Digital photography and the age of narcissism

The Metropolitan Police are to replace safety cameras with Japanese tourists. The Commissioner said “There’s already a Japanese tourist taking a picture on every street in London, sometimes more than one. They’re low-maintenance, polite, reliable and already there. From in 2007

This satirical piece reflects a widely held stereotype about Japanese tourists. However, I would argue that we are all Japanese now. In the digital era we are all photographers. It’s all a far cry from the mid 1820s when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first permanent photograph. It certainly wasn’t point and shoot; the exposure time was about 8 hours! For many years photography was the preserve of the wealthy. The kit was very expensive, and unless you could afford to have a darkroom in your house, you had to pay for printing. It was Kodak that did much to popularise photography, making it affordable for the masses. But it has been the digital revolution that really has really transformed our behaviour. Kodak, which did so much to democratise the taking of pictures, was a victim of the creative destruction that capitalism is wont to wreak, although reports of its death are greatly exaggerated – bankruptcy is not the same as disappearance.

Nowadays there is virtually no cost to taking thousands of pictures. Before when film was expensive and it to be developed people would be more selective. You wouldn’t take a picture of a plate of meatballs. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I remember my wife complaining on our honeymoon in Thailand that I was taking more photos of the food than of her!

The digital revolution then has led to a massive increase in the number of photos we take. We hear those factoids like 10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months or that there are 10,000 times as many photographs on Facebook as there are in the US Library of Congress.

What are the effects of this frenetic activity? We now take so many photos that we probably never see most of them again. I do get the impression that some people are more interested in taking the photograph than actually living the experience. I don’t see the point of taking a picture of a work of art. There are even studies that those who take pictures of them actually remember less of what they saw. Sometimes it feels that if the event isn’t captured on camera, it hasn’t taken place.

The digital revolution has given us a number of new words. One obvious example is the use of photoshop as a verb meaning to alter a digital image with Photoshop or another image-editing software designed to distort reality often for deliberately deceptive purposes. The camera never lies has become a meaningless expression. In the past airbrushing photographs was something done by governments. Now though it has become available for the masses.

Adobe are none too pleased about this development and issued a press release a few years ago:

The Photoshop trademark must never be used as a common verb or as a noun. The Photoshop trademark should always be capitalized and should never be used in possessive form or as a slang term. It should be used as an adjective to describe the product and should never be used in abbreviated form. The following examples illustrate these rules:

Trademarks are not verbs.

Correct: The image was enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.

Incorrect: The image was photoshopped.

Trademarks are not nouns.

Correct: The image pokes fun at the Senator.

Incorrect: The photoshop pokes fun at the Senator.

Trademarks must never be used as slang terms.

Correct: Those who use Adobe® Photoshop® software to manipulate images as a hobby see their work as an art form.

Incorrect: A photoshopper sees his hobby as an art form.

Incorrect: My hobby is photoshopping.

But there is another word which totally captures the zeitgeist of the era of digital photography. I have a feature in my blog where I make a selection of neologisms from the Wordspy website. In February last year I featured selfie. I had no idea what would happen with the word. Last year it was the OED’s word of the year. Events like Nelson Mandela’s funeral and this year’s Oscars have catapulted it into public consciousness. It has even come into Spanish. According to Wordspy the first citation back to 2002. And in 2010 the term ugly selfie, a deliberately unattractive photographic self-portrait, was coined.

The selfie has become the symbol of the age of digital narcissism. The media used to about taking people into fictional worlds, often of the rich and famous. Then it all changed. In the 1990s we got reality television, which showed “ordinary” people on 24 hours a day. But with social media we can now all broadcast our lives. Of course most social media users are not narcissistic. However, there is no doubt that it is a golden age to be a narcissist. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London characterised our age thus:

Yet, social media is to narcissists what crack is to crack addicts: the more narcissistic you are, the heavier your social media use is. Indeed, scientific studies have shown that the number of status updates, attractive selfies, check-ins, followers and friends, are all positively correlated with narcissism, as is the tendency to accept invites from strangers, particularly when they are attractive. The reason for these correlations is that narcissistic individuals are much more likely to use social media to portray a desirable, albeit unrealistic, self-image, accumulate virtual friends and broadcast their life to an audience. Klout* is a better measure of narcissism than of social reach.”

So this is my quick tour of the world of digital photography. What conclusions have I come to? As I said I am generally positive about this brave new world. It’s great that photography is not restricted to the well-off. And is it so bad that we are the protagonists of Life: The Movie? Having said that, I do think that it is a revolution that has passed me by. I don’t have a camera and my mobile doesn’t take photos. Maybe it’s a reaction against the ubiquity of photography. But I do have a blog, and so I’m all in favour of allowing people to express themselves in the way they choose.


* From Wikipedia: Klout is a website and mobile app that uses social media analytics to rank its users according to online social influence via the “Klout Score”, which is a numerical value between 1 and 100. In determining the user score, Klout measures the size of a user’s social media network and correlates the content created to measure how other users interact with that content Klout launched in 2008


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