The problem with Facebook photos

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

I was an early adopter of It became popular in 2004, my freshman year of college. This was before all the colleges and universities in the U.S. were able to register, and a few years before Facebook was open to everyone. So, most of my kind-of-adult social life has been influenced by the social networking culture that Facebook has spawned.

This means almost constant awareness of the danger of Facebook photos. Any photo taken of me (or you) in any condition, can be uploaded and shared with the world, regardless of my (or your) preference. Facebook, in its own way, encourages the proliferation of images, no matter how inane or embarrassing the images might be.

Most people I know who are not members of the photo nerd brigade upload as many photos as they can to Facebook — unlike other digital photo upload sites such as Flickr or Photobucket, Facebook does not have a limit. Some people literally upload every frame they take with their digital cameras, without restraint.

“Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing — which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art,” author and critic Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography.  “It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety and a tool of power.”

Facebook is the equivalent of being stuck in a friend’s vacation slideshow. Do I really need to see every photo someone took at a party, including images of one person with their arms around every single person in attendance? Or, every single frame of a friend’s vacation to Iowa City?

“Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had,” Sontag wrote. “Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” This is a shame.

Photography should not be a means through which a person experiences life. It takes a person out of the moment, and anesthetizes the life experience, putting distance between the person behind the camera lens and their life. I am in the business of providing photographic proof for this fine newspaper, the Missourian. I know aspiring professionals who live and breathe photography — and I know a few who can’t function without a camera in their hands and their eyes looking through the viewfinder.

Why do people need indisputable proof that they had a good time? And furthermore, why do people need 120 frames of said photographic proof?

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Sontag wrote. “Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies.” It is a socialized compulsion to photograph one’s life. There is a sense that if it is not photographed, it did not happen. Facebook plays into this insecurity — if the photos are not on Facebook, it must have been a boring evening.

But any serious documentary photographer knows that things happen outside of the camera’s gaze all the time. Photographers speak of capturing “the moment” or “the peak action” of an event — the best and most visual slice of time, with the most visceral visual emotion, the 1/125 of a second that tells the story. This is a hard task. It is more than having your friend say “cheese” or standing under the Gateway Arch. There are no do-overs, no posing. Photographers miss the moment all the time, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

So I ask for some discretion from the public. No one needs to see 200 photographs from the party last night. Take it easy, shutterbug. Pick, say, five images. Or better yet, leave the camera at home and have a good time without it.

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is a Facebook user, but posts photos to her blog.

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Katy Steinmetz August 5, 2009 | 10:24 a.m.

This same point was the inspiration for a recent Onion article: "Police Slog Through 40,000 Insipid Party Pics To Find Cause of Dorm Fire."

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill August 5, 2009 | 12:20 p.m.

I found this article after I filed my column, but people can't even enjoy the Louvre without a camera. From the New York Times:

(Report Comment)
Erin Olson August 6, 2009 | 2:12 a.m.

Amen, sister!

(Report Comment)

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