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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