are not. So, why does we bother to do so?
Status. Some events are not documented for future consumption by the creator and those close to them, but rather for consumption in the present by those with whom the creator is in a sort of implicit social competition. The photo of the avocado toast is not of the avocado toast; it is of healthy lifestyle, of the ability to afford eating out, of the "interesting" lifestyle that aspires to those things we are told to aspire to by the often self-appointed gurus of lifestyle, those who make their living through modeling some (most often faux or at least heavily contrived and pruned) model of living.
When the quantity of photos skyrockets, the novelty and importance of any single photo correspondingly decreases. You can see a perfect demonstration of that just by considering how you interact with photos personally. How often do you open Instagram and scroll mindlessly, perhaps pausing for a slightly longer though still insignificant moment when you see a truly good photo? I know I am certainly guilty of this behavior. Photos that took years of training and practice and hours of time to create get mere moments of our attention. We are visually bored, and it shows in our interactions with images.
Obsession and Missing Out
We also obsess over the perfect shot, even of throwaway subjects or moments. Gone are the days of taking two shots, one in case someone closed their eyes the first time. Now, we take dozens of shots of everything from that avocado toast to groups of friends. The act of a photo is often more about a performance for an invisible audience than capturing authenticity, which has fundamentally changed our relationship to photos — not necessarily for the better.
We also miss out on experiences because we are more concerned with documenting them than experiencing them. For example, psychological studies have shown that people's ability to remember details of an experience decreases when they are focused on taking pictures. That obsession with taking photos of everything is literally decreasing our ability to experience life's events.
It Is Not All Bad
Don't get me wrong. The mass proliferation of cameras has not been a universally bad thing. We can share photos with family and friends in ways that were not possible before, we can document social and societal issues far more thoroughly, and we almost always have cameras on hand for unexpected moments. I simply think that our relationship with photos and the act of taking photos has changed, both for better and worse. More importantly, however, I believe that we have not examined our relationship with those things in a long time and that it could potentially do a lot of good to take time to examine it.