Do photographs steal our souls?

I cannot just watch a sunset.  As its pastel hues fade behind the horizon, the impulse to take my camera out and snap a picture is irresistible. I am not alone. With the rise of social media and digital photography, it seems everyone is snapping away all the time. But how does this affect our experience of life?

It increasingly feels that instead of being in the moment, we experience life through a digital lens. Likes, attention, affirmation – these are our shadows, following us around and prompting us to view life as a photographic opportunity. We are constantly on the alert, not for beautiful moments, but for beautiful pictures.

In her essay, On Photography, writer Susan Sontag talks about the impact that images have had on people and how we see the world. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” she says.

Our modern society is hooked on producing and consuming images. Here are some of the ways this could be affecting us:

We enable our own surveillance

We put images online as “evidence” that we went to this place, saw this thing, and have these friends. But this, Sontag would argue, is also a tool for surveillance. We are being watched, and we like it.

Unfortunately, it is not just our friends and that cutie from Instagram stalking our pictures and online activity. Advertising agencies and businesses are watching what we like and share. Remember the golden social media rule: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.”

Photos assist power

When we take pictures, we put ourselves in relation to the object being captured. The way we photograph something ‘out there’ tells us something about ourselves too. Photos, as Maria Popova and Sontag iterate, can help create a fantasy about ourselves and others, either good or bad or grey.

“..Photography is not practised by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool for power.”

They can evoke a sense of the unattainable.  When we take pictures and construct a digital profile, or a digital self, we build an ideal life and self that we desire. Our 3 AM cry on the couch and our 5 PM road rage rarely make it on to social media.

We then also use these digital profiles to draw conclusions about the lives of others. And through offering us values and positions, photos can create and enforce power relations.

As Sontag says, “..Photography is not practised by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool for power.”

We use it to calm our insecurities

Our cameras become a crutch.  Sontag explains that to take a photo is to try and possess and control something which evokes insecurity in us. For example, a traveller, unsure of how to deal with that which is “other”, will take a picture.

Photos may change memory

Photographs can change how we make memories. Sontag explains that because we can view a photo of something before we experience it, our memory is of us encountering the image, rather than us encountering a unique and raw experience.

And although photographs can be reminders of memories, they can also threaten to replace them. Ira Hyman says that memories change, and that photographs can influence them.

“Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.”

I am sure you can think back to a lingering childhood memory that may, on closer inspection, turn out to be a photograph. When I think of Table Mountain, I do not see Table Mountain from a street, or from a partial side angle. I see an idyllic aerial view.

Photos change travel and tourism

Travel and nature photography are popular on social media, and the online platforms have possibly promoted travel because people share and compare their experiences.

This can have positive benefits, such as giving people more of an incentive to save and look after the environments they view and share online. But this is not necessarily the case.

Photos may disconnect us

Modern science fragmented our understanding of the world by naming and classifying things. Sontags says that photographs aided this. It is possible that when we photograph something like nature, we remove ourselves from it more than we connect to it.

Sontag explains: “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”

And if we are losing out on a raw experience of life because of a pressure to certify and share our experience, then we may be missing out. As Sontag says, “Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.”

The solution? Be more mindful

This dystopian thinking does not mean we should drop our cameras entirely and remove ourselves from the digital sphere.

Photos are an important tool for awareness and photographers of all streams of life contribute to society in positive and meaningful ways.

But, sometimes, leave the camera at home. Just savour a memory or moment like a cup of tea that warms and fills the belly. Be fully there. Let it wash over you. And enjoy the experience for what it is: an irreplaceable and incomprehensible pocket of the present.

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