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The photos we don't take, and their tags. | Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been shooting many photos lately. This is not due to a lack of inspiration, motivation or time. The digital age has brought photography into the mainstream, and suddenly everyone on Flickr is either a photo critic or a photographer groupie. Kids just set their aperture wide open and shoot something with shallow depth-of-field and suddenly they're creative geniuses (genii?). Sure, maybe the art of photography has become irreversibly compromised and cheapened, but I don't necessarily have a problem with that.

No, the reason that I've stopped taking photos so obsessively is simply because I've slowly grown into a selfish prick. Increasingly, if I'm in the midst of a moment where I'd normally whip it out (my camera...), I find myself choosing to forfeit the chance to grab that image, and instead just focusing on enjoying and remembering as much as I can about it. It's my moment to soak up - why should I diminish it by having to break out my massive camera every time? To "share"?

I used to always be the guy who brought his big SLR everywhere, and I didn't really have a problem with being the designated photographer. I still don't - if I'm going somewhere specifically to take photos (like a wedding, which I still get once or twice a year) I'll continue to enjoy it immensely. But I still feel like every moment I spent setting up a shot or snapping away was one less moment I could to just 'be' wherever I am and appreciate it.

As a generation, we have this understandable - but nevertheless amusing - obsession with documenting, categorizing and cataloging everything we come across, as if by applying our own tags and standards to things that they can suddenly start to make sense to us. Deep down inside, though, we all really know that we know more or less as much about the universe as an ant knows about the tree it's climbing - including why it's even climbing it in the first place. For those of us who aren't in a career where we need to deal with classification and taxonomies every day, we have digital photos, google maps, our blogs and web services to helpfully assist us with placing fucking labels on everything we come across, like some neurotic office worker who went overzealous with a Brother P-Touch. It's a natural reaction, of course; this desire to tag everything is simply an extension of our own yearning for control and security.

Earlier this evening I was digging through old photos from my bike trip around Cuba to show to a friend of mine. As I tried explaining to her what each photo was, what it represented to me, I realized that I was failing miserably. There are no words to explain the 'metadata' associated with each picture, because no matter how much eggheads try to quantify our emotions, the actual experience of being there when that photo was taken cannot be reproduced. Pictures are just that, pictures. Some are beautiful, some are striking, but somewhere, the frame has to end. Somewhere there's another story lurking just behind that wall we can't see through, and behind that child's piercing eyes, there's a completely different emotion than the one we assume they're experiencing. Just like words, photographs can be used to hide things inside of them. Pictures do sometimes lie.

When you give it some thought, it starts to dawn on you why our generation is the one that cannot conceive an original thought to save its own life. Original work is ignored - if not outright repressed - while we cheer on the latest "mash-up", "remix" or "reimagining". "Sharing" means that if you don't allow others to freely profit from your work under a Creative Commons license, that you can't roll with the cool kids. "Open Source" has become just another marketing buzzword used by every back-asswards web startup with a clever domain name URL to sell their cheap trinkets and/or ideas.

All this is why I'm writing less [here], taking less photos, and generally spending more time contributing to things happening in the real world vs. pseudo-contributing by shuffling around bytes on a magnetic disk on a distant server somewhere. I still think that all these cute little web projects that people are doing are a swell way to pass the time, and hey, if that's what gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, then by all means, keep at it.

Lifespans of certain things tend to closely follow a linear plot that's inversely proportional to their intrinsic value - that's why "lost" treasure is worth more to us than a stone that's always been there. It's part why we feel a stronger sense of outrage and anguish at loss of life when there are children involved. While some things hold more and more value for us as they age, others become taken for granted. I suspect that this is the case for almost everything we're creating on the web today. By definition, all of our martyrs and heroes are long passed; today we're only left with those reaping the benefits of their sacrifices. Conversely, transhumanists want to live forever, forgetting that as their lives and consciousnesses approach immortality, their value becomes zero.

Don't mind me - I'm just a grouchy old twenty-something who wants to keep all his photographs to himself. At least I'm not an office worker with a label machine.

(removed embedded youtube video because was crashing the page for IE users.)