A copy of the Mona Lisa photographed on mobile phones Photograph: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images
There are three people standing in front of a glass case in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Each of us is trying to get a good view of the so-called Becket Casket. As you know, it was made in Limoges in the 12th century and depicts one of the most infamous events in English history, the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. It is is one of the most lovely things you can hope to see on a bleak January morning.
Only one problem. The bloke in the middle is hogging the full-frontal position, clearly the best view to savour Becket’s martyrdom. He has been there for five minutes now – not, so far as I can judge, appreciating the boldly engraved figures against a brilliant blue background, but meaninglessly, endlessly, exasperatingly snapping the same view. He has that dead-eyed, mouth-gaping, eminently slappable face we all have when we hold our camera phones a foot in front of our faces and click, click, click.
Unable to see the casket properly, I reflect sourly on what the great German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote about how instrumental rationality undermines the emancipatory possibilities of technology, reducing it to a tool for our domination. What I think he meant by this was that instead of using technology such as camera phones to make our lives richer, freer and happier, we stand like lumps doing something socially irritating and existentially pointless, thereby ruining the view for everyone else. We have become snappers on autopilot, slaves to our machines, clogging up cyberspace with billions of images that nobody in their right minds – not even the person who sent them – thinks are worthwhile. Or maybe I’m wrong.
Seven years ago, the camera-phone hardly registered. Indeed, on 17 June 2003, some idiot wrote in the Guardian that the low take-up of those newfangled 3G phones with their built-in cameras, launched two months previously, could be ascribed to the fact that “it’s not immediately clear what they’re for, and that mystery is not sufficiently seductive to make many of us shell out”. The writer all but argued that camera-phones were destined for the technological knacker’s yard, like Sinclair C5s, the Securi-Gnome and NiteMates slippers with their built-in headlights (all real products). With the benefit of hindsight, let me admit what a bonehead I was to write that.
These days, the very idea of a mobile without camera or video facility seems absurd. They’re more portable than most digital cameras and, more importantly, offer faster connection with the internet, which is a key consideration in this age of virtual presenteeism. So if you’re Jonathan Ross and think your Twitter followers would like to see your photos of you playing in the snow with the kids, you can post them online before you’ve even cleared your desk at the BBC. The seemingly expendable has become the utterly essential. Such, quite often, is the appliance of science.
The latest figures from the Mobile Data Association show that the number of MMS (or video and picture messages) is rising fast: 336m were sent in the UK in 2006, 553m in 2008, and, when the MDA publishes its UK Mobile Trends report next month, another large rise is expected for 2009. True, the number of video and picture messages hardly compares with the number of texts sent (78.9bn text messages were sent in the UK in 2008), but the MDA argues that, “while SMS [texting] is used or conversational activity, MMS is much more ‘event’ driven.” Hence the yuletide and New Year’s Eve spikes in picture messaging: on Christmas Day 2008, 4.4m picture messages were sent – 3,000 every minute. The safe money says many more were sent over Christmas 2009, and that there will have been another huge surge in UK picture messaging thanks to all the snow.
So what are all these images we are sending? The majority are, frankly, worthless, and often taken in socially unacceptable circumstances. During Peter and the Wolf at London’s Royal Festival Hall last week, I watched parents (who had been instructed to turn off their phones before the show began) photograph their kids against a backdrop of the Philharmonia Orchestra and a big screen of the animated film. Why? “Just to prove we’re here, to record it for our son when he grows up,” said the woman next to me and my daughter on row NN, who was one of the parents taking the pictures.
At a Lily Allen gig, a colleague found she was one of the few in the audience not holding her camera-phone above her head to shoot pictures or make films that could be illicitly uploaded online. Meanwhile, at the London Aquarium, a friend’s family excursion was all-but ruined by guppy-like adult snappers blocking the view of slightly less gormless, gaping fish. How many pictures of fish in tanks do we, as a society, really need?
When another friend visited the Taj Mahal recently, he noticed how few people, on arriving, actually looked at the building with their naked eyes. Instead, they would lift their phones immediately to capture an image that everybody in the world has already seen a million times. And a recent letter to the Telegraph complained about how the solemnity of a christening was destroyed by a godmother elbowing the vicar aside to get shots of the baby at the font.
Back in Room 8 of the V&A, one of us cracks. “Will you bloody stop taking pictures!” shouts the woman to the man’s right. “You’re ruining it for everyone. Let someone else have a look for five seconds, please!” She’s wearing a tweed cape, a solidly set hairdo and a forbidding expression that seems to say ‘I’m on a day trip from the home counties and I’m not having this’. The man, who may have too little English to reply, skulks off towards Room 9.
Minutes later, I find him in front of the Soissons Diptych, snapping away again, oblivious to the hard stares and tutting from those in less favoured positions. I wander up and say: “That’s going to be a rubbish picture, mate.” He barely stops photographing to offer me this reply: “Yeah? This is a 10-megapixel Samsung SCH-B600, actually, so the photos are going to be pretty excellent. Thanks very much.”
It turns out the man does have good English (he’s from Manchester). And lines in sarcasm. He’s a fan of gothic art and architecture, and plans to set up a Flickr photo stream as well as beautifying his Facebook page with some of the best shots from his trip. He has already emailed a picture of the Limoges Casket to prove that he was, on 3 January 2010 at 11.15am, standing in front of it. He plans to tweet some shots later, too.
Another great thinker, the Leeds-based sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, wrote in his book Liquid Love that, in a modern world in which those purportedly fixed and durable ties of family, class, religion, marriage have melted away, we look for something else to hold us together. Hence, no doubt, the rise of social networking sites – and hence, too, the feverish snapping with camera-phones to take images that can validate our existence to our Twitter followers, our speed-dial intimates, our online “friends”. It’s a new Cartesian cogito: I photograph, therefore I am (and don’t my uploaded images glam up my Facebook profile a treat?). Maybe Marcuse was wrong: we’re not so much in thrall to technology, as using it for an unanticipated emancipatory project.
In that context it’s not enough to moan, as Telegraph columnist Nigel Farndale did recently, that “photography, once a noble art, has become, thanks to the move to digital, a mental illness” Riffing on the verse of Welsh poet WH Davies, Farndale wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. Click. No time to stand beneath the boughs – click, click – and stare as long as sheep or cows. Click, click, bloody click.”
But moaning isn’t enough. We also have to wonder what happens to us when technology increasingly gives us our windows on the world. One thought is that the camera-phone changes our experience of the world for good rather than evil. It can even be a tool against capitalism. Billy Bragg, the politically engaged musician, has been on the receiving ends of the click, click, bloody click of the camera-phone a great deal when playing gigs recently. And, counterintuitively, he loves it.
“I’ve had to tell bouncers not to stop people taking pictures of me when I’m playing,” Bragg tells me. “You have to like it because people who take the photos or make the films with their camera-phones are not thinking you’re a pranny. They’re doing it because they like you, so there’s no point getting upset.” It’s an interesting corrective to those musicians, such as Boy George, who have tweeted their pleas to audiences to leave their camera-phones at home and watch the show. At last November’s 250-gig London jazz festival ushers tried to curb the increasing number of fans using camera-phones to record performances. But, as our jazz critic John Fordham noted at the time, this clampdown stopped his favourite music reaching a wider online audience.
One reason the rise of the camera-phone appeals to Bragg is that it gives him free publicity. It’s transgressive technology that helps Bragg and his fans stick it to the Man. “In the past, I’ve spent thousands of pounds making videos that MTV wouldn’t show. Now what happens is that some kid will put a film they’ve made of me playing live on YouTube and it can have 20,000 or so hits. What is happening is that you’re being promoted.”
Recently, Bragg was doing a soundcheck in Toronto and decided to have a go at fitting the words of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown to the tune of Dylan’s Desolation Row. It worked so well he played it at a late-night gig. “Somebody filmed it and now it’s on YouTube. I thought that was brilliant.”
But clearly there are downsides to camera-phones, too – the plague of “upskirting” photos being posted on the web, for example, or Heat magazine encouraging its readers to pap stars in the street and send the photos to the magazine. Aren’t these terrible things facilitated by camera-phone technology?
“I’m not sure privacy is all that important an issue when it comes to people who are famous and are seeking attention,” says Bragg. Anyway, he argues, camera-phones have more serious uses.
“Thanks in part to camera-phones, we’re all reporters now. And that idea is going to have some pretty radical consequences, especially for police officers. Think about it: only an idiot goes to a demonstration without a camera or a camera-phone nowadays.” He cites the Guardian investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson, a passer-by at the G20 protests in London last year, who was shown to have been beaten to the ground by police by means of films made by demonstrators’ mobile phones.
Today, grainy camera-phone images or films demonstrate the virile realness of a news event. We expect them to show that a story was so hot it took place before TV crews and the rest of the old media got there. Hence the wannabe Christmas Day pants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib was immortalised in blurry phone images taken as the plane descended into Detroit.
Media commentator and professor of interactive journalism Jeff Jarvis writes: “We are in the era of news served raw. Witnesses to any event can now capture and share what they see not just with acquaintances but with the world, and without the filter and delay of news media. And that doesn’t mean just cell-phone snapshots of bombings or surreptitious footage of closed events. We also have access to the guts of news – original documents, full transcripts, unedited video. Life is on the record.”
The truth of this analysis was dramatised by the unauthorised images of Saddam Hussein’s execution on 30 December 2006, taken by a security guard on his mobile. His grisly footage of the event spread through the internet, subverting the official version. In her paper, The Global and the Mobile: Camera Phone Witnessing in a Age of Terror, social media expert Dr Anna Reading of London’s South Bank University argues that the footage “took away the pretence of civility that some tried to place around the act”. Instead, it revealed that he was put to death during an unruly spectacle in which onlookers taunted Hussein by yelling, “Go to hell” and chanting “Muqtada, Muqtadaa, Muqtada” (a reference to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric).
Reading also argues that camera phones lets the world into places from which we would hitherto have been excluded. When the white comedian and former Seinfeld star Michael Richards rounded on two black hecklers at a 2006 comedy gig in Los Angeles with racist abuse, his rant was captured by a member of the audience on their camera phone and broadcast on the internet, arguably ruining Richards’ career.
Consider one significant contrast between the 9/11 bombings in the US (2001) and the 7/7 bombings in London (2005). Arguably, what connected us most poignantly with the former were the phone calls from the doomed passengers aboard Flight 93 to their loved ones, while four years later, what made us empathise most with the ordinary victims was the self-portrait of Adam Stacey escaping from a bombed tube train on the Piccadilly Line that the civil servant took with his phone. Imagine how different our perception of 9/11 would have been if the soon-to-die had emailed their last camera-phone images from the twin towers.
What interests Reading is how camera-phone technology can link people across borders. “It is not so much what the images capture indexically, but their iconic status in reminding us of our complicity in a war declared against global ‘terror’, rather than a nation state. Stacey’s camera-phone image escaping from the London bombings was everyman with a mobile phone.”
Arguably, the camera-phone first took on this raw witnessing role on Boxing Day 2004, when the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean, killing nearly 230,000 people in 14 countries. Media outlets relied on footage from people on the spot, many of whom were using camera-phones. And last year, they were used to bear witness to government crackdowns in Teheran against those protesting against alleged fraud in June’s presidential election.
In itself, the camera-phone changes nothing. The Standard 8mm colour home movie that Abraham Zapruder took in Dallas on 22 November 1963, which represents the most complete film of the murder of President John F Kennedy, is akin to the footage the unnamed security guard took of Saddam’s execution. Both are short, grisly films showing the killing of an important public figure that have gone on to have immense political significance. But there are two big differences.
First, the camera phone is tiny, and thus relatively easy to slip into situations where authorities want to stop unofficial images or films of an event being taken. Second, and much more importantly, the images and films we take with them can be spread around the world in seconds. Our experiences can now travel freely across borders. Admittedly, most of them won’t be worth sending in the first place, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get sent.
“It’s absurd to argue that technology always changes things for the better,” says Billy Bragg. “Clearly it doesn’t. But at best the camera-phone is subversive in the way it’s being used. We shouldn’t be frightened of it. We should welcome it.”
• This article was amended on 8 January 2009. The original described Ian Tomlinson, who died after being injured at the G20 protests in London lin 2009, as a demonstrator. It also said that a picture picture of the Limoges Caske was taken on 10 January 2010. This has been corrected.
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