“When life is flooding over us with new and strange experiences, when we are surrounded with myriads of strangers … we want to posses images both to halt and to order the flood, even though in the end the mass of images doesn’t help. Through photography we can hold people, events, places. But the images themselves become a flood.” (Beloff 1985, p. 20).
If a photo can help you to remember an experience, lots of photos should be really helpful, right? This seems to be the thinking behind Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmel’s lifelogging project “MyLifeBits” described in their book Total Recall (Bell and Gemmel, 2009). Bell and Gemmel’s suggest that recording all the details of your life for review and analysis will help you to understand and improve your health, relationships and general happiness. As I see it, there are a number of problems with this view.
Firstly, recording an experience inevitably changes it. To record my life is to record those who appear in it. This will change my relationships and behaviour, as well as throwing up a number of social, moral and legal quandaries. For example, under what conditions must I obtain or renew consent? When is it inappropriate even to suggest recording? If cultural (let us subsume legal, moral and social considerations under this banner) or technical constraints prevent me from recording some experiences, these experiences are then, presumably, repressed in terms of reminiscence, reflection, analysis and communication and those things that can be easily recorded will be privileged.
Another problem is the sort of engagement with experience that this leads to. If we go to the supermarket to buy cheese, it may seem that more brands, flavours, sizes and hierarchies of cheese can only be a good thing, increasing the possibility that the perfect cheese for any given occasion will be available. The trouble is, how do we know which one it is? Too much choice is tiring, even paralysing, claims Barry Schwartz (2004). It also devalues the individual item, associating it with the cost of all of the choices we did not make. It’s possible, however, that when we are dealing not with cheese but with images, we often avoid making a choice at all. Lindley et al. (2009) describe the difference in terms of gaze, suggesting that we are unable to make the same value judgements when confronted by a large volume of photographs.
…change in volume has also meant a change in the experience of gaze: if, before, there were few pictures to gaze at, and hence the thing gazed at got valorised in the gazing, now there are so many images that the fixity of gaze is transforming into a gaze at multiple images. What had hitherto been the “decisive moment”, captured by a single photographer, has now dissolved into a flux. (Lindley et al. 2009).
Sometimes, as I pore through hundreds of photos on my computer, I ignore the feeling that I am not really able to meaningfully process such a large number of images. I ignore the idea that it might be a more rewarding experience if I were more selective and spent more effort on fewer images, allowing myself time to reflect on each one. Jonathan Harris, in his video “m ss ng p eces” (http://vimeo.com/20729065), suggests that photography can help us to build longer narratives around our activities, improving our own, personal storytelling. In 1977, Susan Sontag suggested that the increase of family photography, which coincided with industrialisation’s compression of the family unit, may be a way to memorialise “the imperilled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life.” (p. 9). But does incessant photography really enhance continuity? There are a number of writers claiming that society today seems to be more fragmented than it used to be, that as we flit from task to task, our sense of coherence seems to decrease (e.g. Turkle 2011, Keen 2012). It feels, to me, that the same might be true of our own mediated personal histories – that moving too quickly from one image to the next might not leave enough time to reflect and make connections with other records of my past. Then again, having photos from many different occasions does provide cues for remembering events that would otherwise surely have been forgotten. Is it a depth vs breadth dilemma? Perhaps we can either engage deeply with a few experiences or less deeply with a lot of experiences?
- Bell, G. and Gemmell, J. (2009). Total recall : how the E-memory revolution will change everything. New York : Dutton.
- Beloff, H. (1985). Camera Culture. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.
- Harris, J. (2011). m ss ng p eces. http://vimeo.com/20729065. Accessed 3rd March 2012.
- Keen, A. (2012). digitalvertigo: how today’s online social revolution is dividing, diminishing and disorienting us. London: Constable and Robinson.
- Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Schwartz, B. B. (2004). The Tyranny of Choice. Scientific American, 44–49.
- Lindley, S. E., Harper, R., Randall, D., Glancy, M., & Smyth, N. (2009). Fixed in Time and “ Time in Motion ”: Mobility of Vision through a SenseCam Lens. ACM.
- Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books.