It took four days to expose the first photograph in a heady concoction of pewter, petrol, lavender oil and bitumen. Even as the process evolved and exposure times reduced, a 19th century model could expect to be ear-clamped for a blur-free portrait. Today chemical reactions have been replaced by electrical charges, photography is cheaper and less pungent than ever before, and the act of taking a picture could not be more simple. We point and shoot. The result; an endless deluge of photographs.
The way we consume images is beginning to resemble that scene from Clockwork Orange. The young protagonist has his eyes clipped open and his brain thoroughly washed with a speeding, flickering slide-show. Similarly, flashing by, literally in streams, our images are constantly being scrolled, swiped, and thrown away. The sheer quantity of visual information we’re exposed to today means that we give each image we’re witness to commands a smaller and smaller slice of our attention. Far from transforming us into zombie citizens like the obedient youth spat out at the end of Clockwork Orange, our image rich world has awakened a photographer in all of us. The more we consume, the more we want to contribute. At gigs I can’t help but feel that everyone capturing the pitch-blacks and blinding lights is missing out on what’s on the other side of the lens. Then again my phone has its fair share of abstract night-life photos, I just don’t particularly remember taking them.
A 2013 psychological study by Fairfield University found that art students released into a gallery armed with cameras were less likely to remember the works they photographed, a process snappily dubbed “the photo-taking impairment effect.” Whilst the symptoms of contemporary photographic technology – a deficit of experiential memories, a surfeit of images, godforsaken selfie sticks – are clear, the motivations behind that split-second, submerged urge to record are more murky. Are we simply stating, “I am here, I was there”, desperately sharing a digital mark, no matter to its quality? Or are we perversely terrified of losing an event which everyone else is recording anyway and which the camera is helping us to forget?
Whilst it’s easy to pour scorn on tourists and gig-goers, the democratisation of photography has had some incredible consequences. Cheap tools and the internet’s endless facility for creating virtual communities has radically shifted the relationship between photojournalism, the media and the real world. Often the media has little interest in telling us stories, only in retelling mythologies. The nine stills from the Mail Online’s coverage of a recent protest in Brixton explore the compositional limits of two elements; a single broken window, and bored-looking officers in blue riot gear. The site will temporarily paint a skewed, violent picture until it’s replaced with more enraging news.
Thankfully we now have media channels, which circumvent distortion by feeding off of our compulsion and ability to record. The photojournalism pool Demotix has over 30,000 contributors spread across the globe, drawing from amateur camera phones and telephoto lenses alike. Last months ‘Reclaim Brixton’ demonstration is represented by 400 images depicting an array of colours, revellers, speakers and musicians amongst documentation of the headline events. Two thousand miles away, in a country ranked the third most repressive in terms of press-freedom in the world, rages arguably the most recorded war since the invention of photography. Ordinary Syrians are turning their daily horror into images, but most importantly into history, sharing constant streams video and stills.
When most major media outlets have vested interests, who can you trust to capture the story but the photographer on the street, phone in hand.