Thousands of Cameras Seeing Nothing: Angela Merkel’s Facebook Photos
This essay was originally published in the Dutch magazine FD Persoonlijk. Je kunt dit stuk hier in Nederlands lezen.
Most politicians carefully consider the photographs they share to social media. They usually want to tell a specific, coordinated story about how they lead and who they are. Angela Merkel’s Facebook photos are different, often nothing more than snapshots captured by an aide trailing far behind, firing off a photo as quickly as he can.
Merkel’s staff captures an extraordinary number of photographs of the back of her head. Rather than being a conscious compositional choice, I imagine that this was the only angle available to Merkel’s social media photographer; he was working with what he could get. These photographs are unexpectedly interesting, revealing more about the way the crowd perceives Merkel than they do about Merkel herself.
See the images below. The people in the crowd are happy, admiring, star-struck, and most of them are holding up their phones to take their own pictures.
Isn’t it fascinating that when something unusual happens, like when we encounter Angela Merkel in person, the impulse for the vast majority of us is to stick a camera between ourselves and the experience? In taking a picture we capture an event, seal it for eternity in the form of a photograph, but in order to do so we must physically interfere with the moment by raising a camera in front of our eyes. These days the camera is also the mobile phone, the ultimate object of distraction, one which requires a flurry of actions, entering a passcode, swiping and tapping, in order to take a picture.
Not to mention that phones also display photographs immediately, so that we look down to consider the memory we have just made before we have even finished making it.
During campaign events of the pre-smartphone era, political candidates were mostly responsible for shaking hands, signing autographs and kissing babies. Now they must do all that and also graciously submit to selfies. Considering the images above I noticed an interesting paradox — all of the selfie-takers are looking away from the experienced moment in order to gaze at their own reflections. This is particularly evident in the photo of the young boys, in which two of them have focused their attention to themselves and their phones, rather than on her. They are concerned primarily with how the photograph will look, not with meeting Merkel, the event which precipitated the photograph. These selfie-takers have all staged the present moment for its appearance in the future.
In the above photograph of a Merkel campaign event in August 2017, nearly everyone in the crowd has their cameras raised. They strain forward, towards something out of the frame. We can all recognize the impulse of the people in this photograph; we have all seen something exciting, scrambled to grab our phones and taken a picture.
These days our impulse to photograph comes so quickly it seems almost natural. In times of our greatest excitement — like when we see Angela Merkel in the flesh — we shoot heedlessly. Looking at these photographs, at the distance the camera creates between the photographer and the experience, I wonder if we should be questioning our impulse to document everything exciting.
Maybe we should all try to be a little more like this dazzled little boy shaking Merkel’s hand, and less like the man standing next to him, who I can only assume is his father, looking down, away from them, at what could only be his phone.