These days we are run over with images. They attack us from everywhere. On billboards, on internet, on print, on TV, they come in every channel and on every corner. They come from you next door neighbour, your friends, you family – and from people you don’t even know, whether marketers or the dude from the other side of the globe who needs to share a selfie. Sharing is it. We share them on social networks, such as Flickr, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – to mention a few. And every one of us has a camera, whether it’s one of the billion or so iPhones or a stout digital SLR. And of course we use these cameras, take pictures, ever more pictures, and send them into the noise of the already saturated universe of imagery. These days sure seem like a golden age of photography, don’t they?
But is it really so? When did you last stop up and really look at a photo? When did a photo last move you? I am not trying to imply that there aren’t many excellent photos out there – on the contrary; just look up all the blogs I showcase in my section of best photo blogs – but they disappear in the unstoppable attack of pictures that do no more than make us num. Photography has almost become a form of neurotic masturbation, fuelled by endless possibilities and everyone’s desire to be seen, whether a private person or a business. It’s all screams and attention seeking – and too often without any content, a more profound intent.
Maybe it’s harder to be moved by a photograph these days because there are so many of them. The numbers are inconceivable. Photography has always had its cheesy side – by the 1960s, 55 per cent of all pictures taken were of babies. But there are roughly 6 billion camera phones on the planet today. Facebook alone has been known to upload six billion photographs in a month. We snap as many pictures today, every two minutes, as were taken in the entire 19th century, another boom time for photography.
The volume alone guarantees that most are forgettable. So why do we take them? The acclaimed author and feature writer for the Canadian The Globe and Mail Ian Brown, based out of Banff, has one answer: «For the same reason addicts are addicted to anything: to kill the pain of awareness, the uncomfortable difficulty of actually seeing. I admit that this is just a theory, but I watch tourists take the same four photographs minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day in downtown Banff, and it’s a strangely upsetting experience.»
Do we take pictures for some kind of approval? Saying; look, I was here, I exist, I captured our moment, look at me. Maybe it’s as simple as that. We crave the instant gratification and collective approval that the Internet deals out to us and photographs are the fastest way to get it. Surely these pictures are never going to be put on a wall. The reality is that we seldom look at them again, because that isn’t the point. They aren’t memories of where we were, who we were and how we felt, so much as certificates that we physically exist – at least until the certificate expires, and we need to take another photo to re-establish our corporeal existence.
This isn’t to say all digital photographers are forgettable. Look up the work of Paolo Pellegrin and Peter van Agtmael and Christopher Anderson on Magnum Photos’ website. Better still; read The Online Photographer, the blog of Mike Johnston, a digital photographer who writes about his attempts – his successes, but more often his failures – to tell cogent and moving stories in pictures. It’s the struggle that makes visual work interesting.
Human beings have taken an estimated 3.5 trillion photographs since the first snapshot, of a Paris street, appeared in 1838. As many as 20 per cent were uploaded in the past two years. Why are most of them so forgettable? What is your thought? Or do you disagree with the statement in the first place?