We are obsessed with capturing and sharing our lives.
I’m guilty of this too. In fact I’m far more guilty of this than most people. I joined Instagram in it’s first week. I took a selfie every day for almost a year, compiled it into a video, and uploaded it to Facebook. I worked on the Facebook photos analytics team and figured out how to get you to upload more pictures. Then I quit that job to travel around the world and work on a photo book. I often laugh out loud when a friend suggests that I put my camera away and “savor the moment.”
Finish line of the 2013 America’s Cup. San Francisco, California.
Still, after five months on the tourist track in Asia it really feels like we, as a planet, are taking too many pictures. Almost everywhere I go there are selfie sticks being deployed, there are people posing in mock imitations of statues, and if the sight is good enough there will be crowds of people pushing to the front with their phones and SLRs, snapping photo after photo, trying to capture the perfect moment.
Not photographing the Forbidden City. Beijing, China.
The reality of tourist sights is that they are never as empty as we depict in our photos. If the light’s good and something interesting is happening there will be a throng of serious looking amateur photographers stepping in front of each other to get the perfect shot. There will be another crowd walking directly to the front, ruining everyone else’s shot, and standing next to the memorable object — either taking a selfie or posing for someone else.
It’s hard to tell these days if someone is taking a selfie or taking a normal photo. Is it more polite to walk in front of them or behind them?
Why do we take so many pictures? My strongest feeling is that photos are the new souvenirs. We don’t want to buy things — we own far too many things — so we take pictures of them instead. Taking a picture is a lightweight way of owning something. Taking a picture is also the easiest way to feel creative without necessarily creating anything — we just capture the beauty of things that already exist.
Remembering Hong Kong, China and Mt. Bromo, Indonesia.
How many photos do we take? Almost 1 trillion in 2014, that’s roughly 141 photos for each human on Earth. Many of the seven billion people on earth don’t even own a camera, so the real number of shots per camera owner is easily over 500. A modern computer can store hundreds of thousands photos. If you have an Apple Device, iCloud will store 1,000 of them for you. Most people I know blew past that iCloud limit ages ago.
We definitely don’t need this many photos. The world can be described with less. For comparison, The Ansel Adams Gallery sells a special collection of Ansel’s best photos of Yosemite: there are only 24 of them. Sebastião Salgado’s epic seven year photography project Genesis yielded only 520 pages of photos.
Again, I’m guilty of taking too many pictures myself. My collection of “keeper” photos from my trip to Asia is 3,587 pictures. It’s over 75 gigabytes. When famously prolific photographer Gary Winograd died he left around 130,000 exposures. My whole personal archive is already about 26,000 exposures, so I’m already 20% of the way to Winograd territory.
A man stops to take a picture of the Buddha before kneeling and praying. Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Often when I’m in the thick of things at a tourist sight the most obvious subject isn’t what everyone is taking pictures of — it’s the process of taking pictures itself. It’s the crowd of people, the selfie poses, the forest of cameras on up-stretched arms, the pushing and shoving to get to the front of the queue. I rarely see tourists behave more savagely then when fighting to remember a moment.
So it’s fascinating to me to take pictures of pictures being taken. Afterwards, like any good photographer, I push and cajole my way to the front to get the same picture that everyone else is taking.
Even when I’m fully aware of the absurdity of standing in a crowd with dozens of people taking the exact same picture — I just can’t overcome that urge we all feel. So I pull out the camera and snap away.
Entering Angkor Wat. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.