I've never been much of a photographer, and even less of an album keeper. Almost ten years ago I reflected on our ongoing family dispute concerning how we save photographs. While reviewing that column in preparation for this one, I found myself wondering if perhaps this entire present column might consist solely of a link to that previous one. Though some things have clearly stayed the same since then, others have definitely changed. For Tzippi, even though she now freely and frequently snaps photos with her phone, the physical album remains the desired, perhaps even the only true, way to save them. I, on the other hand, am quite comfortable with saving my photos either on my hard drives or on online albums. That was true ten years ago, and it's pretty much the case today as well. Except that I seem to have realized that if in the past I claimed that saving things digitally wasn't at all problematic, I'm realizing that perhaps what I actually felt was that I simply didn't feel threatened by an eventual loss of those photographs.
The fact that I'm not much of a photographer doesn't mean that I haven't accumulated many photographs over the years. I've had a digital camera for over fourteen years, and I've found numerous opportunities to use it. Many of these have been work related but I suppose that the majority, and certainly the majority of those around which we might have a family dispute, are a record of family events of one sort of another. A year-by-year review of how many photographs I've taken clearly shows that my own output, if that's the word, has seriously tapered off. It would seem that I don't feel the urge to snap a photograph anymore. And this was most apparent after a short trip Tzippi and I made to Berlin two months ago. During our vacation I hardly used my camera, and upon returning from that trip I noticed that altogether I'd taken 15 photographs - less than three a day.
Even after admitting that my photographing has tapered off considerably, only fifteen photographs is still very, very few. There is, of course, the very useful, and even accurate, excuse that Tzippi took 250 photographs, and considering that we were together all of the time the pictures she took most certainly also reflect my experience. But in the past taking photographs has been for me more a way of looking, than of actually attempting to capture something in memory. Could the fact that I almost didn't snap any pictures mean that, beyond the attempt to remember, my means of observing has also changed?
I'd been inundated with images of Berlin well before I viewed the sights with my own eyes. It's almost as if, having already seen them, I had no reason to photograph them - the internalization that photographing permits had, at least to a certain extent, already taken place. But my "looking" had been achieved through other's eyes, which would suggest a sort of cheating, a shortcut to enlightenment that shouldn't really work. And yet, how many different ways are there for us to, for instance, observe the Brandenburg Gate?
Humankind survived more or less successfully before photography. Well before the first widely available camera that made photographing a pastime available for "the rest of us", people were viewing photographs, and the viewing of these captured images was changing the way they viewed their world. If viewing photographic images changed us, the ability to capture them by ourselves had an even greater affect. In her idea packed book On Photography Susan Sontag tells us (page 3-4) that photographs:
really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.She notes (page 3) that the proliferation of photography inundates us with images, and that this inundation directs us toward a certain way of understanding the world:
For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. ... In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. ... Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads - as an anthology of images.Sontag tells us that as we observe via the camera we also take notes on the world around us. She writes (page 6) that even the professional photographer is:
like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutter-bug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life.I can easily identify with the note-taking function. Back when I was more intensively taking pictures this was certainly a prominent "use". But more than that, what interests me here is the effect that photographs have had on our memory, or more precisely, on our memories. In an essay in The New Yorker from 2002 Sontag wrote:
The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding and remembering.Throughout Sontag's book I find myself nodding my head again and again in agreement, but I find those particular sentences, from a considerably later essay, a bit strange. Is she telling us that before we had photographs nobody said "I have a picture of that in my mind"? I can't answer that question since I've never lived in a time without photographs. Even if in earlier periods we didn't "picture" things in our minds, a statement such as Sontag's should surprise us, precisely because she seems to be stating the obvious. After all, our technologies have a great influence on how we observe and understand our world. We should expect that a "new" technology brings with it a different way of understanding and remembering, and that this "new" way eclipses an old one. John Berger, in his 1978 essay The Uses of Photography, suggests that rather than the photograph changing the way we remember, what the photograph has done is replace memory:
What served in the place of the photograph, before the camera's invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be: memory.But all this doesn't really explain why, even though I had a very capable camera either in my pocket or even in my hand I almost never used it. I have nothing against memories, and whether in an album, a shoebox, a hard drive, or online, I can certainly understand the desire to etch out my own niche of wherever I happen to be visiting. But though my own experiences were different than those of other tourists, something caused me to feel that there wasn't anything distinct enough in these to merit yet another snapshot. If I wanted to capture a particular sight widely available picture postcards, sold pretty much anywhere and everywhere that tourists might roam, did this better than I could. I have no reason to compete with professional photographers.
If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless.Berger was writing before the digital camera, and the camera equipped smartphone. Even then it seemed that everything was "continually being photographed", and this is all the more true in our digital present. Alice White Walker, Marketing Manager at Nuke Suite, reports that as of November 2014, an average of 60 million photos were being uploaded to Instagram daily. Last month Brandwatch reported that the number is now 80 million. I haven't succeeded in finding statistics for how many photos are viewed daily, but I trust that lots of people click through lots and lots of photos every day. Those are pretty overwhelming statistics, and I admit, not necessarily proudly, to having been an early contributor. I don't know how much time people spend viewing these photos, or what they think about when they do. Some of these viewers may be searching for that one snapshot that touches them and transforms their lives. Maybe. But I tend to think that for most it's a binge that leads to an overdose. Berger may well be right - in such an image rich environment perhaps photographs really do become meaningless.
Return to Luftmentsh