Text by Cassandra Lamberti
Photo by Halima Al Haj Ali
The world’s oldest surviving photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in Burgundy, France, sometime between 1826 and 1827. Since then, cameras have been used to record still images as well as moving pictures. At one point, freezing a single moment in a frame was considered rare, but these days it could not be more common. Being able to take a snapshot of anything and tell a story – fictional or not – without any context or words is the power of photography.
The art of taking photographs is becoming tarnished, and it’s easy to be overcome with nostalgia when reminiscing about the time when photos could be seen only after being developed in a darkroom. Taking photos used to require a lot of knowledge and preparation. Nowadays, technical training is considered time-consuming. And besides, you no longer need to be able to figure out which F-stop to use – all you need is a single tap of a thumb.
Technological advancements brought about the popularity of point-and-shoot digital cameras. This made it unnecessary to carry around a tripod or even to learn how to develop film. With these easy-to-use devices at hand, people can capture precious moments with a simple click. But even digital cameras are gradually becoming obsolete, giving way to cell phone cameras.
In 2010 the world was introduced to Instagram, the Vogue of applications. It swiftly turned into much more than just a sharing app it once was. Coincidentally, that same year digital cameras hit their purchasing peak of $121 million. The inevitable decline began only a year later, in 2011. In 2019, digital camera sales dropped by 87 percent to a sunken $15.2 million.
Instagram has transformed photography by allowing users to self-caption each photo they post. This in itself takes away from the photo, which is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. Another feature of the app is location sharing, which allows users to indicate where a given photo was taken. Although many may view this as a way of enabling participation in the captured moment, the fact is that now millions of people around the world can learn where to go to take an identical photo and therefore replicate something that was once unique.
Social media have put considerable amounts of pressure on their users in that it is no longer enough for some to just share their lives by posting photos; it has become equally important to get likes on their posts. As a result, editing apps, which alter photos and remove what some may deem to be imperfections, have become a popular pairing option to use before posting anything. This suggests that many share their content not for the sake of sharing but to get the approval of others. The façade of social media makes it easier to communicate while making it increasingly difficult to actually talk to each other.
As always, there is another side to the story. While social media can be damaging to the art of photography, they also have some benefits. Thanks to millions of users that social media platforms attract, artists, especially up-and-coming ones, can promote their work to an audience they would not have been able to reach otherwise. Social and political opinions are more accessible and more easily exchanged, allowing for inspiring conversations to occur more often. And photojournalism can take on an entirely different dimension.
Photojournalism is the art of using images to communicate current events. Thanks to social media and mobile phones with cameras, people can now get news almost instantly from amateur photojournalists, without the need to wait for the next day’s paper or a local news bulletin. The ubiquity of social media and digital technology has also sparked an interest in photojournalism among people who never thought they might be interested in this practice, which in turn has led to the re-emergence of film photography, because when you pick up a new skill, you need to learn the basics first.
Whether one uses a film camera, a digital one, or an app, the idea remains the same: Photography provides a way to express oneself through an image. Social media have definitely created a new space for photos and expressionism, but they have not ruined photography; if anything, they are piquing people’s curiosity about other ways of taking photos.