Episode 20

20. Where do all the photos Gogh?

In a single day, we shoot more photos than were taken during the first 100 years of photography. What are we losing when we’re constantly shooting, and where do the images eventually end up?

Show Notes

Transcript

Collectively, humans are taking an estimated 1.4 trillion photos a year. In a single day, we shoot more photos than were taken during the first 100 years of photography.

What are we losing when we’re constantly shooting, and where do the images eventually end up?

Hello friends and welcome to this episode of Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

I was taking a walk recently and came to the conclusion that I’ve reached a point in my own photographic journey, where watching the habits of other photographers has become more interesting than actually shooting photos myself. I’m always curious what compels someone -- especially someone who isn’t a photographer in the traditional sense -- to raise a camera or smartphone and shoot a photo. Clue the cliche: here’s where I’m supposed to recommend Sontag’s collection of essays, “On Photography,” which deals with this very question.

But “On Photography” was written quite some time ago. When it was published in 1977, photography was indeed a popular pastime that anyone could enjoy -- not unlike today. In the 1970s, small, cheap film cameras were the norm, everything from flimsy plastic Kodaks you could purchase at a corner drug store (don’t forget your 110 film and 4-way flash cubes), to higher end SLRs, and medium and large format rigs. Polaroids were really making an impact, and were probably the closest thing to the immediate digital photography we enjoy today. And, just like a smartphone, consumer cameras of the 1970s were meant to be very easy to use. True point and shoot wonders.

As a second-grader, with no training, I carried around a Polaroid camera and bricks of instant film, shooting everything from still-lifes of stuffed animals and action figures, to being the designated photographer on family vacations. At some point I moved up to a 110 camera, and eventually learned to use my dad’s 35mm Pentax SLR so I could look cool on a 7th grade field trip to Charleston. We have it so easy now, as we all carry what could arguably be considered a professional camera in our pockets.

But photography prior to the smartphone age still required effort and intent. Capturing an image was special, and the subject matter ultimately had some level of importance that would compel a shooter to consume a frame of film stock.

Today, the owner of a smartphone doesn’t need to worry about film stocks, lenses, or even technique. Just keep the device charged and endless photography can ensue. Images can be shared with a quick tap, to social networks, friends, family and so on. I’d love to read Sontag’s take on that.

The dreaded forced viewing of a carousel of slides that followed a family vacation (and now I’m really dating myself), has been replaced by having someone thrust a 6.5-inch OLED screen at your face. You’re then made to relieve their snapped stream of consciousness at a refresh rate of 120hz, as they smoothly swipe through photo-after-photo of the things they deemed important enough to commit to storage.

July of 2021 was quite an interesting month. For a little while there, we seemed to escape the dread of the pandemic. Everything seemed to open back up. People were allowed to have fun again. This was particularly apparent when my wife and I attended a multimedia exhibition based on the works of the painter Vincent Van Gogh. It was the first time in nearly a year and a half I could recall seeing people getting back to normal living, and photography was a massive part of it.

We arrived in Charlotte’s North Davidson neighborhood -- more commonly known as the NoDa district (imagine a gritty urban setting overrun with coffeehouses, craft breweries, art galleries and hipsters). The Van Gogh exhibition was held in an old bomb factory, which had been thoughtfully decorated with impressionistic allusions to the paintings.

Interactive Van Gogh Exhibition, Charlotte, NC, July 2021

Immediately, smartphones were out and nearly everyone was in photographer mode. I observed a woman stop for a selfie in front of a trash can decorated with vinyl stickers to possibly resemble Starry Night. It wasn’t so much the subject matter, but the exuberance of the gesture that caught my attention. After all, it was still a trash can.

Inside, there was a large room in which visitors were seated to watch animations of re-imagined Van Gogh paintings set against a soundtrack. It was sort of like high art meets a Pink Floyd laser light show.

I personally don’t have an interest in shooting photos of video, but that didn’t stop other guests, including one gentleman who had his iPhone raised high, video light blasting everyone nearby. A staff member warned him twice, and finally showed him how to turn off the light, but that didn’t stop him from shooting photos of every scene as it appeared on the screens, and he wasn’t the only one. Practically everyone was shooting photos of everything -- garbage cans, the gift shop, the floorboards of the space, the bathroom signage, and so on.

And that got me thinking: Where do these photos go? What eventually happens to them? How present, or in the moment, can one really be when taking images replaces the act of simply paying attention and having an experience.

As someone who occasionally supplements my day job income with photography, and who has been shooting for much of my life, I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for enthusiastically shooting photos. For the most part it’s fun, and it’s something that can be shared on social media, or to feed Instagram. I think of these types of images as souvenirs that don’t really cost anything -- or do they?

I believe when we start shooting images, we become less of a participant and more of an observer, so for me, the cost of photography is simply the impact that it has on how I experience a particular situation. And maybe that’s just me.

Interactive Van Gogh Exhibition, Charlotte, NC, July 2021

For instance, in August of 2017, my hometown was in the path of the first trans-continental total solar eclipse. I’ve never seen an eclipse with totality, so I was excited to go up to the roof of the county building where I was working at the time. I also had about three cameras and a variety of lenses with me to document the historic occasion.

Well, the resulting images were pretty underwhelming – mostly owing to my own lack of preparation. Somehow, I missed out on the magic of the occasion in my efforts to wrangle multiple cameras and dial in an exposure. I wish I’d just taken a minute to absorb what was happening. To listen. To observe nature, and allow the weirdness of the wrong-time-of-day twilight to wash over me for a few moments. I may never get a chance to experience an event like this again.

I generally equate photography with working -- whether it’s a paid gig, or some form of a personal project I’m working on. I rarely ever shoot “just for fun” and when I do, I often find myself unhappy with the images because they don’t really serve a function. But we all use photography for different reasons don’t we?

For some of us, photography is a coping mechanism, a way to visualize the world with the barrier of a viewfinder or screen to filter what we do or don’t want to see. For instance, I think about occasions when I was shooting in a stressful environment, or in a situation that frightened me, like the first time I reported to a crash scene and realized I was standing just feet away from the smouldering remains of two human bodies. Or wandering through the devastation of New Orleans just days after Hurricane Katrina. These were instances where the camera was a coping mechanism that helped me focus on something other than my own discomfort, and it gave me a purpose.

Some of us are artists, some are doting parents documenting their family life, some are professionals on assignment, some are hobbyists looking for a way to pass time. The universality of photography may be its biggest strength.

Sontag wrote that people from cultures with a “ruthless work ethic” (like the United States or Japan) are often compelled to take photos during a vacation or leisure time, because they feel guilty for having fun. She calls photography a “friendly imitation of work.”

I often wonder how the photographic process affects the average end user, and what, if anything, happens to the photos after they are captured.

For example, I was shooting photos and video at a corporate event recently, and I observed the wife of an executive shooting video continuously on her phone – vertical video I might add – from the back of the room, as her husband made speeches and received various honors. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and point back to my video camera and explain that I was capturing the event and would be happy to provide her with the footage later.

I just couldn’t understand why someone would record 10-minute long video takes on their phone. What was she planning to do with this stuff, and was she even able to focus on enjoying the event, if she was fiddling with her phone the entire time? Was the capture of shaky, grainy footage worth the effort?

A few months ago my wife and I visited Disney World, and I was struck by the behavior of one guest on the new Star Wars-themed ride, “Rise of the Resistance”. After waiting more than an hour and a half to experience this attraction, this individual proceeded to try and shoot still images of every detail of this ride. We’re talking low-light conditions and a fast-moving ride car. So, blurry photos for their effort.

Again, I just can’t understand why someone would ruin their experience trying to shoot a theme park ride that has, no doubt, been documented both professionally and endlessly by other park-goers. What did you really achieve? Proof that you were there? I’m sure it made for good fodder for Facebook and an Instagram story – and maybe that was their end goal. Not so much the capture of a quality image, but another step in the production of a social media post. Not a photo, but simply content, to plumb their friends list for additional likes and disingenuous comments. Is that worth compromising a personal experience? I suspect it is for many, and in fact, the social media pings are simply another component in the entirety of their experience.

Everything evolves doesn’t it? Art, technology, perceptions, and so on. Has photography evolved into what is known now as “content creation?” Just bits and pieces of visual information to keep social streams and revenue opportunities flowing? Has the motivation shifted? What was once a way to record memories, seems to have become a method for feeding algorithms.

Are these posts ever looked back on fondly, like photos in an old family album? Or do they simply scroll away to make room for the next batch? I suspect there are several instances when someone might revisit these images: Notably, when the algorithm tells you to, by sending you a notification. In other words, when Facebook informs you of some “Memories” from your timeline or when Google sends a notification to your phone to look back on some photos you uploaded ages ago.

I actually find myself pleasantly surprised when Google highlights an image I may have forgotten about. I get a steady stream of these alerts, largely in part because I uploaded a photo or more daily for a year when doing my 365 project. When I shot the images, I never intended to feed an algorithm. I was just storing them on Google photos so I could access them easily.

And every now and then, Google highlights an old image of mine that I barely recall shooting. It’s typically something I snapped with my phone. It could be something as dumb as a picture of a can of craft beer that I texted to a friend, a random dog photo, or something utilitarian, like a photo of paperwork or a product I intend to buy later.

Google Photos recently informed me I took this dull image on Christmas Day seven years ago. I have no recollection of shooting the image, but metadata informed me I used my iPhone 5S, and it was somewhere in downtown Columbia.

I have no doubt that when July of 2022 rolls around and maybe for years to come, Google will tell me to look back on the few images I shot at the Van Gogh exhibition I attended with my wife. And maybe, Facebook will highlight her memories of that day, and the photos she took.

I’ve mentioned it here before: Photos take on deeper meaning when you interact with them in some way. I don’t expect everyone to print every random image they take on vacation, or craft impeccably edited slideshows for their personal website. Even if you’re just feeding Facebook, it’s better than doing nothing, and letting those photos rot on your memory card or mobile device.

Before I wrap this episode, I’d like to share a fascinating article I read recently concerning the tragic events that took place at the Astroworld concert in November. Austin-based concert photographer Daniel Cavazos wrote an account of the show he called “one of the most horrifying moments” of his life. Eight people died at the event.

I’ll place a link to the article in the show notes, but I just wanted to mention it here because it’s rare to hear reporting like this, from a photographer, that is told in such clear, descriptive prose. The way he laid out the events of the day really places you at the scene, starting with unruly concertgoers breaking down a fence to avoid lines, to the “gutteral” sound the crowd made as they were being crushed into barriers.

Cavazos illustrates the article with his images and videos from the day, and they are stunning. It’s easily one of the most fascinating articles I’ve read in years.

Folks, that’s going to do it for this episode of Photo 365. As always, thanks for listening, and if you know someone who might get some value from the show, please share it with them. Be sure to check out photo365podcast.com for show notes and full transcripts of each episode.

Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time!