The New Language of Photography
How photo sharing is changing communication
A while ago I read an article about why people in the early 1900s did not smile on photographs. The simple reason: the act of smiling was perceived as something only foolish people would do on a photograph. Of course there were technical constraints too, such as longer exposure times to capture portraits, but the fact that one of the reasons why people looked so serious on portraits was culturally imposed is highly interesting.
This September, a man who calls himself @mrpimpgoodgame went viral on social media. His Instagram profile consists solely of self-portraits that look almost identical; the same smile, framing, the same message on hundreds of images. It is ridiculous in one way, yet exemplary in another. A considerable part of the 500 million photos shared every day are more or less like that. So I’m asking myself: What will people in a 100 years think about the photos we’re taking today?
Photography is changing because the reason why people are taking photographs is changing. With everyone owning a powerful camera integrated in a smartphone today, the reason why to take photographs is not because you want to take a good photograph. It’s because you want to communicate. Taking a photo is faster than writing a text message. And posting a self-portrait with your new outfit on is the fastest way of feeling good about yourself. 1 like = you’re looking awesome today.
I’m not saying that this is something most of us didn’t know before. What I’m saying is that the old notion of photography being the means to “freeze” or document a moment just doesn’t work anymore. Photography has always been about communication of course. But it makes a huge difference if the medium your photos are being consumed in is a museum or a photo book or the blazing fast world of hyper-connected reality.
That’s why there are some images that work in this environment and some don’t. Look at the most popular Instagram users and the photos they produce. None of them were photographers before they created their profiles, yet they take the photos that millions of people like every day. Compare these photos to the photos the most successful brands on Instagram (such as Nike) post and you’ll definitely see similarities. These brands are smart enough to understand the popular language of the network and leverage it. Most photographers from earlier generations aren’t.
Now let’s try and understand photography from this perspective; it’s a language. It’s something everyone has access to, that’s constantly changing and that has different meanings, slangs and buzzwords according to the people, places and contexts it’s used in. If we see it that way, the odd selfie might just be the photographic LOL of our time — an expression of something our devices enable us to take (endlessly) and which the media we use and the culture we live in encourages.
I believe this new language of photography is only at its very beginning. Snapchat, Vine or Instagram have become great tools of communication and creativity. Yet, their specific traits also limit images to one certain style; i.e. the tempting volatileness of the disappearing photo, the 6 second video or the square format. And then, the like button is ubiquitous. But what if there was a dislike button? Wouldn’t it encourage people to take completely different images?