Obsessively creating images is producing a culture that is turning in on itself

We live in a culture that pathologically captures and records our lives in the form of images. Billions of photographs and hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to the internet each week.

These days, the vast majority of the images we create are not necessarily part of artistic or creative projects, but are of everyday life experiences.

It’s now thoroughly familiar to witness people on the street, in coffee shops, in bars – alone or with others – preoccupied with posing for shots, or holding up a phone to capture some moment.

Part of the explanation for this explosion in image-creation lies in the availability of affordable, high-quality cameras (in smart phones and other devices) along with the public platform for display. We are seduced by slick gadgets and the validation of others.

Yet there is more to our obsessive attempt to record our lives in images than convenience and narcissism. The sheer volume of images in circulation, and the huge amount of time we spend consuming them, is altering our relationship towards reality. We have become a culture that not only captures the experiences we have, but treats experiences as if they exist to be captured.

Our first instinct when confronted with anything out of the ordinary is to take out our phone and create a small, 2D, digital representation.

The default way, as a tourist, to experience iconic buildings and sights is to take a photo. Doing so has become more important that actually experiencing it directly.

Experience vs image

The same goes for concerts. Much of the audience spend their time holding up a small, bright screen, struggling to record (badly) as much of the gig as they can. This absurd behaviour confirms what Susan Sontag warned in 1977: life is becoming not a series of experiences, but a series of photo (or video) opportunities.

Creating images has always had a magical quality. We take pictures because certain moments are special to us and it gives us the feeling that we have captured these moments, forever. We look forward to trips and gigs, and think it sad that they will inevitably end.

Technology gives us a sense of control over that which is most uncontrollable: the passage of time. We get the comfort of knowing that in the future we will be able to look back and relive the moments we once so enjoyed.

We create images to snatch moments away from the fleeting nature of time and all that it brings with it: ageing, decay and death. In our youth-focused consumer culture, with an increasingly unpredictable political and economic future, this need to transcend time has become all the more pressing.

The irony of this attempt to hang on to moments is that we end up robbing ourselves of the only real measure of control we have over reality: the intensity with which we experience it.

By trying to control and capture the experience of a gig by reducing it to a flat, moving image, we lose the opportunity to live it with as much awareness and intensity as we can.

Reality, unlike images, is in 3D, has smell, touch, and taste; it is multitrack, has surround-sound; it has atmosphere, a sense of your body in a place, and other people sharing the same experience.

Part of experiencing moments with intensity, however, is the ability to let them go, to allow them pass away. Doing so encourages us to create new moments.

Obsessively creating images and nostalgically reliving them is producing a culture that is turning in on itself, rehashing the same moments over and over. Hence the surge in remakes of old movies, sequels and nostalgia-based online content. Images of loved ones and happy times will always be special to us. Yet we need to re-establish our relationship with them. We need to learn to let moments pass, create new ones and experience them intensely.