Is photography the new conspicuous consumption?

Images from Instagram by: @truth_seeker333 and @kasia_fran Neither image is by the couple mentioned in this article.

Last week I was hanging out at a natural history museum (no, not the one in London) and interviewing people about the role digital technologies played in their museum experiences; from planning their visit, to walking around the museum and sharing their experiences with others.

It was a quick and dirty bit of research, but as always, there were interesting behaviours to observe and talk to people about; especially in relation to photography. The museum actively encourages people to take pictures during their visit, so there were plenty of people engaged in capturing visual mementos.

The majority of people I interviewed, when asked how they had used digital technology during their visit, thought that they hadn’t used any digital technology at all. That was until I enquired about any photos they had taken. It struck me that this photographic consumption of experiences has become a reflex action for us; a habitual, almost unconscious visual recording and sharing of our lives, designed to make our cultural consumption conspicuous. It seems to me to be the digital equivalent of that ’90s trend for wearing heavily branded designer clothing to communicate a particular lifestyle.

There was one couple I interviewed whose photographic behaviour especially caught my attention. They were capturing two very different types of images as they explored the museum: photographs they appeared in, posing comically (and predictably) with their heads in the mouths of dinosaur models and looking terrified by taxidermied bears; and more cerebral shots of the architecture of the museum and whale skeletons taken from artistic looking angles.

These two types of images were a kind of social currency operating for two different audiences. The posed and ‘silly’ photographs were shared in the moment with a select group of close friends via Snapchat. They were about being entertaining as a means of demonstrating friendship, but also communicating to their friends that they were having fun without them. They implicitly said “We’re not boring stay-at-home types. We’re dynamic and spontaneous people who know how to have a good time; worthy of your friendship but also hungry for your envy.” The other photographs were for a more public audience. They were to be edited post-visit in Instagram and shared there and on Facebook. These photographs were about communicating a certain lifestyle to acquaintances, the “we’re museum people” and “we’re cultural connoisseurs” messages deeply embedded in the more serious tone of the images they were capturing. During our discussion, they were giddy with enthusiasm for the collection on show at the museum and making the experience entertaining for themselves. The seemingly throwaway but highly choreographed ‘silly photos’ felt like a truer picture of their museum experience than the public image they wanted to create via Instagram and Facebook.

As we delved into the analysis of our interviews I remembered a great essay I had read a few years ago ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ by Jacob Silverman. It raises some great points about why we photograph ‘celebrity’ artefacts. Despite the fact that amateur photographs of these objects exist in their thousands, and professionally taken images are available to us at the tap of a screen or a click of a mouse, we can’t help but abandon our inquisitiveness in favour or acquisitiveness. These photographs prove we were there. That we have a kind of ownership over our cultural experiences by capturing and collecting what Silverman calls these photographs: “lifestyle totems.”

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