If a tree falls in the forest and no one posts a picture of it, did it really happen?
Last summer, I stumbled across a pack of photos I had taken during elementary and middle school camps. As an uncompromising introvert and homebody, I always dreaded the obligatory annual trip to remote Pacific Northwest cabins. My parents alleviated my homesickness by sending me off with letters to open each day, and plenty of disposable cameras. I looked forward to having the photos developed at London Drugs, the classic Canadian pharmacy chain. There was a certain gleeful anticipation in waiting to see my friends and the landscape brought back to life on glossy pieces of paper. Visions immortalized in our physical world, never to leave.
Glancing over these prints now, some evince a fledgling understanding of composition and color. I wonder what I was thinking when I first raised the camera to my squinting, bespectacled eyes. Did I ever imagine that clicking the shutter would create something for me to rediscover 15 years later?
Enter age 10, and my family’s first digital camera. It was a thick, silver rectangle filled with what seemed like pure magic. I couldn’t fathom how machines replicate what we see, compressing real-life vision into a little screen. One day, we brought the new camera on a family outing to the duck pond in the park… and may or may not have dropped it into the water. Since then, incremental upgrades in affordable technology have brought four or five more little Sonys (and one big DSLR) into our household. One of them usually occupies a special place in my bag as I travel across Europe, Asia, and North America.
Despite all this, I think my obsession with photography further intensified when I joined Instagram in 2011. No longer did I have to fuss with bulky, purpose-built machines – it was all right there in my pocket! And with fun retro filters! Instagram was a good excuse to start snapping every corner of my beautiful California undergraduate campus. Everything from a flower on the side of the road to frozen yogurt piled high with cereal and sprinkles. I was only going to be a freshman at Pomona College once, so why not try and remember it all?
In the six years and three iPhones I’ve had since then, despite regular offloads to my computer, my phone storage still hovers around 8,000 photos. And those extreme Insta-filters have yielded to trends of painstakingly-edited, brighter, more true-to-life colors – and a veritable cult of personality.
Yes, Instagram invigorates my visual spirit, but for a while I couldn’t help thinking: what is the point? What are we accomplishing by consuming other people’s versions of life, creating our own fantasies to match, and waiting with bated breath for little virtual hearts to set our dopamine sensors alight?
I think the problem is embedded in the very concept of Instagram – making photography social. For one: the feed, which scrolls ad infinitum, loosens the visceral grip of the image. The more snapshots we create and view, the less we can muster an emotional response, the less each of them is worth.
Secondly, smartphone addiction is a real thing. Articles documenting mental health issues among modern teenagers, and the very fact that having a smartphone in the room negatively affects our concentration, are proof of this. When we access Instagram and similar sites, we watch our friends having fun without us – and whether we notice or not, we feel uninvited, left out. That’s a profoundly sad thought.
These doubts are (part of) why I uninstalled Instagram from my phone three weeks ago, depriving myself of the ability to edit and upload photos to the site. This brought an immediate decrease in a. the number of times I check my phone per day, and b. the number of photos I take of mundane daily things like meals and lattes.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with preserving the mundane; in On Photography, Susan Sontag contends that even the most amateur, accidental photographs can be as arresting as a professional’s. However, I also found incredible liberation in the lack of pressure to transform the mundane into something so thought-provoking and pretty to be worthy of likes and follows on Instagram. I used to spend nearly half an hour on each post, adjusting sliders and crafting the perfect captions. Instead, I can direct that time and energy towards creative pursuits for my own sake, like this blog. Even my penchant for designing photo books is not driven by likes or profit, but rather the satisfaction of creating something tangible. I am slowly rediscovering the element of delayed satisfaction which imbued those school camp prints with such delight, once upon a time.
When I was caught up in trawling for insta-likes, I forgot the bigger picture1: life isn’t made to be served to others in some perfect little package. It’s made to be lived firsthand, and transfigured into memories – jewels you can mentally file away and unearth whenever you like. In doing so, there doesn’t have to be any motivation more complex than personal, private joy.
Like memories, photographs come and go from our purview. I will forever have a complicated relationship to both. But until the inevitable day when humankind achieves singularity between mind and computer, I want to give myself the gift of being present2 in my own life.
1 2 I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the puns :’)