The sounds of shutters and the flashes of light can be noted almost anywhere you step foot in our world today. What used to be reserved for a few talented individuals or behind closed curtains is now accessible to the majority of people. Photography is becoming less of an art form and more of a common method of broadcasting and record keeping as time goes on and photography becomes more affordable and accessible through smartphone cameras and cheaper low-end cameras. How is this change affecting the way we communicate with others and the world around us, and what does this mean for photography in the sense of art?
In order to examine the changing evolution of photography, it is important to identify the broad ways it is used in today’s society. Susan Sontag notes that “Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing- which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power” (Sontag 8). Since the development of smartphones, it has gotten much easier to snap a decent quality picture and upload it to any social media platform. Social media makes it easy for people to upload photographs for self-validation and bragging rights. Vanity and self-validation is embedded in social media as seen through millions of “selfies” uploaded on people’s accounts along with various photographs to show how successful, healthy, and happy they are. This “selfie culture” is taking away the importance of the self portrait and replacing it with a shallow version where the only insight into the subject is their perfectly posed exterior. The self portrait is an important part of the art of photography that reveals the subject’s emotions and characteristics, but these selfies do not adequately capture a person like a self portrait does. In addition to selfies, photographs of people’s extraordinary lives are also captured such as pictures of their material possessions. This kind of photography is toxic because it promotes vanity, selfishness, and happiness through the deprecation of others.
In addition to photography being used as a form of self promotion on social media, it is also used as a form of self-deprecation on social media that encourages pity. Most millennials either obtain or are aware of a new form of expression called a “finsta”. A “finsta”, or fake Instagram, is comprised of a series of photos that most often depict the individual’s failures. Just recently my friend posted twenty selfies of herself crying because her dog died, and last week a boy posted multiple pictures of himself passed out at a party. Many people turn to finstas to gain pity and attention; exaggerating their flaws and misfortunes. Finstas do not hold any true importance or contribute to a greater discussion and are entirely self-motivated. This new wave of finstas is adding to the negative way photography is used in social media. This also contributes to the disconnect between humans because people are lacking in person or verbal consolidation that they need to truly heal and form genuine relationships. Receiving a few short comments of hope do little to solve the long-term emotional problem.
Susan Sontag discusses in her work the use of photography as a tool of power in current times. Many people use photography to gain power over a certain issue and/or person and take advantage of the power that the camera holds. Susan Sontag states, “Like a car, the camera is sold as a predatory weapon...there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed” (Sontag 14). The paparazzi use cameras as weapons to exploit celebrities by taking scandalous pictures of the personal lives and sharing them with the world. Memorable photographs such as the famous bald Britney Spears umbrella photo and the Michael Jackson baby dangling photo are forever on the internet for people to gander at. The problem is that these photographs are not adding anything meaningful to society, they simply exist to gain money and put down the celebrity. Rather than creating a new purposeful conversation, these photographs add negativity into the world and into the art of photography.
Travel photography has a huge impact on the way we explore the world and actually can lead to a disconnect when done incorrectly. “Surface traveling”, or traveling and taking photographs and not truly connecting with your surroundings, is a very common occurrence in our society of cameras. This invisible barrier is present in all forms of communication through technology. This past summer I traveled to the Grand Canyon in Arizona where the picture practically takes itself because the landscape is so breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape is so beautiful that people feel inclined to snap a picture which is understandable. The disturbing part to me was that people would get off the tour bus for the first time, stand in front of the overlook of the canyon, get their picture taken, then hop back on the bus for the next stop. Not once did most people stop and truly look out into the canyon with their own two eyes. People have gotten into the habit of surface traveling, or not truly immersing themselves into their location and simply snapping a picture and leaving. As I stood and silently judged my fellow tourists for being so disconnected, I myself stood and snapped a photograph as I turned to leave the overlook. I took over a thousand photographs that trip, often times standing for ten minutes taking photographs of a mountain while only looking with my eyes for three. Susan Sontag states, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on” (Sontag 10). When tourists see something beautiful they feel compelled to capture it or they fear that it will be gone forever and their trip was a waste. Separating themselves through the camera, they miss the image in the moment which can never be regained. There is a severe disconnect in surface traveling, and it is a result from relying too heavily on the camera to share the image and view later, without viewing in the present.
Photography is indeed changing rapidly as an art form for better or for worst. Photography is now much more open to a much larger audience which is giving way to lesser forms such as the “finsta” culture, but also new perspectives such as the work of Nan Goldin. Nan Goldin and her photographs such as “Misty and Joey at Hornstrasse, Berlin, 1992” reveal another side of photography that strays away from the artistic “pretty” photographs. What arose from Goldin taking spontaneous snapshots of her friends came a new culture of controversial photography that opened the doors to a more flexible definition of photography. Although this new wave of extremely accessible photography can diminish some aspects of photography, it also can enrich the art form of photography by introducing new cultures. By broadening the circle of photographers, the conversation of art photography becomes more diverse and gains multiple perspectives.
Photography has changed drastically from traditional artistic photography in ways that have an impact on our society, the way we communicate, and the way we view photography as an art form. Social media has made us a culture that uses photography for our own selfish reasons as well as using photography as a weapon to cause political change or broadcast an idea. Such reliance on social media in addition to people’s needs to capture every moment of their lives leads to a phenomenon I titled, “surface traveling”. Excessive photo documentation and related social media usage have caused a disconnect in people and how they see and interact with the world around them. However, the accessibility of photographs does create a richer and more broad collection of artistic expression. Opening the art scene to people from all races and backgrounds is bound to cause a blending of cultures and new ideas.