“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”1
I had no climbing shoes, no chalk, no crash-pad, I was on a casual stroll with my friends at Slide Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona. Sprouting from the middle of this red rock canyon cleavaged by the Oak Creek is a large grey boulder that seems entirely out of place. I was thoroughly unprepared to climb, but when I saw the rock I kind of needed to give it a go.
Slide Rock State Park is loaded with tourists, and it’s no wonder why. The place is stunning. With a natural water slide carved into the bottom of the shallow creek surrounded by picturesque red rock canyon walls, speckled with high altitude pines, and accessible to all. One would be foolish not to stop and admire the scene.
Most will make the short trek in, toss down a towel, and splash around in the creek a little bit before letting the hot Arizona sun and dry desert air melt you into the beauty of the landscape. All will make sure to snap a photo or two independently of whether or not they notice any of the scenic magnitude offered by the vistas of this sacred corner of our planet.
I had never tried to climb a route barefoot, and I was intimidated by the potential of falling to the rocky canyon floor, but the route seemed fairly simple, and the payoff of an isolated spot to enjoy the surroundings was too magnetic to ignore.
The send was pretty stress-free, and the risk was minimal, the extended view (even from just four meters up) was well worth it. But then the rock was surrounded. I couldn’t see them, I just heard “arch your back more” “tilt your head to the right” “take one with my glasses” “look in that direction” “we can edit that” “OH MY GOD THERE’S A GUY UP THERE”. They did make me feel pretty good when I got a round of applause for down-climbing without killing myself, but WTF was going on?
Over forty years ago, Susan Sontag wrote: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” (If only she lived long enough to see how accurate this quote would become.)
WTF was going on? “F” the birds, “F” the rocks, “F” the water, “F” the sun, “F” the trees, and “F” that crazy A-hole on top of that rock. Reality confirmation is taking place, photo or it didn’t happen!
If we were photo junkies in 1977 what in the world are we now? Photomanical Habitués of unrelenting capitalistic social behavioral design…perhaps? But ‘junkies’ just has a better ring to it. And so we are!
A 2018 study by Asurian2 notes that while on vacation Americans check their phones eighty times a day on average. Every twelve minutes, its “F” the birds, “F” the rocks, “F” the water, “F” the sun, “F” the trees, and “F” that crazy A-hole on top of that rock. Five times every waking hour while on VACATION!
The world is a Skinner Box, photography has been completely reduced to a simple lever, and we are re-enforced over and over and over again by “likes” and “views”. I make sure to emphasize ‘we’, because we are all in this together. Being a junkie in this sense cannot be pejorative, it might be sad, unfortunate, and in some instances depressing, but it’s an accurate description of what we have become.
The re-enforcing effects of this behavioral design will wane, the role of the photograph will continue to evolve. I know some people who have already cut the cord on the social media altogether, it’s a trend I’d like to see grow in popularity. But I’m afraid that until the next tasty “food-pellet” comes along, the highs and lows of our over-saturated drug of choice in our boundless world of manipulated images and controlled reality is where we’ll remain…scrolling through photos of other’s “lives” as they scroll through photos of ours. No one ever said that our conditioning chambers couldn’t be comfy!
I for one am fed up. I can’t stand the idea of trying to “capture” reality in a photograph or worse yet realizing that we are beyond capturing reality. Reality is no longer good enough; the photograph distorts reality to make things (ourselves included) more remarkable than they really are. The photograph is a tool through which reality can be improved. Why stare at an actual mountain when I can stare at thousands of mountains on a screen in the palm of my hand?
“Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of truth.”3
- The final sentence to Susan Sontag’s remarkable essay on the state and future of photography In Plato’s Cave.
- Asurian Study.
- The first sentence to Susan Sontag’s remarkable essay on the state and future of photography In Plato’s Cave.
- Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977.