The camera lies

by Steve

Boy holding camera

A few recent scenarios for you. All happened. All involved technology. All were kind of annoying, or at least eye-opening. In each case I couldn’t quite figure out how much I should blame the technology, and how much I should blame the person. Or indeed, how much I should blame myself for a particular worldview.

Scenario One. The first time I saw someone using an iPad in public. A man with his wife and young children was arranging the perfect tableau of his happy family. When he was satisfied with the arrangement he passed the iPad to the family nanny and told her to take the picture. He then strode off up the street alone, leaving his nanny to collect up the children and the family’s belongings. I could see the big screen as the picture was being taken. He was at the heart of his family. Once that image had been captured he was not interested. Looking after his children was the nanny’s job.

Scenario Two. Chic are headlining one of the many stages at Glastonbury. I’m not there, I’m just watching on TV. The TV coverage is pretty comprehensive, pretty slick. For their last song the band invite some members of the audience up on stage to dance with the band. The stage is soon packed, people are dancing, having fun. Right in the middle is a guy holding his iPad out. He is not engaging with this once in a lifetime experience. He is filming it. He is filming a scene that is already being filmed by a professional film crew.

Scenario Three. It is one of our camping trips and we decide to take a walk around the campsite. We enter some woodland and come across some kids running down a hill. The dad of one of them calls them back up the hill. He tells them that he got some good photos but then gives them some instructions about how to act next time so the photos will be better. He sends them back down the hill. So, the kids aren’t actually playing and having fun, they are being directed by the dad so he can have some photos that give the appearance of them playing and having fun. We’re a bit bemused by this, wonder if it is just a one-off so he can get a good shot. We come across the kids and the dad an hour later. He is still directing them, setting up scenes, telling them what to do, how to look. He runs each scene multiple times until he is happy with the results. The kids don’t seem to have played at all. They are remarkably compliant.

I’ve been mulling over these three scenarios over the past few days. It is easy to blame the technology. Now we have flashy cameras and phones and tablets we are inclined to use them. We want to show off their capabilities. We want to get what we capture right, even if it is at the expense of the moment. We’re all artists, directors, producers now.

We can also share our movies and images far more easily and quickly. We can put anything up online in moments, get instant feedback, instant validation. These movies and images become a way of presenting ourselves to the world. So, we want to control what gets out there. We want to provide our own version of events, the version we’d like the world to see. We are not comfortable showing the reality.

But in doing this we miss the genuine joy of unchoreographed life. We miss actually interacting with our family, or dancing with Chic, or watching our child have adventures with their friends. We do all this in order to communicate to our networks a message we want them to see and hear. We want to be popular for chronicling an event rather than for taking part in it. We value pageviews over experience.

It is sad. But is technology to blame? People always censored what photos they wanted people to see. People always exaggerated their stories, or downright lied. Fancy technology and the means to share our stories just enables the kind of behaviour that was always going on, or was at least latent. Perhaps now it is more visible, more common. But there have always been people like this. Maybe we’ve all always been like this.

So, the people are to blame? Maybe not. Maybe it is me. Why shouldn’t people document their lives as they please? Why should I get into some sort of polemic when I can just turn the other way? Aren’t I the guy that loves stories, loves technology? Yet, thinking about it, I have no real problem with people just documenting their lives, capturing their memories. I think it is more an issue when people become their own personal propaganda department, either manipulating that documentation or using it purely as a means of boosting their social standing.

Maybe what I find heartbreaking in all those scenarios is that technology enabled those individuals to distance themselves from what matters. Technology, at its best, brings us closer, not further apart. We shouldn’t use our cameras, phones and tablets as barriers to the world out there. We shouldn’t demonise those forms of technology either. They are only barriers because we make them so.

Image from State Library and Archives of Florida, via Flickr