What the subjects of our photos can tell us about ourselves

Although rapidly fading from living memory like an old photograph, there was a time before iPhones and Androids when people took pictures on film with a 35 millimetre camera. The process was slow and cumbersome by today’s digital standards. Unless you were a professional photographer, you didn’t carry your camera around with you, snapping photos wherever you went. In fact, a lot of families cracked out the Kodak about twice a year: at Christmas and during summer vacations.

The advent of smartphones has made photography simpler, cheaper and more instantaneous. But this ability to take more pictures with less fuss can also serve as a mirror, giving us a sharper image of where our affections and interests lie.

Back in the day, the limits of camera technology forced people to be more selective in what they photographed. Subject matter usually consisted of family and friends during special occasions, visiting a landmark on a trip or opening presents around the tree, for example.

However, there was one common element in practically all these pictures from the past: the absence from the photo of the person taking it. To be sure, there was the occasional timed exposure, where the photographer had a few seconds to scramble around and join the other subjects in the picture. But rarely, if ever, did anyone turn the camera on themselves, point-blank, for a self-portrait. The whole purpose of taking pictures was other-oriented, meant to capture the shared moments and significant milestones in the lives of loved ones.

But new technology always opens up new possibilities. Armed with smartphones, editing software and photo sharing websites, people thus inclined can now produce beautiful, creative images like never before and share them with whomever they wish.

At the same time, the new tech has given rise to that near-ubiquitous contemporary art form, the selfie. For some individuals – typically but not exclusively teens and young adults – the expanding vista of digital photography has actually limited their vision for subject matter and focused it squarely on themselves. Their interest in recording significant moments shared with others has strangely receded into the background. Instead their blogs and social media accounts are filled – sometimes to the exclusion of almost all else – with selfies taken daily, even hourly, chronicling the most mundane moments of their everyday routine.

A number of years ago, an online forum posed the question: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?”

One of the answers has become something of a meme for social media criticism: “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.”

The satirical bite of that observation loses some of its humorous edge when the cat photos and online squabbles are replaced with reams and reams of pictures of . . . myself. At least for some individuals, digital technology appears to have opened a gateway to alarming levels of narcissism.

Of course, it has opened many good and worthwhile gateways as well. There’s no warrant for a sweeping, Luddite critique of smartphones, social media or even the selfie as such. Certainly there are moments and situations where we want to take a few quick snaps with our friends, or even alone, to preserve the memory for future recall. And sometimes selfies are just a fun, creative way to connect, especially for younger people. It’s when they become building blocks in an online digital shrine to self that it all starts to get a bit troubling.

Photography has a unique capacity to reveal not only physical images but also something of our hearts. As the technology continues to advance, it offers increasing opportunities to express what we value most. Like all God’s gifts, it’s intended for our use and enjoyment in ways that honour Him with our creativity and enrich our life together in community. Whether or not we use it that way remains, as always, our choice.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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