Why I have stopped taking so many photos
While travelling in Poland recently, Patrycja, her family and I frequented a beautiful beach in Jastarnia, a jewel of the unfortunately-named Hel peninsula. The sand was incredible, unlike anything I have ever experienced - light, clean and pleasant to touch. The Baltic Sea was cool and inviting, while wonderful shimmering sunsets framed turbulent days, easing my anxiety and offering solitude.
I really enjoyed the scene, the setting and the landscape. The only annoyance was the proliferation of smartphones, cameras, tripods and selfie sticks, steered by amateur photographers who were overly keen to document their momentary respite from the zapping banality of everyday life.
You know the drill by now. A dozen different angles. A hundred different poses. A choreographed recreation of happiness. Utter madness, in other words. The kind of self-indulgent jamboree that makes eyes roll and teeth itch. Another sad manifestation of modern life, devoid of meaning but full of superficial pretence.
Such saturation of photography is nothing new, of course. I have stood aghast at gigs, witnessing people experience the thrashing euphoria of Pete Doherty through a screen. I have shook my head at football matches, seeing people on the front row at Wembley or Old Trafford videoing a random corner kick. I have cringed outside the Coliseum in Rome and beneath The Sagrada Família in Barcelona. There has to be an end to this egotistical absurdity, otherwise we are doomed to a world of eternal selfishness.
How many photos will be taken in 2020?
As a species, we cannot help ourselves. We cannot resist the dopamine rush of seeing our own faces in anything other than our dour workaday milieu. We cannot experience a moment without creating digital footprints to commemorate our esteemed presence. We cannot stop taking photos, essentially, and that is ruining both the artform itself and our relationship with reality.
By the time 2020 is mercifully over, 1.4 trillion photos will have been taken in its disastrous 12-month span. Almost 90% of those photos will be taken on smartphones.
More than 2 billion photos are uploaded to the internet every single day, stoking the exponential rate of progress. Meanwhile, every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total just 150 years ago.
Yes, you read that correctly. In the year 1870, fewer photos existed in the entire world, ever, than we currently produce every 120 seconds. That is incomprehensible.
Why do we take so many photos?
Why do we take so many photos? What is happening in our brains – or, analogously, in our world – to inspire such photographic impulsivity? How did we get here, and is there a way out?
Firstly, there is an argument to be made that the convenience and sheer accessibility of cameras inspires our incessant usage thereof. Unlike our ancestors, we all carry cameras, sequestered within mobile phones, on our person every single day. Such ubiquity creates a natural potentiality for usage, and so we take advantage of our resources whenever a candid opportunity arises.
However, we also have calculators on our phones, and we do not spoil poignant moments by doing some simple multiplication. We do not habitually decode algebraic formulae in the shadows of famous landmarks. Accordingly, there seems to be something especially addicting about taking photos. What lies at the bedrock of this defining modern tic?
Why taking photos of everything is damaging your mental health
As with most things these days, the answer points to pervasive insecurity, the very glue of our cultural zeitgeist. Ultimately, we take an endless stream of photos to mask or assuage deep-seated misgivings about our reality. We want to be seen to be having a great time, lapping it up on sun-kissed beaches, when in fact we are dissatisfied. We want to be seen to be social butterflies, attending different parties every weekend, when, actually, we are lonely and dishevelled. We want to be seen to be different than we truly are, and that learned overcorrection erodes our appreciation of fact.
Unlike previous generations, or perhaps just to a greater extent than our forebears, we have the ability to document and augment our personal stories. We have unfettered access to tools that can tweak, hone and enhance our appearances, biographies, reputations and legacies. Every blemish can be covered by a filter, and every abnormality – as judged by the hypocritical scions of social acceptance – can be airbrushed out of existence.
In a world of such unforgiving discourse, that power is tantalising. With a few simple clicks, we can alter our turgid reality, and just as with the recreational use of drugs and alcohol, humans will take advantage of anything that achieves that end, superficially or otherwise.
In this regard, the contemporary boom of casual photography speaks to the age-old desire to occasionally exit our own bodies for more hedonistic climes. More than ever before, we view our lives in movie form, starring as the coiffed protagonist rather than as the inspired screenwriter or the dominant director. We experience things through osmosis. We feel things vicariously. We form opinions not from within, but by exposing ourselves to the babbling monologues of other people. Accordingly, it does not really matter if we see the Taj Mahal through an iPhone viewfinder, because our entire lives are played out in that distracted malaise.
The link between photos, social media, cancel culture and insecurity
Nowadays, what we say and do, here and now, pales in social value to what they say and do in the technological ether. Who are they? The consensus. The cool kids. The alpha males. The masters of fate and the deciders of trends. The cancel culture zealots and the hyper-liberal activists. The influencers. The commentariat. The white, middle-class connoisseurs of taste and appropriateness. They drive us to take extravagant photos because they thrive on demeaning human differences.
There is a template we must conform to, a homogeneity of behaviour characterised by ridiculous pouts and faux rumples of the hair. Taking photos of absolutely everything shows adherence to the righteous gospel, apparently. It shows we are normal, except that very concept of normal has been destroyed by the means purporting to embody it.
At this stage, humanity would benefit from pausing to consider what a photograph actually is, and what value it truly possesses. Of course, there is a brilliance to certain photos, and the art of photography in its classic sense is a skill beyond my kin. In the right context, with the correct purpose, photos have the ability to change opinions and enflame passions. Photos can end wars, just as they can escalate violence. Their power, and their beauty, is undeniable. My argument is not against such uses of a fine medium.
However, warped by advancing technologies, most photos these days have become mere pictures, vehicles of prepacked idealism and carefully constructed messages. Now, the reasons we take photos have changed, and photos themselves have become the inverse of constructive.
Rather than using cameras to capture cherished memories, celebrate beloved friends or enact positive political change, we use them as conduits to social acceptance. Sure, we still take photos of famous buildings and happy daytrips, but they are lost in a narcissistic vortex of caricatured selfies and breakfast collages. I mean, when was the last time you even looked at half of the photos in your camera roll, other than to judge their worthiness for public consumption?
More than ever before, cameras are pointed at the people operating them, to the detriment of outward exploration. We are all encouraged to be directors in phantom Netflix documentaries of our own daily struggles, chronicling the mundane and editing it to appear extraordinary. As a result, we are becoming increasingly vain and self-absorbed. Worse still, we are becoming intolerant of universal facts because we possess the weapons to challenge them inexorably.
Perhaps I’m just miserable. Perhaps I’m getting old. I do have a propensity to demonise things that worsen my own mental health, and it is quite possible that many people derive incredible joy from their photographical exploits. Ultimately, though, I just do not see the point of such incessant documentation and sensationalism. I do not have the patience to load my camera app every single time something mildly different happens. I do not get it, quite frankly, and I probably never will.
How I stopped taking so many photos
Accordingly, in a bid to lessen my mindless obedience to yet another deleterious social norm, I decided to stop taking so many photos. How? Well, in the first instance, I placed time limits – five minutes per day – on my iPhone camera and photo apps. These limits are notoriously flimsy, and you can ignore them with one click, but they at least act as speedbumps to technological mindlessness. I’m more aware of my usage by virtue of setting those reminders, and that is always a positive thing.
I’m also increasingly despondent whenever somebody asks me to take a needless photo of them – in a domestic setting, say, or in a supermarket. I explain my protestations and try to educate people on the emotional redundancy of viewing life through a camera. Often, my pleas fall on deaf ears, but I’m content with my desire to change habitual behaviours.
Now, do not get me wrong. If I see a brilliant sunset or a historic monument, I may still take a photo. Certainly, whenever I visit a new football ground, there will be photographic evidence. But gone are my days of photographic excess. I will no longer take 25 shots of the same thing, and I will no longer worship my camera at the expense of genuine human interaction and experience.
There will be no further worries about settings, angles, lighting, pose and entourages. There will just be purposeful photos eliciting thoughts and feelings that cannot be accessed by any other means.
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