The ubiquity of digital technology has changed forever our relationship with the camera, and not in a good way, suggests Ashley Davies
A few days ago, early for an appointment, I sat in the sun outside the Scottish Parliament building and watched the tourists – a pastime I do so wish I could monetise. My eye was caught by a small family whose daughter – maybe eight or nine years old – looked so bored I thought her offended wee face would slide right off and dissolve on the pavement. Then her mother got a camera out and, quick as a flash, the girl did a horrifyingly effective impression of someone having an amaaaazing time exploring the architecturally expensive hub of a devolving nation. She worked her way expertly through a short repertoire of poses, including putting her head to one side with her chin on her fingers, jumping in order to be photographed mid-air, and adopting a Chaplinesque stance that made her look like she was mid-trip, yet beaming with joy throughout. It sounded like at least 25 photos were taken. Then she ran over to examine the photos on the camera – digital, obviously – apparently congratulated herself silently on an effective photo-shoot, then went back to what felt to her like the dullest day in her life, probably wishing she was at Disneyland.
Those photos, and thousands like them, are probably on social media somewhere right now, giving a not altogether honest impression of the degree of fun being experienced on a holiday. Everywhere you go young people pose as kooky individuals specifically in order to look a certain way in pictures.
By contrast, allow me to describe one of the best parties I’ve ever had and how tragically badly it was recorded. It was my tenth birthday party and the first of many Halloween parties I would insist upon. My dad somehow got hold of a skeleton from work and my friends and I all made a massive effort with our costumes. The party was a knock-out success, not that you’d know from the two whole photos that recorded the event. In the most successful shot, we’re all arranged in a semi-circle, some sitting cross-legged, some standing. You can sort of tell that I’m dressed as a witch but you wouldn’t know it was me because I’m cut off at the nose, while the tall girl beside me is cut off at the chest. One boy looks like he’s crying (maybe he was; the porridge he’d used to make his hair look terrifying was starting to harden and pull) and everyone else has Devil-red eyes. I have no recollection of the photo having been taken but I remember the party like it was last year.
If that event had happened now, there would have been hundreds of images taken in order achieve the right shot, we’d have laughed our heads off about big Joanna’s decapitation and, ultimately, taking the photos of us having fun may well have been prioritised over the actual having of fun.
That rubbish picture went into my photo album, where it sat for years under transparent film that slowly lost its stickiness as it yellowed, alongside dozens of other rubbish pictures, including a handful that wouldn’t look out of place on awkwardfamilyphotos.com. I remember one uncharismatic professional family photographer trying so hard to make me smile that I burst into tears with the pressure. And that’s what you got in the picture those days: pretty much exactly what was happening during the moment the face-bleaching flash squealed quietly towards its climax then woomphed the scene for posterity.
It’s become something of a cliche to waffle on about how digital photography has made artists of everyone – take 30 pictures of a single scene and maybe one of them will get the light, composition, expressions and textures, not to mention the flattering angle, right – and how today’s young ’uns will never know the magical anticipation of waiting, sometimes for weeks, occasionally for years, for your chemical-smelling roll of film to be processed, but the relationship between the subject and the camera has changed irrevocably. And that’s a little bit sad, largely because it makes people – and more importantly, children – more self-conscious about performing for the camera.
It used to be a cliche that Japanese people would take photos of everything while on holiday, and that was because before the advent of digital photography they had access to cheaper snapping kit than most other folks did, so they were less constrained by economy than the rest of us. Those of us who grew up having to be frugal with every shot were, socially, a little bit slow on the uptake when it came to pictures. About ten years ago I was in the pub with a newish friend and her pals, who are all about 15 years younger than me, and was slightly surprised when the camera came out and everybody started posing. Despite having a camera function on my phone, I still had the mindset of a person from a generation that only took photos on special occasions. This was compounded by the fact that, as a late social media adopter, I had been largely immune to the strange pressure of feeding that insatiable beast with constant photographic evidence that I had bucket-loads of fascinating, fun-loving friends, all of whom loved each other like crazy and were elegantly tactile. We used to take pictures for our own memories – now it’s to prove something to other people.
And then there’s selfies. Oh God, selfies. I can’t claim to be guilt-free on this front but, like depilation and nose-picking, I couldn’t possibly do it in public (unless a stupid, regrettable face is pulled, obviously). Perhaps the true test of whether someone is a millennial is whether they can take a selfie in front of other people and not go immediately and throw up with embarrassment. I understand the appeal of wanting to present your best self – ideally not looking like Oliver Reed in his final days – but when it all becomes such a performance, I don’t half miss the blurry old shots of the un-selfconcious analogue age.