11 Jun 2014

Contemporary photography is a violent sport

With the influx of photography apps into smartphone app stores, photo-taking is becoming increasingly globalized. You’ve seen them, they number in the hundreds: Snapchat, Photoshop, Pic Stitch, and countless other picture-taking apps are now available to the amateur photographer. It seems in a way, photography is no longer a coveted art form… it is a sport – a cheap way to have fun while basking in the glory of our hyper-filtered Insta-lives.

Over the past year I’ve been pressured by my friends into downloading these smartphone apps. I conceded since I never thought I’d use them. How I was mistaken. Just a few days ago I found myself sending a Snapchat to my entire friend list while I suited a hospital gown and received an x-ray of my shoulder. A bit personal. On a separate occasion, I Instagrammed a filtered picture of the setting sun on Cornell’s West Campus while perched on Libe Slope. I look back on these decisions and try to understand why I was compelled to take these pictures. Perhaps, it was to show off? Who would be envious of a doctor’s appointment? Maybe it was my ego trying to grab some attention. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that photography has become just as much an essential part of my life as eating, sleeping, and working. If you’re anything like me, I’m sure it has for you too.


What I’d jokingly call ‘contemporary photography’ has become widespread. To put the reputation of this art form into perspective, the well-known ‘selfie’ – the act of taking a photo of oneself – was recently added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. All the while, people falsely diagnose themselves with the fake-photo-taking disorder, ‘selfitis’. While the selfie phenomenon may simply be a reflection of our vanity, I’ve tried to understand why people are obsessed with photo-taking in general. The cleverest theory I could offer, I borrow from John Locke: millennials are exceptionally proprietorial. We love to own things, to capture things and keep them as possessions. The word ‘capture’ itself, explains very much the nature of taking a photograph. When I take an impromptu photo, I rarely will look back on it once it’s saved to my photo album. It makes sense. I’m not saving the picture because I believe it has some material value, I’m looking to take possession of the moment - to prove I was there and I saw something worthy of viewing more than once. There’s an interesting quote by Susan Sontag, a preeminent scholar in the photography discipline, who writes:

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality”.

According to Sontag, it’s impossible to really capture a moment, but it is possible to “possess the past” with a photo. Think about it, who wouldn’t want to hold onto the most exciting moments of life, the ones that compel you to photograph them?

Yet, when was the last time you looked at something beautiful and thought not to take out your camera and snap a picture? As for myself, even the most mundane subjects have become captives to my smartphone. It sounds violent, and for good reason. I refer once more to Sontag who writes,

“Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon — one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring… It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger. Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive”.

Put down the camera

As a budding web developer, I look at this rampant aesthetic consumerism as a potential threat, but also as an opportunity. On the one hand, the increased capabilities of cameras have allowed the average Joe to take a picture as well as any professional photographer. This has not only set a high bar for photography standards, but also for design in general. On the other hand, the increased attention to the superficial has forced designers to continue to evolve. Take, for instance, the various new grid systems hitting the open source web development market. Bootstrap, Blueprint, YUI, and other responsive layouts that simplify the styling of websites have made it easier to churn out professional-looking, elegant web pages. Even HTML5 and CSS3, the core languages of front-end web development, were optimized specifically to make the design of websites easier.

What does this means for the web development market? Or more generally, what does this mean for the future of design and photography? Will we continue on our search for the photogenic while ignoring the genuine beauty of reality? If our generation continues to take advantage of the world as a medium for a photograph, then yes, I think so. It’s important to realize what we’ve turned the world into – a canvas for our smartphones.

I realize that with the advent of cellphone cameras, my argument for reducing camera usage may be rendered objectionable. And to a large extent, I agree that the democratization of photography is positive. Therefore, this is less of a call to action than it is a suggestion. Stop looking at the world through an LCD screen. Reality is surprisingly beautiful.

Warning: I am an ‘average Joe’ photographer’.