Life through a lens

We see everything now through a viewfinder, from food to friendships. It's irritating, but does it matter? Charlotte Raven argues that a photograph is a poor replacement for experience

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:38

We're generally tolerant when people whip out cameras at inopportune moments. Nine out of 10 Britons own one. Their use is no longer reserved for holidays and children's birthdays; the modern photographer has more grandiose ambitions. The desire to capture special moments for posterity persists, but the brief has been extended.

Every moment seems special to the modern photographer. As a result, amateur snappers are busier than the pros. Whether you're taking pictures of your hotel sink to put on Tripadvisor, or beating the paparazzi to a blurry shot of someone from Hollyoaks coming out of Caffè Nero, you're constantly snapping rather than looking.

Oddly, although we take more pictures than we ever have, we spend less time looking at them. A recent piece in The Independent put this paradox down to the shift to digital photography. But I don't think our disconnection from these images is explained by the fact that they're stored on computer, rather than in albums. We could print them out, if we wanted to, or force bored family members to sit through computer slide shows. The sense of emotional disengagement has nothing to do with a shift in medium. We don't look at them, because they don't mean anything to us.

In the past, our favourite photos went beyond likeness, capturing the essence of a person or the "character" of a place. "Oh," we would say, "that's Auntie Vera to a T" or "That's the real Rome." In the former case, the picture would reveal something about Auntie Vera that she didn't know herself – the vulnerability behind that indomitable façade.

When I was growing up, we trusted photographs and photographers. My dad never told us to pose. His snaps of Clothkited children in their natural habitat had the Seventies to a T. A picture of my brother and me in the playground on the (now banned) witch's hat communicates the thrills and risks of life in an age before safety surfacing.

As well as bearing witness, photography raised consciousness. The impact of the photographic image on the course of the Vietnam War convinced my generation that photographs were more powerful and persuasive than words. Photographic images seemed truer because the rhetoric was harder to detect. Thumbing through the images in my father's copy of Edward Steichen's humanist epic, The Family of Man, I almost believed that we were all the same, under the skin.

The images amassed on my hard drive seem vacuous by comparison. Our holiday photos are well composed, but emotionally blank, like all "good" photographs. The Florida sunsets seem like photographic clichés. The images of blue- robed monks at a rock-hewn church in Ethiopia speak blandly of our bourgeois taste for going off the beaten track in search of the ultimate photographic experience.

Our hotel in Addis was full of people photographing the (admittedly unhygienic) loos in between "capturing" the natives. Some Italians tried to persuade us to take our Which? best-buy camera on an authentic tribal encounter. They didn't share our liberal concerns about the implications of this human big game hunt. An anthropologist friend had warned us that the Mursi tribespeople bitterly resented the Canon-brandishing tourists who made the three-day trek down to see them.

Tribal tours bring eager Westerners into intimate contact with a romanticised other. Once there, they're not content to merely look – they want uploadable jpegs of their discontented quarry to show the folks back home. Like sex tourists, they delude themselves into believing their tribal encounter is authentic, rather than something close to prostitution. For a few birr, they get to choose a subject and shoot her looking fearsome.

These images will be displayed proudly, like pelts. Yet they're as authentic as a Japanese tourist's picture of punks on the King's Road. The truth is, the Mursi have come there specially dressed up to be photographed. Tourists are generally unaware of the myriad ways in which the Mursi subjects have adapted their look to conform to some Western tribal ideal. Long after its original purpose has been forgotten, the lip plate is making a comeback among Mursi women; its value to the wearer now translates directly into cash from eager photographers.

Their fierce expressions aren't authentically "other" either, but a recognisably human response to the stress of being photographed.

If it were acceptable, I would evince Mursi-like rage when someone points a camera at me. The resulting pictures would be more authentic than those where I have tried, by a variety of means, to cover up my horror of being photographed. In my youth, I tried to look deep, instead of angry. Our family albums are full of pictures of me gazing wistfully into the middle distance. Refusing to meet the camera's gaze was an attempt to retain control over how I was portrayed.

Re-reading Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, I understand better what I was up to. Barthes shared my desire to look intelligent in photographs. Most importantly, he hoped his expression would convey "an amused awareness of the photographic process". I haven't seen any pictures of him, so wonder whether he managed to avoid looking superior and if so, how?

The camera always misconstrues me. I look more haughty than shy in pictures, more smug than knowing. Yet when someone points a camera at me, I feel violated, rather than misunderstood. My facial muscles freeze and I sweat profusely. Susan Sontag's classic 1977 essay On Photography elucidates my unfashionable belief that the camera will steal my identity.

"To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder appropriate to a sad and frightened time."

When I first started in journalism in the mid-1990s, byline photos were the size of postage stamps. The Guardian was the perfect billet for someone phobic about being photographed.

Ten years later, I'm regretting that decision. Writers are no longer protected from the predatory photographic gaze. Newspapers are full of photographs of unattractive people looking wryly amused to find themselves pictured alongside politicians and celebrities. Journalists look terrible in pictures, yet this fact contributes to the editor's belief that they're more appealingly real than airbrushed celebrities. When a journalist is pictured learning meditation or open heart surgery, we're meant to identify with them. They're marketed as "normal" guys, like Tony Blair. Yet they are far from normal.

Some journalists interpret the attention as a sign that they are valued. We are understandably reluctant except that we are now low grade operatives rather than creatives. In the modern news media, words illustrate the pictures rather than the other way round. I want to protest at my demotion from content provider to caption writer, but fear the ramifications of refusing to be photographed.

I would have preferred to be working for Le Monde in the days when high-minded newspapers eschewed photographs. It was thought that pictures would merely illustrate the analysis, adding nothing to it.

Today's byline photos are quarter-page action shots. They'll get even bigger no doubt, before someone realises that the net effect is to persuade narcissists to aim for journalism, rather than modelling. Media studies courses are full of young people dreaming of the day when they'll have their pregnancy bump photographed à la Lucy Mangan.

Young people's enthusiasm for the medium reflects a change in attitude, not just technology. It is no longer square to be seen with a camera, in fact, you aren't dressed without one. My most fashionable friend's iPhone is full of images of plates of food and amusing newspaper hoardings; "Jude Law will meet society" as well as the obligatory shots of his best male friend in women's clothes and "jeggings".

Like most moderns, he is attracted to subjects that would once have been deemed unworthy of being photographed. He feels edgier photographing an unpalatable plate of Ikea meatballs than he would snapping the starter at the Savoy Grill. In Yosemite National Park in California, he photographs the sign about not feeding the bears, rather than the scenery, thereby evading cliché. But this impulse to focus on the seemingly irrelevant details of existence is a modern cliché.

I feel dressed without a camera, except at my children' birthday parties when I'm conscious of being judged and worry that other parents perceive me as emotionally negligent.

The fathers with their Canon 5DS's look square to me, like the journalist subject of the Bob Dylan song, Ballad of a Thin Man. "You walk into a room with a pencil in your hand, you see someone naked and say who is that man." The photographer, no less dumbly asks "when did it happen?" and "where is that man?". Photographs invariably miss the point.

Cameras were invented when my husband went to the Elephant Fayre festival at Port Eliot in 1983, but he wouldn't have been seen dead with one. His fellow festival-goers clearly felt the same – recent requests from online nostalgists for images of this legendary event drew a blank. Only one or two badly composed images survive. Most feature bands that no one can now identify.

It's impossible to estimate the number of images of last year's Glastonbury festival, but it might run into billions. In years to come, the attendees will have an accurate record of what happened which completely misses the point. If anyone gets naked they'll know who, when and where but not why.

Modern festival-goers are spectators rather than participants. Compared with them, Japanese tourists are meaningfully engaged with the world around them. The audience "watching" this year's Glastonbury headliners on their screen on the back of their cameras won't experience the thing they've been anticipating and tweeting about for weeks. In the old days, photos offered evidence that an event had taken place. Now, they are evidence that it hasn't.

Many have argued that this newly democratised medium has revolutionary potential. We want to believe that the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are acting politically when training their camera phones on their oppressors. They may amass images of wrongdoing, but it's hard to know what lasting effect these will have and in fact the very act of shooting and consuming these images may serve as a distraction. Perhaps, like my fashionable friend, they're furtively flicking through the images on their iPhone during meetings and never contributing to the discussion about strategy.

Susan Sontag believed that the impulse to record and the impulse to intervene are contradictory. Now that everyone is recording, it follows that no one is intervening, even when they seem to be.

A photographer friend described an anti-cuts demo as a circle jerk where professionals photographed demonstrators photographing them. No one was demonstrating.

In a 1978 essay, John Berger said: "If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless." Now that this has happened, photographs are cultural flotsam, signifying nothing. Berger couldn't have predicted how the requirement to be photographed would impact on our personalities. Inevitably, we are more self-conscious. The strain of being constantly camera-ready shows on our faces. We look as natural as the Mursi women posing for the tourists.

It's no longer just celebrities who think their job is to look good for the camera. Normal people do too. Like the Mursi, we're pro-self mutilation if it makes us more photogenic. Without this impetus, cosmetic surgery would have remained the preserve of aging film stars and car-crash victims. Like lip plates, breast enhancements look bizarre and unnatural to the outsider. The claims that they are "for me" are no less plausible than the feminist belief that they're doing it for men.

They are doing it for the camera, in fact. The camera has always been attracted to extremes. The photographic gaze seldom falls on well-proportioned people doing normal things. People on the margins of society, victims of war and famine and circus freaks are more likely to get a look in. Sensing this, we've become a bit more extreme in response; moulding ourselves into a somewhat exaggerated version of a contemporary Western "look".

There's no hiding place from the camera. The streets aren't safe nor are our domestic spaces. When you get home, your children might photograph your dubious tracksuit and send the image into the CBBC makeover show, Project Parent.

Ironically, the Big Brother house was the only place in Britain where cameras weren't allowed. If they had been, housemates would have been uploading pictures of their arses on to Facebook, rather than interacting. There would have been no romances, no arguments and no best bits.

The surveillance society is a reality. We haven't noticed it happening because it wasn't quite how we'd pictured it. We've less to fear from CCTV cameras than from our own mobile phones. Our entire population is cheerfully invading its privacy, heedless of the consequences.

The photographic craze has made us less spontaneous. The world gets worn out by being photographed and its inhabitants do too. We feel jaded, as if we've been, seen it, done it, when we've only seen it.

Increasingly, life is exactly how we'd pictured it. It isn't just Florida sunsets that seem like photographic clichés, but other experiences. When I went to Ikea last week, I felt a discomfiting sense of déjà vu in the café, looking at a familiar plate of meatballs that I knew represented poor value, even for £3. In the car park, I realised that my life is a poorly focused and inadequate representation of my fashionable friend's photographs.

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