Commentary: We’re taking more photographs than ever – but are we making memories?
Smartphone photography is less about remembering something and more about creating a visual archive of almost everything, says sociologist Terence Heng.
SINGAPORE: Some of you will remember a time when film cameras were the only way to take photographs and weren’t just an attempt to be ironic or unique.
If that makes you feel old, some of my undergraduate students are unfamiliar with hipster camera technology from 2010 (although, in their defence, they were eight).
The number of images that we create on a day-to-day basis has expanded exponentially, thanks to the introduction and rapid adoption of smartphones. Data from research firms say that from 2010 to 2019, the global population took 8.6 trillion photos – seven times more compared to the previous decade.
Memory cards and online storage now have such large capacities that an average user’s library of photographs numbers in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.
Even though digital cameras have been around for almost 30 years, few of us carried them around daily. It’s a smartphone’s ubiquity, coupled with its megapixels and storage capacity, that enables and sometimes unconsciously coerces us to document our lives.
In other words, technology has given us opportunities to see and remember things very differently from the way that our grandparents did.
In contrast to the physical photo albums in which only the choicest photographs were printed, we now have vast digital archives of everything that we eat and every angle of our children and pets.
This raises the question – when our lives are so saturated with mobile cameras, do photographs (and videos) still retain special value? When we are so focused on shooting for Instagram, do we stop to consider why we’re behind the camera lens instead of living for the moment?
A SOCIETY OF VISUAL DOCUMENTERS
It is easy to conclude that smartphones have fuelled our fear of missing out, making us compulsively capture every moment of our lives. But my research has shown otherwise.
In Chinese religious rituals like the Nine Emperor Gods festival, I noticed how worshippers were effectively taking on multiple roles. They were praying, beholding, spectating and using their cameras.
Some were recording videos (especially when there was a significant moment) but many others were simply taking as many photographs as they could, while also holding on to joss sticks.
This, of course, required an impressive level of mental and physical dexterity, given that the joss sticks were lit.
In my other research on Chinese weddings in Singapore, I noticed particular moments when cameras were whipped out. Rituals like the tea ceremony, when the bridal couple kisses and points where kinship and social bonds were cemented seemed to spark a rush of image-making from family and friends.
What do these two vignettes tell us? I think that it reveals how we have become a society of visual documenters. Photography has become less about remembering something and more about creating a visual archive of almost everything.
Our drive to visually document everything has something to do with our desire to remember and to possess an artefact that evokes that memory.
During the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, I observed how participants were not only taking photographs and videos but were already reviewing them after the festival ended on their way back to the bus.
So instead of watching the actual event, they witnessed the event through small screens, mediated by the lens of a phone, and then relived it through that same lens. It was almost as if the photograph was more important than the event itself.
There is nothing wrong with taking a lot of photographs. Sometimes when I scroll through my own unmanageable camera roll, I encounter photographs that I do not remember taking, which then remind me of things that I do not remember doing.
For example, despite how much we love to laugh at ourselves for taking photographs of food, it is exactly those photographs that evoke memories of what we ate, the friends and family we ate with or the places we ate at. That serendipitous encounter with a lost memory is certainly a good thing.
At the same time, we create so many images, such that the images themselves become ubiquitous and, to some extent, less meaningful because of their multitude. We are also lulled into a false sense of security, that the images will always be there for us to find.
THE DIGITAL IMAGE IS FRAGILE
But pixels can be fragile. If we are diligent and upload them, or archive them, they can be quite durable.
However, just because they reside on another server or hard drive does not make them eternal. If we consign our memories to technology, we can potentially lose these memories once they become obsolete. Diskettes and CD-ROMs are cases in point.
Since managing an unruly database of fragmented moments is difficult, we could think before we shoot; to selectively photograph and treasure the photographs we select.
A famous documentary photographer reminisced how he was at one point so broke that he could only take two frames a day on film, but those two frames were the most precious things to him.
While photographers often talk about capturing the “decisive moment”, perhaps it is also important to live in that moment. Whether we have 10 or 100 photographs of the same thing, we should ask ourselves how many images it might take to preserve a memory.
This way, we can whittle down our personal archives. While it would be impossible and environmentally unfriendly to print every photograph that we take, there is something to be said about having a few photographs in physical form to engage with senses other than sight.
Well-worn photo albums, with handwritten notes on the back of photographs, or the texture of ageing paper contain stories and traces of histories that digital soft copies could never hold.
Printed photographs also do not rely on a faceless megacorporation to store our lives for us online. In the past year, I have trawled through the printed archives of my late grandaunt.
They were as messy as a USB drive of random photographs. But I did not need to remember a passcode or a subscription to connect with these memories, and I am very sure these photographs did not come at the cost of signing away one’s information.
The photographs are largely casual. Some were taken at specific moments – my grandaunt loved to photograph her annual Qing Ming expedition.
But others were simply a record of her everyday life – the flowers outside her first purchased home, a random walk with friends in Wales, old passport photos of great-grandnieces and nephews.
To an observer, they might seem like nothing special, but they underscored the things she loved, the places she experienced, the people she cherished and the life she lived. I am glad I got to see them.
Terence Heng is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts.