Penelope Umbrico, Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, (2006). Umbrico, an artist who deals with appropriated imagery, appears in the new documentary Brave New Camera.

Brave New Camera

A new documentary film explores how photography is evolving to change the connections we have to one another, and to ourselves

“Does anybody not have a camera on them right now?” Avery McCarthy asked the audience of more than a hundred people gathered at the School of Visual Arts Theater in Manhattan. No one raised their hands. “Anybody? There are zero people in this room that don’t have a camera on them? Ok. Think about that.”

Most people in the room were counting their phone as a camera, underlining the message of the documentary Brave New Camera, by directors and fellow SVA alums McCarthy and Kara Hayden. The film explores the profound effects of internet-enabled cameras, emphasizing what it may mean for human communication, social identity, and more.

Images are becoming an ever more fundamental mode of communication. The phenomenon and its implications are interesting, but also difficult to grasp. McCarthy and Hayden were at SVA to discuss the topic’s many facets with a panel of highly notable figures in the visual arts and sciences. It was exactly the kind of conversation that Brave New Camera hopes to initiate.

“Nothing gets adopted in our culture this quickly, unless it taps into a core genetic impulse that we have from millions of years ago,” McCarthy told me over coffee in Brooklyn a few days after the panel. “I think that the desire to construct a personality that’s attractive to your social group and raise your status or say something important or just to show people who you are or what you’re doing, it’s a really core part of what it is to be a human being.”

The trailer for Brave New Camera ends with the line, “Our whole cognitive framework is shifting.”

It’s hard to believe just how explosively camera technology has grown. According to McCarthy’s data, about a trillion images were created last year, more every minute than in the entire 20th century combined. Some two billion images are uploaded every single day through services like Instagram. With more than a billion smartphones shipped every year, cameras are now among the most ubiquitous technologies on the planet.

New Beginnings for Old Topics

Common issues related to the growing prevalence of cameras emerged during the panel — “citizen journalism” made possible by recording devices in everyone’s pockets; the question of what defines a photograph as art amid the incomprehensible volume of images flooding the world; the apparent importance of ephemeral (as opposed to eternal) images epitomized by the success of Snapchat; humanity’s latent social voyeurism as revealed by the sudden popularity of live-streaming video apps like Meerkat or Periscope.

Identifying trends is straightforward enough, but McCarthy and Hayden want to open a dialogue about the larger consequences of these trends. We all know the role of the camera in our society has changed dramatically since the days of the slide projector and photo album, but it’s also been changing our world profoundly along the way. We need to talk about that.

What does it mean that the vast majority of image makers in the world are (arguably) not photographers? What does it say that people will communicate using a picture, but still call it a ‘text’? Can the images in an Instagram feed or Facebook wall be judged by the same standards as those hung up in a museum? What kind of a historical record are these billions upon billions of images creating?

From the Private to the Public

Beyond concerns for the object should be concern for ourselves. How is our idea of “us” affected by our increasing identification with the images we put forth? What does it all mean for privacy? For language? What the hell are we supposed to do with all these pictures? The questions about this advance in technology are becoming increasingly fundamental. Non-photographers used to take pictures to share with their friends and family. Now the photographs we take scale from something as mundane as our lunch to something as consequential as police violence and beyond, all coursing through the common central nervous system of social media.

“You have the phenomenon that used to be very private, used to be basically completely inconsequential and never talked about with any sort of weight,” says McCarthy. “Now, it’s not only a key feature in one of the most valuable companies on the planet, but it is something that drives how we think of ourselves, and think of other people, and interact with the world every day.”

One of the reasons this conversation has not yet become explicit is because it spans so many disciplines — technology, sociology, art, and yes, of course, photography. Far from intending to settle the topic in a 90 minute documentary, Brave New Camera hopes to inspire a conversation among people from all these fields and beyond.

“I don’t think that there is going to be a definitive conversation because it evolves so quickly,” says McCarthy. “You could get all the best minds in a room once a year to talk about images and it wouldn’t be enough.”

Though it’s far from being completed, McCarthy and Co. have already managed to assemble some impressive intellectual firepower for their film. Both in the documentary and on the SVA stage were Mia Fineman, Associate Photography Curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Mark Lubell, Director of the International Center of Photography; Nathan Jurgenson, social media theorist and researcher for Snapchat; and artist Penelope Umbrico, among numerous others

The whole endeavor has so far been carried out on pure interest, gumption, and a shoestring budget. Originally, the project was conceived as a series of web-based shorts, centered on individual interviews. Going forward as a documentary, the plan is now to gather as much brainpower from as many related fields as possible. Thus far, the entire project has been shot in New York and San Francisco, but McCarthy and Hayden identify this as a weakness and want to go global.

“This is a global conversation. We want to go bigger. We want to do this story justice,” says McCarthy in their crowdfunding campaign raising funds to film in Dubai, Tanzania, Turkey, Japan and South Korea.

A Long Way in a Short Time

The first interview conducted by McCarthy and Hayden was held the day after Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars. It was apt timing, a knee in the upward curve of social image sharing as it continues to rocket off the chart. It was also proof that major players in the social networking market have recognized the pattern, whether or not the meaning of it all is any clearer to them than it is to us. For Mark Zuckerberg, this may be little more than a monetize-able phenomenon — for most of the rest of us, it’s a change in how we communicate and understand ourselves.

“There’s a huge amount of cultural material that is of value being produced, and there’s no framework to filter it into a place where the people who are in a position [to do so can] canonize it, to show it to the public as of cultural value with weight behind it,” says McCarthy. “The majority of our cultural content is intangible — it’s not a physical object that can be shown at a gallery, and sold to a collector. It can’t be purchased by a museum. It can just be looked up on your device.”

All screengrabs taken with permission from Brave New Camera.

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