Recently, I posted an image of four wedding planners resting after a long day. The snapshot was taken years ago, filed away and forgotten. In the photo, three of the women are enthralled by their smartphones while the fourth one sits in the middle, looking bored, staring vacantly into space. Checking the account a few hours later, I was stunned to see it quickly become the most liked, commented on and shared photo on my feed, ever.
Instagram has its own "logic." Some photos collectively resonate. Most don't. After reading the comments, I realized why this particular image got such a response. Almost everyone identified with the bored woman. Many saw in her distant expression a commentary on digital culture, revealing how our hyperconnected society breeds loneliness.
One of the trickiest things about photography is that the intention of the photographer is often only a blueprint; the viewer fills in the rest with their own experiences and expectations.
When I took this image, I was entranced by the light on the three women's faces and by the recurring motif of an odd person out (more on that in a future post). Yet, this image has tapped into an almost visceral dislike of social media, creating, somewhat ironically, the most social engagement of any of my Instagram posts.
Why do we find people glued to their smartphones so “sad,” when we ourselves are probably looking at them on our smartphones? Why are we more likely to put ourselves in the place of the untethered woman? And why does analog boredom seem to have nobility a notch above digital engrossment?
To be completely honest, I didn't set out to make a commentary on the wretchedness of social interactions in the internet age. I like digital media. And social networks. I will be the first to admit that, in this image, I feel closer to the three women on their smartphones.
The conversation provoked by the image made me think back to a fascinating article in Scientific American, “Social Media Has Not Destroyed a Generation," about a mega-study that found that the angst over digital technologies has been largely misplaced. Contrary the popular narrative, the use of social media does not seem to correlate with any significant psychological distress. The collective anxiety over smartphones is the same reoccurring fear of novel technological trends that dates to Socrates, who got spooked that the newfangled fashion of writing things down will weaken memory.
Reading the flurry of compliments congratulating me on capturing the demise of modern civilization made me feel a bit of a fraud. But I knew that it also meant the photo was in its way a success - provoking a heated discussion I didn't intend. Though every photographer is a bit of a control freak, the one thing I always try to avoid is a didactic image. Photography, like any art, only gets interesting with the possibility of open-ended interpretations.
Yet, scrolling through all the comments praising the lone woman bravely holding out against the easy allure of the smartphone, I couldn't help but identify with the person who wryly observed, “The one girl’s phone prob died already."
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Melissa Kaplan Grudin
In 2021, I am those other three women! Thank you for recognizing us! And I love the comment the fourth one outs battery had probably died on her phone.This picture makes a social statement. The only way I know to rise from it is to leave my phone behind, purposefully.
As soon as I saw the shot I became captivated. The idea came into my mind of it being about the history of civilisation to this point in time. I didn’t really see the whistling woman as bored as others did, but as the one thinking “what’s coming next?“…
Good read, great pic too. I can totally identify with beng absorbed in my media and not wanting to, lmao and having had my phone die and literally making that exact same face thinking my companions should join me in human interface like we did before smart phones.
The women are wedding planners so it’s possible that they are actually working on their phones. nevertheless, I’m also mesmerized with the blueish light on their faces, which temperature most likely creates the atmosphere of despair. they look a bit ‘…