A mobile photography time warp
Within the culture of mobile photography, there’s not a lot of need to wait: to make a photo or to view one, give or receive comments, get an app update. Everything moves, and it moves fast. Images on sharing networks, like Instagram or EyeEm, turn over quickly. The feed or stream is always changing. Permanence is hard to hold and photographs move from what they once were, tangible artifacts, to impermanent streams of ephemera.
Workflow can move fast. With my style of photography, I can snap, edit, and share a photo in five minutes. I don’t process much, so I am speedy. It certainly takes more time to make images in other genres.
Until my upgrade to the iPhone 5 last month, I had been using an iPhone 3GS for nearly two and a half years. I intentionally deferred hardware upgrades, even as I was asked repeatedly about why I wasn’t upgrading. Over the years, I received two common responses to my photographs. Either people would remark with surprise the photo came from a cell phone at all, or they were intrigued about why I was still using such an old model. On Instagram, more than once was told--not asked--to update my phone by people I didn’t even know. As the new models keep coming, my reluctance to upgrade became anachronistic.
App developers follow aggressive timelines for updates. User interfaces and features on some of my creative and sharing apps change so frequently, and sometimes substantively, that I feel like I’m almost constantly learning a new program. What happened to the old way I use to do things? Gone with the last version, more often than not. I do learn a lot of new apps, too, because I want to stay on top of what’s coming out that’s good or different, or innovative. Sometimes it takes working through some clunkers to find the gem.
People are prodigious: photographers, viewers, developers, critics. The culture is an active, busy one. We make a lot of images, quickly, often, and expect the same from those we follow, which isn't a good thing. I follow more than a couple of thousand people across five image-sharing networks. That’s a lot of images to look at. I think I’m like others; we all miss more than we catch, skim surfaces more than dig in, drop more “great” and “love” into comments than actually provide feedback or conversation. I’m guilty, too.
Some users post an image a day, some three per day, others many more. They’re not all meaningful, but they fill our streams. Many post to more than just one sharing network. Instagram isn’t the only game in town, especially for those who involved in the underground mobile art and photography scene. There’s EyeEm, iPhone Art, Tumblr, Facebook, Posterous, Google Plus, RedBubble and, yes, Flickr. There are more up-and-coming options. It’s hard to keep up, and easy to be overwhelmed by speed and volume.
It’s difficult to opt out of posting. Sharing and communication across the community is an important part of mobile photography. Posting without communicating with others about what they post isn’t good practice for the most part, unless you’re a big-time celebrity or a company. Even then, engaging with followers helps the brand. All of this takes time. How long can I wait before responding to someone’s comment to me? Is a day, too long? Is a minute too soon? Do I seem overly anxious, too pushy? Do I come across as aloof, unfriendly if I wait too long to comment? Do I say thank you to all commenters? Can I just hit the like button and be done with it? What if I don’t have anything to say?
Pressure to keep up
There’s an implicit pressure to stay up-to-speed. Feelings of anxiety can develop when trying to identify where not to post, where not to participate. The fear is, in stopping or pausing in some way, I will miss out. I’ll be out of the loop. Something new or great will pass me by. I’ll be forgotten. This kind of thinking turns something fun and exciting into a chore or obligation.
There’s a relationship between making an image and sharing one. In the past, they could be fairly distinct. Often, we took more images than we shared. We seldom shared an image beyond our intimate circle of friends and family, other than a contest here or there or a holiday card. Film development slowed the time between making and sharing. Digital photography, cut off from the sharing function, could slow things down with a PC mediating communication between camera and networks.
Mobile photography shrinks the length of time between all of these. It decreases the duration between making and sharing, and increases the frequency of sharing. Speed is addictive. Posting an image and getting immediate, sometimes within seconds, responses of likes and comments gives you a powerful hit, makes you feel good, and you want to do it again and again. You get to be friends with more and faster. This is a far cry from old monthly photography club meetings, where photography enthusiasts would look at each other’s prints and talk about cameras and lenses.
What's new is (already) old
I edit Lys Foto Magazine, an online magazine that features mobile art and photography. In preparing the most recent issue, I noticed that nearly all of the images submitted (and the majority of those I accepted or invited) were made in the first six months of 2012. They were all new, now. It made me wonder why. Some of the contributors I knew have outstanding work in their back catalogue, but those are not what they chose to submit. We may just do a themed issue that asks for “old” photos.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about the prominence of “now” in mobile photography. However, when time moves this fast, it can affect our perceptions of value. When something else comes along so quickly, what are we to do with our feelings for what is here now, knowing that its lifespan will be fleeting? Will we care more or less for this thing? Will our relationship and bond with it be strong or weak? What about our investments of ourselves or in others? We tend to view practices or products as disposable or dispensable. We could come to care less for what we make or how we make it. Something new is always coming along. It’s all quite linear and endless.
I do not want to inundate those who follow my work with my images. I want to follow people and their work, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed or shallow. I want to do stronger, better work and improve, so spreading myself too thin is counterproductive to those goals. I am trying to find time to think about my photographs, including the old ones, and not just be in hurry to make new ones. I want to look slowly at the work of others, and revisit them--free myself from feeling like I only have the time it takes the photo to pass my stream to think about it.
Making time to slow down
Now and again, I attempt to slow down. I still take a lot of photos and process them just as quickly. Sometimes I will go from posting two images per day, to three spread across a particularly busy day, to as little as sharing one every couple of days. I’m curious about how these adjustments affect myself and others. I try to look at others’ images without feeling like I need to post something of my own. I let myself be a consumer, give the creator in me a break. I haven’t noticed too much from these trials, other than inquiries about my absence and more comments wishing me a happy return after not seeing an image from me for a while. I don’t get a sense that I’ve been forgotten, not just yet.
I wonder about the role reflection plays in mobile photography, a world where now is omnipresent. How do we find moments to reflect on what we see, what we make, what we find in the work of others? What could be the value in pausing?
When we photograph, we record fractions of time within a frame of a photo, move experience and observation into a kind of past, not necessarily accurate or true. We hope for authentic. We may aim for disturbances or beauty. It is worth leaving our perches in the here and now. Moving so fast all of the time lengthens the past and shortens the future. When we slow down, we expand what lays ahead, gain time to see what’s in front and not just what we leave behind. Vision requires deliberate slowness.
Star Rush, @starrush360, is Seattle-based a photographer, writer, and educator. Her photography has been exhibited in the United States and Europe, and published in photography magazines Actual Colors May Vary, Camerpixo, Dodho.com Magazine, among others. Rush is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. She teaches composition and rhetoric, and literature at Cornish College of the Arts.