It used to be that the self-portrait was a revolutionary thing, a means of staking out the claim of the individual in a world where the common and communal ruled roost. In the birthday week of Frida Kahlo, the high priestess of exactly such behaviour, it might be nice to remember this – the power of the personal story and the documentation of the personal journey in an impersonal world. But people-watching at a tapas joint sometime last week, as a trio of girls passed their digicam repeatedly to the waiter and pursed their lips in that unsmiling expression popularly known as “sexyface”, I began to wonder: has the era of self portraiture as a genuine milestone marker made way for the era of self portraiture as farce?
There are photographs in which the beauty of the work lies almost entirely in the anonymity of the subject – devoid of name, stripped to only their appearance at the exact moment of capture – faces and bodies become illuminated with the pathos of multiple interpretations. But not so, in the age of having images of yourself tagged on social networking sites almost before you get home from the event. Almost as if to make up for all the unidentified faces ever caught on film, we snap, label and overshare with a vengeance.
The photograph as object in itself? Rarely. The photograph as proof, as social lubricant, as currency, as device? Constantly.
Why are we so obsessed with this constant clicking? Perhaps it’s the novelty of it – a camera is no longer a luxury in the average middle class home, and the virtual obsoleteness of film rolls empowers one with endless retakes, easy editing and instant gratification, every time. It’s no longer just special occasions that are recorded, but more often than not, the truly mundane. Take the phenomenon of photographing food – you’ve surely observed groups order large portions of food, take pictures of and with the dishes, and then leave most of them uneaten. I wonder sometimes if people really go on holiday just for fun anymore, or for the sake of the Facebook album (or three) that might result. The experience no longer seems to count, only the evidence of it.
I won’t lie – I’m as narcissistic as the next person, and cam-whoring is terrific fun. But it might pay to remember that in the early days of photography, some cultures mistrusted the camera, believing it to be a soul-sucking device. Just watch how a less than cozy bunch will transform for the flash – embracing, kissing or posing with a passion which, if it truly existed, would be very unlikely to occur with all eyes turned to the camera. I don’t know about an absence of soul – but a faking of spirit is obvious.
In our hurry to archive our daily doings, and even to engineer our visual catalogs to give the impression of a certain kind of life or personality, I wonder what happens to the symbolic value of the photograph as preservation. With so extensive a catalog of memories, will we stop cherishing images as we once used to? How long will it be before we reach a point of saturation where if something has not been recorded, it almost seems not to have happened at all in any significant way?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.