Girl A had a great time last night. She and her roommates gathered with their thirty or forty closest friends in Girl A’s tiny apartment just off campus. The walls bore pictures—family shots, scenes from abroad, summer sunsets—as well as Monet’s Water Lilies and Audrey Hepburn movie prints. Girl A and her friends laughed marvelously and played music, though I can’t be sure just what kind it was. I can say, though, that they danced, drinks in hand, on hand-me-down coffee tables and posed in freshly purchased outfits for their friends—and for the world.
I don’t go to school with Girl A and haven’t seen her in years, although Girl B, a mutual acquaintance of ours, was in attendance last night. How, then, am I privy to all this knowledge about her social life? It’s not as though last night was a one-time anecdote; I can recount any number of her nights and days with the same detail? Girl A and her friends have cameras. And on any given night at any given moment, Girl A’s friends are performing a delicate socio-technological waltz in which they pose, snap, and upload at a pace hard to rival.
Of course, it is both fun and comforting to collect snapshots. In doing so, we transform liquid moments into solid memories. I have framed pictures on my desk and collages hanging from my walls to remind me of the people and places I hold dear. The camera, versions of which date back to the fifth century BCE, intends to preserve present moments for future remembrance. How often have we gently turned the yellowed pages of a grandmother’s photo album or marveled at her hanging black-and-white portraits? These relics demand and exude respect, for they transport us a great distance in time and transform our feelings.
Girl A has 2,048 pictures of herself on her Facebook page from the last 3 years. That averages out to around 683 pictures per year. Assuming that the vast majority of these pictures are from college in-session months, we now notice that Girl A appears in about 114 pictures a month—almost four pictures a day. Personally, I cannot think of four events on my run-of-the-mill Tuesday that I would consider photo-worthy, and I’m not sure I know many people who would, but that’s besides the point. Girl A has a fun life. She is young, sharp, and metropolitan. With a grin as wide as it is warming, Girl A is quick to gather friends and take them to the hottest parties. Many envy her effortless style and diplomatic humor. Maybe for Girl A, four pictures a day cannot tell half the story of her rich, cosmopolitan life. Maybe her existence is full of Kodak moments to be captured. She is basking in her fresh youth, and she may want to save physical evidence for posterity.
And isn’t that what we’re all doing? We revel in our taut-skinned innocence, making friends and enemies, strides and mistakes, love and drama. And nothing epitomizes this odd moment of irresponsible maturity quite like the party. The college party maintains the façade of sophistication but can really be rather messy (much like the college student). The party is ubiquitous. Even the most reserved wallflowers among us are drawn to the party. They may not mill about fraternity houses giggling over fruity, mysterious drinks; but to them, the party remains a fascinating social experiment. And to those who are milling about fraternity houses giggling over fruity, mysterious drinks—well, I needn’t explain their attraction to the party; it’s just sheer fun. At a party, we can (supposedly) be pure and uninhibited and simply enjoy one another. We can be fully joyous and present in the unique moment we are navigating as college-aged students—or so it would seem. The camera, as used by some today, inhibits this.
Cameras are methods of seeing. I can lie in the grass, point the camera up, and capture an image of a tree that I may not have seen in the same way otherwise. In the college setting, cameras are everywhere. What was once a method of seeing is now a method of spying, seeking, watching, and ogling. And with so many eyes, both natural and glass, upon us, we cannot help but become increasingly self-aware. How do I look? How am I coming across on camera? Do I look less fun than my friends? More fun? How does this party look compare to the last? Does it compare to my high school friends’ parties? This constant self-consciousness is unhealthy. When we view ourselves too often through the camera lens, we are vain and self-centered, yes, but also insecure. We are competitive. And not only about the picture itself—we care about the quantity, the quality, the comments and the “likes,” even the time at which we upload the photo. The product today neither transports nor transforms. Instead, it serves to augment one’s social status and diminish others’. Months ago, I was the unfortunate passive participant to the following conversation:
(A Thursday night, around 12:30 p.m., in a cab returning home from a bar)
Friend #1 (catatonically staring at iPhone): These pictures are so cute! I can’t wait to upload them!
Friend #2: I know! We looked so good tonight. Definitely put those on Facebook.
#1: Wait, I have an even better idea. Let’s wait a few hours and then upload them at, like, 3 a.m. Then all of our other friends will think we were out so late.
#2: Oh my God, you’re a genius!
If the purpose of photography is to preserve moments, then what, exactly, are we preserving when we distort them? Ever more, we wish to preserve (rather, display) the idea of how a moment is “supposed” to appear according to unwritten college standards. What we are portraying is neither honest nor candid, though. In this way and in this culture, photographs are contrived and agenda-driven.
We often make fun of “MySpace pictures” because they so blatantly try to convey a message. “Look at me!” a scantily-clad, sultry-eyed MySpace user declares as she steamily stares into the lens, “I’m sexy.” On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, though, we clever college students do the same. A picture of two friends under the blacklight with one arm raised and the other clutching a drink screams, “Here I am. This is me partying.”
So how, then, does the unavoidable presences of cameras inform the ways in which we socialize? In “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy writes on how photography bastardizes the experience of visiting the Grand Canyon. I have never been to the Grand Canyon, but I have seen pictures and footage and postcards. Percy believes that my preconception of the Grand Canyon—the abstraction of the Grand Canyon in my mind—will take away from my experience as a visitor. “The sightseer,” he writes, “measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.” I cannot purely appreciate the Grand Canyon because my experience of the Grand Canyon is already tainted by expectations. In the same way, I do not go to a party and appreciate it for its quality as a party. I measure it up to pictures of other parties that I have seen. And when taking my own photos, I try to present my experience at a party in much the same way that I have seen parties presented time and again. My experience must match his and hers and theirs, or else it may not fully be “the experience” I have been sold.
Percy continues, “The highest point, the term of the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.” Our socialization, then, is an attempt to approximate whatever it is we are doing with whatever it is we believe we “should” be doing. Our exposure to deluges of Facebook photos every day makes us hyper-aware of social norms and archetypes. We, too, become aware of our successes and failures at “fitting in” to these norms. When we party, we party knowing both what “party pictures” look like and how our own “party pictures” will turn out. The trend of omnipresent photography traps us in a positive feedback cycle. I see pictures of parties, I go to parties to approximate the pictures, people take pictures of me at the party, others see my pictures, they go to parties to approximate my pictures, and so on. This social narrative foments anxiety and tarnishes the actual socialization.
I understand we do not consciously go to parties with the sole hope of recreating our friends’ pictures; we go to be young and to have fun. But the force of constant photography is pervasive and does inform our behavior.
In this cycle, we seek authentication. “I want to make sure I’m doing this right,” we think. Instead, we find the opposite. If I were to photocopy my class notes for a friend, I would provide him with a clear clone of the original. If my friend wanted to photocopy his photocopy for another friend, the newest photocopy would be readable, but shadowy and blurred. Let’s say this process continued for ten more photocopies-of-photocopies. Halfway through, the product would be ruined. The copies would get darker and fuzzier; eventually, it would be impossible to tell from which document the photocopy came. Similarly, the more we determine our parties by pictures (“copies”) of other parties, the farther we err from really socializing—from sharing time, space, and laughs with others.
For the “sightseer,” Percy states, “there is no present; there is only the past of what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has not been formulated and not seen. The present is surrendered to the past and the future.” In college, we surrender the present to posing and pointing and clicking. We can banish our anxiety and live more presently by ridding ourselves of the cameras.