The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a web series of invented words with the self-described mission to “fill all the holes left in the language and give them each a name.” If it sounds poetic, that’s because it is. The videos produced by author, designer and “video guy” John Koening are narrated with somber poetry that aims to “capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior.” One recent entry into The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is especially relevant to photographers and videographers. Vemödalen: The fear that everything has already been done.
The author gives a more detailed definition of the word in the video's description:
vemödalen - n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.
The video is constructed of 465 independently photographed images, captured by different photographers on different days. The striking thing about the video is that the images, shown in quick succession, are nearly identical to one another. When presented in such a form, it is hard to deny the author’s premise: that little of what we photograph is actually original.
While they may have chosen easy subjects to construct the video, the point still holds true for much of what we do. As photographers, we must face the fact that there are thousands of us out there doing similar, if not identical, things with our cameras. If we ever believe that we have taken a truly original photograph, then it is likely that we just haven’t looked hard enough to find a similar one. But for many photographers, this concept of striving to produce original imagery is fundamental to their approach to photography. Is it naïve of them? Is this directive for “true originality” misguided? The conclusion of the video’s author seems to be “yes” — but not in a bad way. Rather than despair in our inability to achieve originality, the author seems to say that we should embrace our similarity to our fellow humans and accept our work to be unoriginal contributions to a still-beautiful collective product of humanity.
The skeptic that I am, I always take such poetic monologues that play on emotions with an edge of suspicion. Often a rational or philosophical truth can be obscured by romanticized language. Nevertheless, the question tackled in this video is one that we should think about and draw our own conclusions on, as it is a question that many of us routinely face as photographers today.
You can follow the ongoing project on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows website.