Last week, the Globe and Mail published an article on the ever-increasing saturation of smartphone photography. Katrina Onstad’s piece began with an expression of discomfort about witnessing a child’s excitement about having his sandcastle creation photographed and then his demand to immediately see the image. Onstad’s discomfort lay in the child’s focus on himself, rather than his sand creation, in the photo. Rates of smartphone photography have increased in the past year, Onstad claims. And as a result, how we comport ourselves towards one another has also changed. Onstad describes a loss of innocence, an inability to fumble through life blissfully un-self aware. Her favourite photographs are candid, often ‘bad’ photographs and she laments the power of the smartphone to seemingly enforce an aggressive perpetual self awareness.
Onstad’s lament, however, seems to rest in digital photography’s ease of deletion. While a roll of film could be edited by inserting only ‘good’ photographs into an album, cast aside prints aren’t always thrown away. The one’s that aren’t are a source of value or, at least, interest for Onstad:
Digital photography allows for constant curation of images, which usually means the selection of only the happiest moments. When pictures had to be printed, the good and the bad had an almost equal chance of survival, and some of those ugly pictures are some of the best: Dad’s wobbly eye; the cat’s butt caught in the corner; the really bad perm. The perfectly posed childhood leaves little room for the messy part of living, where the joy is.
Onstad’s concern with the deletion of ‘bad’ photographs doesn’t take into account concentration of camera’s in any particular moment. Just as the parents she’s observed might be focused on getting the perfect shot of their darling child, there are always other cameras around snapping up ‘outtakes’ and sharing the humorous results. While a perfectionist-revisionist history of an event may be captured and edited by mom, teenage sister or cousin might be capturing a very different version of the moment in question. The constant curation is perhaps not as complete a process as Onstad describes.
While my own concern with digital photography and the curatorial disposition towards one’s life is less nostalgic than Onstad, I appreciate her concerns. Photography has a powerful role in bolstering the narratives we create to add structure or a sense of cohesion to the fraught process of individuation. And it plays an significant role in establishing a group’s memory – be that a nation’s or a family’s. Onstad ends with a modest call to put down the camera, at least some of the time. Adults, she urges, “need to remember what it’s like to experience an undocumented, uncontained moment, and kids need to feel that they are forming themselves not to be seen, but to be”.
I suspect that her sentiment is commonly held among parenting types, particularly those prone to hand-wringing about the end of their childrens’ innocence. I wonder, however, if a return to shaping ourselves to ‘be’ rather than to ‘be seen’ is possible. Going forward, I want to explore how deeply contemporary digital self-documentation practices have shaped our conceptions of ourselves, our modes of experience, and how we form relationships. We pause to photograph and to post, but do we pause to reflect on our experiences? In concurrently developing a documentary narrative of an experience and undergoing it, do we forsake the negotiation of memory with others (the back-and-forth of remembering)? Or perhaps we have are in a wholly different epoch of remembering, where narratives are decided through an online stream of comments and likes or the posting of counter-narratives?