When I read photo-father Cartier-Bresson’s quote, underlined above, I thought of Instagram and its social media derivations, which increasingly dictate how humans interact with image. I wondered if Cartier-Bresson would consider the daily barrage of photographs on social media, many of them technically “good”, as resulting from “decisive moments.” When he wrote his oft-quoted words, only aficionados carried around a camera and did so likely while on the job, or on vacation. Capturing a moment correctly required craft — knowledge of light, of angle, of depth.
The camera in my smart phone is very smart and knows all these things. But I am not so smart. I just click. Then edit — filter, crop, caption. Click, post. Most decisions of consequence happen after the photo is taken. Does the image suit my pursuit? And if it suits, how do I make it suitable? The right filter, augmented light, a clever caption.
My photo will live for a few seconds on a screen, the duration of a thumb scroll. But, once it belongs to the Internet, I am free to delete it from my files, to dispose of its original form, for the contextualized, published version is now un-delete-able. In this way, the Internet offers more permanence than paper. The permanence of the print buried in the museum, albeit.
Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” has shifted from the instant immediately before an image is captured to the time spent adapting it. Decision now takes place during the tailoring of its purpose. And, because an image’s usefulness now relies, not on its inherent capacity to convey meaning, but on how skillfully it is inserted into a preconceived narrative, its consumption feels banal.
Bingeing on the images of social media has been compared to bingeing on fast food, empty and toxic. This is because fast food is fake food made to feel and taste like the real thing. Similarly, social media is fake life, made to taste and feel like real life. It is a series of small pictures carefully laid out to transmit an unreal Big Picture, often times motivated by selling an idealized lifestyle in order to sell things.
Sometimes social media does not lie, does not de-nourish the mind with its artificial coloring. This occurs when a user’s purpose is transparent. For example, a museum’s Instagram account shows carefully selected shots of its collection. A newspaper showpieces the day’s events. A furniture line offers its wares. A mother documents her children’s growth.
For me, it is the stylizing of life, the construction of a life-style for commercial purposes, that poisons the eye. When the sole purpose of an image is to sell items by selling a lie, the image becomes as whole as a Happy Meal. The key, I think, is in the dosage. A bit of fantasy, a single pink Starburst, is fun. But too much chemical sugar is sickening.
To clear your mind, clean your feeds.