Death by a Thousand Photos
I suspect you’ve seen this photo. It’s been all over social media for the past few weeks. At the Boston premiere of Black Mass, dozens of fans (and many more out of shot) are clamouring for a photograph of Johnny Depp. In the midst of this sea of camera phones, one elderly lady stands alone, armed with only the most ancient form of technology: eyes.
Many people have lauded this as a beautiful reminder of the need to live in the present. And it is. Although the cynical part of me can’t help but be amused by the fact that this photo was snapped by a paparazzo and has been shared many thousands of times by smartphone-toting meme-mongers! But hey… let he who is without sin cast the first phone!
So much of life is now mediated through screens. And I’m as guilty as the next man. My phone has become a brain-annex. A memory silo, storing images of events I only ever half-observed, because I was too busy lining up the shot.
I was at a gig last year, which was being recorded for a DVD. The artist announced that what they wanted to do for one of the songs was get everyone in the room to film it with their phone, submit the video online, and they would make up the slot on the DVD from the composite footage. It was an interesting idea, and designed to make a point about technology and the individual nature of perspective. But the upshot of it was that for about 5 minutes, I couldn’t make out anything that was happening on the stage, because all I could see was a wall of elevated arms, and fragments of the action dispersed between flickering screens.
Even outside of that one song, people in the crowd were voraciously filming clips of the show on their phones. Because the combination of an HD quality DVD recording and their own natural memory wasn’t quite enough. They needed to be supplemented by a shaky, inaudible iPhone recording.
In previous eras people would carve “I was here!” into stones, trees, and any available surface, as a message to others who might stumble upon the same item. Now we do it on video as a message to ourselves. And we look back at the archive to remind ourselves “I really was there.”
Head outside the gig venue and into the vast auditorium of nature. We commit crimes against creation all the time, and in so doing remove any sense of wonder.
The Psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1)
The Instagrammer replies, “Yes, but they could declare it a little louder if we boosted the colours.”
Creation has been supplanted by meme-creation. What should make us stand in awe, or kneel in humility now makes us snap, crop, filter and otherwise attempt to improve on the handiwork of the Master Craftsman.
We get angry if we fail to adequately capture a fleeting moment because our phone crashes, or it takes an extra couple of seconds to locate it in a bag. But let’s be honest… we would have missed the moment anyway, because we would only ever have witnessed it through flickering pixels.
There’s something morbidly ironic about our craving to make things ‘unmissable.’ Take the person who is stunned by the beauty of a flower. They wish they could retain it, so they can admire it day after day. But the very act of plucking it from its soil and bringing it inside leads to its death. In trying to preserve the beauty, we murder it.
In some cultures they believe that having your photograph taken sucks out a part of your soul. I think they may be onto something, because the people who post the greatest number of selfies are often the most soulless individuals!
I enjoy technology, and I love photographs. And my memory is fallible. There’s something beautiful about opening a book and seeing a picture that takes you back to something that had slipped your mind. Pictures can be wonderfully evocative tools, and things that can communicate so much about our passions, values and experiences. I hope I will have memory-snaps to hand on to future generations of my family. But not at the expense of having enjoyed the moments myself.
And perhaps that’s a lesson our technology-obsessed generation needs to face up to. A moment can be appreciated without being recorded. Sometimes capturing the moment kills the moment. Maybe some things aren’t meant to last… maybe that’s what makes them so precious.