Facebook And Documentary Vision: Viewing The World As An Always Potential Past…Or As A Snapchat

“The tension between experience for its own sake and experience we pursue just to put on Facebook is reaching its breaking point. That breaking point is called Snapchat.” This begins a sophisticated and accessible essay in The New Inquiry by the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson. Fascinated by photographs and the act of consuming images, Jurgenson discusses how the culture of photography has changed under the ever-presence of social media.

For those who live with status updates, check-ins, likes, retweets, and ubiquitous photography, such an understanding is near inescapable. Social media have invited users to adopt a sort of documentary vision, through which the present is always apprehended as a potential past. This is most triumphantly exemplified by Instagram’s faux-vintage filters.

As documentarians and photographers train their eyes to see the profound in the mundane, or to capture movement and emotion in a still image, professional habits become inescapable ticks. Documentary vision is to gaze at the world always with a picture frame in mind, as if every face, tree, shadow or dinner plate is a potential photograph. If you follow Jurgenson’s description, social media has now burdened us all with documentary vision. The real world is just material for Facebook.

Riffing off his earlier piece on Instragram and the faux-vintage photo (No, just because that filter makes me and my friends look like we are from the 1940s doesn’t make the frame important or worthy of memory), Jurgenson argues that the abundance of our Facebook galleries have lessened the value of the photograph. All the rehearsed posing and desperate retouching coupled with the limitless capacity of smartphone snapping and storing makes our digital museums less memorable, not more. In a culture where everything is seen as a potential, sharable post, smiling for the camera can be exhausting. (Pretend like you are having fun! Cheeeeeeese!)

This is why Snapchat, the app that lets you send temporary photographs, represents a refreshing change up.

Temporary photography is in part a response to social-media users’ feeling saddled with the distraction of documentary vision. It rejects the burden of creating durable proof that you are here and you did that. And because temporary photographs are not made to be collected or archived, they are elusive…By leaving the present where you found it, temporary photographs feel more like life and less like its collection.

Jurgenson goes on to say that temporary photography like Snapchat can actually help bolster the position of traditional photography. Amid the barf-stream of endless “Mimosa Brunch!!!” pics and “Were you in a frat?” bro photos, Snapchat is private and thus a more meaningful affair. It’s deliberately about nowness, not “Can’t wait to post this.” Snapchat’s fleeting impermanence reminds us why we take pictures in the first place.

“The ephemerality sharpens viewers’ focus: Once received, a Snapchat count-down is a kind of time-bomb that demands an urgency of vision, a challenge to exhaust the meaning from the image before the clock runs out. Unlike a paper photo that fades slowly over the years, the temporary photo disappears suddenly. Given only a peek, you look hard.”

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