What Are You Looking At?

Social media and the art of paying attention.

Originally published on the Say Fromage blog.

In the future we will photograph everything and look at nothing.” That was the headline of a New Yorker article published earlier this month. Like all headlines, it’s designed to capture your attention and make you react. Headlines 101.

Needless to say, it got our attention here in the studio. We work in the photography business, after all. More importantly, we’ve all got our own smartphones, our own cameras, our own lives to capture. A bulk of the article is about a recent Google software update, but the headline alone deserves to be mulled over. So, what does that mean then? Are we too busy fussing over which Instagram filter to use on a photo? (Trick question: never use the Instagram filters. There are better apps for that, come on now.) Are we not experiencing our lives? Are we truly looking at nothing?

There’s a Medal Ceremony happening in there. Somewhere. Honest.

Ugh. Heavy questions, guys. Heavy questions.

The difference between the “photographing” and “looking” is what the people who also say “live in the moment” get hung up on. You know, the ones who say we need to put our damn cameras down and just experience life, dammit. Stop and smell the roses. Look at things–really look at them. The implication there is that if we’re photographing something, we aren’t looking anymore; it’s either one or the other. If we are so busy documenting our lives through photos and videos and shares and snaps and tweets we can’t possibly be experiencing them anymore. Right? Ultimately, we’re supposed to be worried/ashamed/angry/scared/confused/whatever that we are headed down a path of only documenting our lives instead of actually experiencing.

Our experiences have changed, though. Thanks to technology, we now create them through lenses like Instagram and Twitter. Our “in the moment” is now a connected moment we can instantly share with anybody and everybody. It’s a running timeline in real-time, complete with filters, emojis, and lenses. When it only takes a few seconds to take a photo of Tower Bridge, use an app to cover it in cats and send it to your mum with the caption “Meower Bridge,” why wouldn’t you? Why aren’t you right this second? Because that sounds awesome.

See, awesome.

In the New Yorker article, a photographer explains, “The definition of photography is changing too, and becoming more of a language. We’re attaching imagery to tweets or text messages, almost like a period at the end of a sentence. It’s enhancing our communication in a whole new way.”

We think our images are more than that. They aren’t the end of the sentence, they are the sentence. They’re the climax to a good story; they’re the punchline to a joke; they’re when we’re too speechless for words; they’re when words simply aren’t enough. Images aren’t simply enhancing communication, they are communication.

That’s why the point that “we are all taking too many photos and spending very little time looking at them” is moot. So what — who cares? Do you remember, in detail, every single conversation you’ve ever had? Of course not. We don’t need to look back at our photos, or even necessarily remember them, because that’s not the point. The point is that in that moment they helped us tell a story, express something, broadcast something. They served their purpose. They’re fleeting and ephemeral but that doesn’t make them any less valid than other kinds of photographs. This piece on the Snapchat blog (of all places) actually says it pretty well: “As photos have become almost comically easy to make, their existence alone as objects isn’t special or interesting, rather, they exist more fluidly as communication; a visual discourse more linguistic than formally artistic.”

Taxidermy rats make the perfect Instagram posts.

This isn’t about surveillance or passive documenting either. Just because we’re taking pictures of everything doesn’t mean we want to wear a camera around our neck every day. Products like Go-Pros are incredibly cool and have a myriad of creative applications but they’re in a different category altogether. When it comes to our conversations, we want to have control to edit and curate and face swap. They may be in real-time and ephemeral but that doesn’t mean we don’t also want to frame them in a particular way.

Experiencing is more or less synonymous with sharing now. Sure, we could put our cameras and phones down and really, truly look at something with our eyeballs (and maybe smell those roses everyone is on about) but there’s something undeniably special about having the choice to take that singular, private moment and broadcasting it around the world to make it a social experience, a shared experience.

And it’s important to remember that it is a choice. We have the apps, the technology, the devices — but that doesn’t make us beholden to them. As special as it can be to share your day with the world, it can be just as special to put the phone down and take a walk, read a book, have a one-on-one conversation. These are your experiences; live them how you want.

Photographing versus looking? Documenting versus experiencing? There’s no versus, really. And while we want to say they’re the same thing now, it would be closer to say that they’ve together morphed into something different entirely. So, yes, we’re still looking. We’re looking in a different way, that’s all.



I also write on my website, write and co-host The 405 Film Podcast, pretend I’m funny on Twitter, and remember once a month that I have a Tumblr.