#5: When We Were Young
This week I’m writing from the deep, dark recesses of the cloud, where all of our digital photos live together in harmony, bonding over our abandonment of them and searching for a new purpose.
For the past two years, I've been in the very beginning stages of cataloging and digitizing my grandmother's photos. My grandmother used to take photos of everything—birthdays, weddings, weekday visits from friends—she lamented any sentimental moment she had no camera to capture. She has dozens of those little navy blue plastic albums you used to find for $1 at a Wal-Mart photo center piled on top of dozens more large, hardbound ones, stretching back seventy years at least. Were disposable film cameras and 24-hour development centers still abundant, I believe she would still be snapping photos.
I sometimes wonder what my grandmother would have done with social media and the ability to present every single photo she took to the world. How when I try to compare her photo albums to my Facebook and Instagram feeds, I see two completely irreconcilable types of personal photography. It's the difference between photo as memory and photo as proof—between self-expression and self-impression.
If I look back far enough in my feed, I see photos with greater fidelity to the kind of snapshots my grandmother used to take—action shots, candids, shots of people mugging at the camera. As I move forward in time, though, the pictures take on a much more uniform character: a group of people standing arm and arm in a neutral pose, smiling pleasantly, sometimes vacantly, at the camera.
These pictures are less like snapshots than event photos, the kind you would see on the red carpet or at some gallery opening. Their sameness feels forced. It is a pose for people who would rather not be exposed but must. “A generation is growing up with publicity, not as a remote dream, but as a coercive norm.” Richard Seymour writes in his book, The Twittering Machine. Forced smiles, distant looks, and neutral backgrounds result in pictures that could have been taken anytime, anywhere. How did we get here? For me at least, the story begins with the Facebook album.
Initially, the Facebook album seemed like a godsend, a way to distribute the vast number of digital photos that were, at that time, trapped on memory cards or in the dusty corners of people's hard drives. For most people I know who attended college somewhere between 2006 and 2010, Facebook was the place to dump all of your digital photos: nights out, Spring Break adventures, concerts, sporting events, birthdays—you name it. It was customary to spend Sunday evenings hooking your tiny little digital camera up to your laptop, dumping every single photo into a Facebook album, and tagging all of your friends.
Back then Facebook primarily helped you connect with people you knew IRL. Shared albums were an easy way for people like me, who didn't take many photos, to still enjoy the fond memories recorded by more diligent friends. However, because these albums were shared, and because people tagged their friends, the power of networking allowed people two and three degrees removed to see photos of people they didn't know. As Facebook expanded and direct connections became even further removed—people we had just met, people in the same classes or clubs, and people you would soon meet—we began interacting with the profiles of people we’d never met. Now, theoretically, it was considered taboo to peruse the profile of someone you didn't really know— hence the term Facebook "stalking"—but in practice everyone did it. And because we did it, we knew others might be looking at our profiles, measuring us the way we were measuring others. So we began to mediate our own profiles accordingly.
"What does it mean to both observe and be observed?" Haley Nahman asks in her essay "Always Watching." We all want to be the main characters in our own stories. If we know our profiles will be seen, we can’t help but want to show our best selves. Deep down we want to elicit in others the same feelings of admiration, emulation, and perhaps even envy, that we feel when scrolling through the pages of our peers. So we find an aesthetic backdrop, hit our angles, find a friend with a long arm to take a selfie or give our camera to a stranger, and then pop the result on our timeline.
So many of the pictures we take now exist not to capture a moment but to create data points that form the impression of a well-lived life. Even if we on the fringes are not so afflicted that we frequent Instagram museums, photograph every brunch, or hire one of those godforsaken luxury picnic companies, we still package and sell our memories to the social media industry in exchange for access and connection.
Very few of us retain delusions of using our profiles to go viral, and yet all of us labor the same. Why do we do it, though, when we know the jig is up? It's not so much that we want to be famous as that we want to be known. We keep up our social media profiles for the same reason we purchase a leather jacket or wear a brightly colored sundress, the same reason we buy a graphic tee or put the cover back on a book before reading it in public. We want people to know who we are, and we want to know ourselves by how we are perceived. We want confirmation that it's not all in our head, that the person we think we are does exist, and that that person is cool.
By now, we know social media can't provide this confirmation. What's stranger then is that, despite knowing this, and despite supposedly having been released from the stranglehold of social media validation, we still feel compelled to document certain aspects of our lives. Additionally concerning is that in these photos we still tend toward these forced public poses. My most recent photos, most of which will never see the light of day, are still primarily of the red carpet variety. Friends smushed together, cheesing wildly at a camera probably being held by a stranger. These photos represent people I love, experiences I cherished, but they feel nothing like a memory.
My grandmother's albums, on the other hand, contain few pictures of her and almost none of her alone. Yet, despite the absence of her form, she's present in every single photo. She's in the eyes of her children and husband, her friends and family members, and her other subjects. She’s also present in the narrative cohesion of the pictures, which, taken together, tell her story through her eyes. These are memories even I can cherish.
I think the decline of Facebook and Instagram offers us, especially those of us who exist on the fringes, an opportunity to reclaim our relationship to both photography and memory. We've spent so many years trying to be the main characters of our story that we've forgotten it's the narrator who calls the shots. Even when they are one and the same, the narrator acts as the observer, reflecting on the world around them. What would our feeds look like if we projected our world instead of ourselves?
This Week’s Top Five:
This essay, written by Sarah Hagi, about Emily Ratajkowski’s new book:
“As I grew into adulthood, my being an outlier to whatever Western beauty standard was gaining popularity felt more like a form of protection. I am not a white girl in a magazine, and I never will look like one nor do I ever want to. I love the way I look, regardless of who thinks I am beautiful. The need to worry about being universally beautiful did not seem to matter to me in the same way as it did with my white friends. But with that knowledge comes with the acceptance that my appearance and identity as a black and Muslim woman means I will always be underestimated, spoken over, or fully overlooked — not to mention the target of violent hate crimes. There is a whole other set of standards beyond desirability that shape my reality as a woman. I inhabit a universe that’s rarely on the minds of most people.
This piece by Amanda Mull about how the affluent can alleviate the supply chain crisis:
“The problem with the explosion of this kind of discretionary shopping is that the same logistical resources that make this spike possible are also needed in other parts of the economy. The goods necessary to make school lunches—a vitally important civic function—might not be available for reasons that have nothing to do with how much food is theoretically available. Experienced workers and truck space and loading docks and time itself are not limitless resources. In a system asked to function beyond its capacity, if the distributor of hundred-dollar throw pillows can pay more for access to trucking capacity than a local food distributor that serves schools can, then their pillows go on the truck.”
The Spirit Halloween in the department store formerly known as Barney’s.
A new video from my favorite Vegan cooking YouTuber