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What is digital photography doing to us?

I have just fixed to do one of Christian Michel’s 6/20 talks at his home in west London, on January 20th of next year.

In the spirit, which Christian encourages, of lots of us being libertarians but not droning on all the time about libertarianism, I have chosen a subject that will, I hope, cut across and rearrange the usual ideological divisions at these evenings.

Here’s the bit of the email I sent to Christian, explaining what I had in mind to talk about:

What Digital Photography is doing for us and what Digital Photography is doing to us.

I will speak first about the recreational pleasures and economic benefits of digital photography, making fun and memories for us, and communicating information about products for sale and work progress, or lack of progress, accidents, and so on. In general, I would say that the fun side of digital photography is quite well understood, but that the (other) economic impacts of digital photography are less often talked about.

And I will also muse more speculatively, about the effects that digital photography is having on our lives, minds and culture. What difference does it make to how we live, how we experience the present and the past, and how we feel about such things as privacy, and the right to turn over a new leaf when changing from crazy adolescent to responsible job-seeker? Or from crazy adolescent to solid married person? What does digital photography do to personal relationships? I have trouble predicting what I’ll say in this bit, because I have lots of further thinking to do.

I have never spoken formally about this subject before, and will be making guesses and asking questions, as well as supplying answers. In both parts of my talk I will solicit assistance from whatever audience shows up. Almost all of us have experience of using digital photography (perhaps in surprising ways), and have thoughts (perhaps also surprising) about its impact on our lives.

Christian’s reply included this:

The second part of the talk is clearly the more interesting one, at least to me. You have much time to develop it.

I have already written here about the economic impact of digital photography, here, and here. But what of the second part of my intended talk, the part that Christian would prefer me to concentrate on? Does the Samizdata commentariat have any thoughts as to how I might set about answering the questions above about the difference that digital photography makes to how we live, and to how we feel about how we live? Any thoughts along these lines would be greatly appreciated.

I think it was the experience of dashing off the commentary on these wedding photos that got me thinking about giving this talk. In that posting, I speculated about how the contrasting ways in which photography was done in the past (very clunkily and expensively and rarely) and now (with ridiculous ease) has affected our picture (literally) of the past. That’s the kind of not-quite-obvious effect I am looking to be told about.

23 comments to What is digital photography doing to us?

  • Midwesterner

    I belong to an organization that used to have highly entertaining parties that frequently involved some attendees showing up in outlandish costumes. I was away for more than a decade and I return and the entire character of the parties and social activity has changed. I might not have noticed it happening were it not for my prolonged absence, but seeing it all at once, it was obvious. Now the only outlandishness is displayed by people who either get drunk and stupid or are the sort to be outrageous in their everyday lives anyway. ‘Ordinary’ people don’t do whimsical and potentially embarrassing things anymore. They never let down the guards and experiment outside of the long term image they plan to project.

    It took me a while to realize the cause is the ubiquitous cell phone camera. ACPC (after cell phone cameras) everybody leaves a trail of evidence that will follow them for life. Ambitious people never stop minding their image, not even among friends.

    Laurie Penny has some thoughts about the affect surveillance has on city cultures in this article on surveillance in general.

    For me, the ‘Road to Damascus’ epiphany on how digital video surveillance puts us further at the mercy of Leviathan was when somebody gave me a tour of Facebook facial recognition. As a former systems analyst my thought went immediately to how I could use this data if I were the systems designer. Simply by throwing group photos at tagging software with confidence values for each ID, social networks can be (and I am certain are being) constructed that know orders of magnitude more about our social networks that we ourselves do. Want to put a little more pressure on Citizen Beta? If you can’t find useful leverage in someones 2nd and 3rd order associations, you are sorely lacking in creativity.

  • RRS

    Consider also –

    What have been the effects of photography on the emotions of memory?

    What have been the effects of “popular” photography on memory itself?

    What have been the effects of “popular” photography on the character of observations and the quality of perceptions derived from observation?

  • GoneWithTheWind

    You can’t unring a bell or put this Genie back in the bottle. The proper route is to make it clear what we have a right to do and what we do not. The courts are doing this with mixed results and often confusing answers. But for the most part it is agreed that you can take pictures (including video with sound) in public of anything that can be seen from a public place. You can take video on private property unless the owners of the property forbid it. You can take video of the police in pubic but even though it is legal you can expect to be hassled if they see you and object. You can take pictures of famous people and infamous people. They cannot (legally) demand you don’t or that you delete those pictures. Where is the problem?

  • Tedd

    This is a bit OT, but one thing I’ve noticed about myself is that when digital photography came along I almost completely stopped taking pictures, except pictures taken for some practical purpose. I have what I assume is a pretty normal collection of film/paper photographs of my life, which peters out in the mid 90s. There is no corresponding collection of digital photos since then. I have essentially no photos of my person life since the late 90s, except for some given to me by other people. I take pragmatic photos all the time, such as photos of test rigs that I use for my work, but almost no personal photos at all.

    I’ve often wondered why that is, and how common it is. One would think that the relative ease of digital photography compared to the days of film would have lead me to take far more photos, but the exact opposite has happened. Has anyone else experienced that?

  • Tedd


    Rights and legality are fine so far as they go, but there are lots of things that are perfectly legal, and that you have every right to do, that you should not do. Digital photography and video are as capable of magnifying vulgarity as of magnifying anything else. Rights and the law are of little use in avoiding that.

  • Phil B


    That has been my experience too – except for photographing things at work to illustrate manuals or send via e-mail to my boss or clients to say in essence “This is what I mean …” then I haven’t picked a camera up since about 1997 to take a picture for pleasure. And this is from someone that owns a Yashica FR1 (A Contax RTS 2 clone) a Contax RTS 3 and a Rolleiflex 6×6 (all film cameras)and developed and printed my own pictures.

    As an aside, when Neil Armstrong went to the moon, he took five photographs. If a woman goes to the toilet with her friend, she’ll take 29 pictures and post them on Farcebook (no – that ISN’T a spelling mistake ..) before she leaves the toilet.

    I dunno – I miss the creative aspect of manipulating the exposure, lighting and mood of the picture which I can’t do with a digital picture. Being older than the average bear, I prefer to look at a picture on paper as opposed to a computer screen too. It seems more real and permanent I suppose.

    But as I am unwilling to spend the money or devote the time to buying and learning a professional digital camera, I suppose that it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

  • Tony T

    It was always possible to alter a film photograph, either on the negative or a print, but it took specialized equipment and artistic ability. Now even an intermediate knowledge of Photoshop lets anyone alter digital photographs — and I am less trusting of pictures now. Or am I just being paranoid?

  • Tedd

    Phil B:

    Perhaps we’re just luddites in this respect. I think you’re right that the ease of taking pictures removes some of the pleasure, for me. I was very proud of being able to take perfectly exposed pictures in any light conditions with my 1930s-era Balda, without a light meter, by the application of theory and experience.

    But my last film camera was as easy to use as a digital camera, yet I still took a lot of pictures with it. There seems to be a subconscious supply and demand evaluation going on in my brain. Because digital photos are so available and cheap, I just don’t value them. I’m sure it’s some kind of categorical error; there’s no reason I won’t value a digital vacation photo just as much as a film one, but because it doesn’t feel special I don’t bother taking it.

  • George Atkisson

    One thought comes immediately to mind, the fragility of digital imaging. Ten years of Facebook identity and digital imagery can vanish at the whim of an offended or vindictive administrator.

    Digital formats come and go, leaving the raw data forever unreadable. Who can read a 5 1/4 floppy disk today?

    A box of printed photographs from 50+ years ago may be yellowed, but the photos should survive damage to the box short of fire and water. The thumbnail drive can suffer software errors, inadvertent selection of DELETE, and magnetic field induced damage, without the owner even being aware.

    Something to think about.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    Tedd and Phil, you miss the point. If you believe taking pictures is wrong in any context then by all means don’t do it. But understand your idea of what is right and wrong is not the same as everyone else on the planet. I am not saying that you or anyone “should” take pictures they don’t want to take. I am saying that anyone is free to take pictures and your or anyone else is not free to tell them they cannot. It is essentially free speech not to be infringed. A picture is not evil it is merely what we can see memorialized.
    Another suggestion for Tedd if you will accept it: The same advice I give my kids and that is you will never regret taking too many pictures of your kids, friends, relatives or even of places you have visited. I have 8 grandchildren and travel every chance I get and I average 4000-5000 pictures a year and hundreds of videos. All of them are labeled categorized and archived appropriately on my computer for viewing or printing. I have made books of pictures for my kids as a practical way of sharing these photos.

    George you are right. I back up to multiple hard drives keeping one in a safe deposit box. I still worry about losing pictures or data. However, for what it’s worth; when my parents passed away I inherited boxes and albums of pictures and negatives. Two things became clear to me. 1. Photos in boxes and even albums are hard to share so I copied everyone of them to the computer and I have shared them with cousins and other over the years. 2. The negatives often were photos I had never seen. I saw every photo in the boxes and albums while growing up but most of the negatives contained “other” photos. The reason is simple, many years ago you got your photos developed with one picture per negative and then if you shared/gave a photo away you simply didn’t get another printed. Some of those unseen photos were treasures and some were mysteries to be solved. Also many photos had something written on them. When I copied them I included that script in the title. Pure raw history. Sometimes what was written answered the questions and sometimes they deepened the mystery. For example I discovered my grandmother had a child who passed away years before my mother and her brothers and sisters were born. This point also goes back to the original issue. That one photo said something that years of family history had not said. Pictures can often convey truth or contradict lies. Pictures are important.

  • bloke in spain

    “For me, the ‘Road to Damascus’ epiphany on how digital video surveillance puts us further at the mercy of Leviathan was when somebody gave me a tour of Facebook facial recognition. ”

    Out of interest, is anyone else developing a ‘duck & cover’ reflex. Found myself doing it at a restaurant recently when someone was doing the usual group piccy thing. Nearly banged heads with the woman at the next table doing the same. We both apparently have the same aversion to extra-ing in other people’s holiday snaps. And probably for the same reason. The above. I’ve already chanced across a pic taken in France, at a restaurant I recognise, with the unmistakable face of a UK acquaintance clearly visible. And that’s just pure luck.

  • bloke in spain

    Just to add. What is it with obsessive photography anyway? During a few years of wandering the highways & byways of Western Europe I seem to have become a victim of it myself. So I’ve now thousands of images, none of which I’ve any inclination to look at. Nor to inflict the tedium on anyone else. But I’ve also a complete suit of multi-dimensional, multi-sensory memories. If I haven’t retained any of those, it probably wasn’t worth remembering.

  • Ernie G

    I find digital photography liberating. I particularly enjoy landscape photography, and when I was using Kodachrome, each exposure was $.25 a pop. Now I can explore a setting to my heart’s content, and take 50 exposures when I would have taken only one or two. I use Photoshop extensively, but only to do things I would have done in the darkroom as a matter of course.

  • Mr Ed

    That digital photography can be put to sinister uses by the state is an argument against the state, not digital photography. It’s a bit like objecting to aeroplanes because they can be made into bombers.

    Anyway, the State will go bust before it could effectively deploy its resources against opposition. How often do ‘watched’ terrorist suspects get owith their crimes unhindered, like the July 7 bombers in London, although they were nihilists rather than opponents of the State as such, so less important.

    I wonder if Search engines will soon deploy a ‘search for a face’ facility, where you could search the web for a visage of choice, a weirdo’s dream for a wet Sunday afternoon in Winter, or if such a tool is kept for those who ‘need’ to know.

    I do find myself hoarding far too many uninteresting digital pictures, and annoy myself by going to airshows and caring more about getting a shot than enjoying the spectacle. You can’t smell burnt Avtur on a picture, so digital scent enhancement to recreate smells by nasal Arfitifical Reality Stimlation Experience has to be the next big thing, just need to work on the acronym then the neuro-physiology.

  • Vinegar Joe

    The quality of porn has certainly improved.

  • bloke in spain

    “That digital photography can be put to sinister uses by the state is an argument against the state, not digital photography. It’s a bit like objecting to aeroplanes because they can be made into bombers.”
    It’s not necessarily the State one should be concerned about. There’s already talk about supermarkets using facial recognition to identify returning customers. A trawl of internet available images could construct a remarkably accurate picture of one’s lifestyle. You’ll know when standing looking at a boat in the harbour prompts special offer yachting shoes spam.
    I’s not so much aeroplanes & bombs as aeroplanes & tourists in the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Pervasive imagery makes the world that much smaller.

  • Tedd


    Looking at my fading old paper photos and slides I have to think that you’ve got it backwards. Digital photos never degrade and will be as beautiful (or not) decades or even centuries from now. The physical format on which they’re stored is completely irrelevant because they can be transferred to a new medium virtually without effort.

    But something related to what you said did ring true for me. I’m pretty sure that one thing that inhibits me from taking more digital photographs is the effort required to organize them. I’m old-school enough to want my photos stored in 1:1 file-to-image form, preferably with meaningful file names. I’m sure that idea is out of date, but I’m having a hard time abandoning it. I’m also aware that it’s an attitude that’s completely unfair to digital photography. Most of my paper photos are in shoe boxes in (roughly) chronological order, with no labeling — hardly the most accessible kind of database. I realize it’s completely not rational, but for some reason that doesn’t bother me with paper photos whereas it does with digital photos.

  • Tedd


    Actually, I specifically acknowledged your point. But, whatever.

  • Ernie G

    Tedd: Putting thousands of images on a hard drive with only filenames is a hard way to do it. I use Adobe Lightroom, which enables me to sort, categorize, grade, and retrieve at will any of my thousands of pictures. I can grade them from 0 to 5 stars, assign color flags, use key words, and create virtual collections. For example, I can call up all of my 3 star or better flower macros taken in 2012, or all of my landscapes taken with my 50 mm lens. It’s a great program, with a long learning curve, though.

  • JoshC

    @Ernie G: the advantage of Tedd’s methodology is that his images are accessible in a meaningful form as long as his media remains intact, systems retain ability to read the filesystem on his media, and software is available to read the file format in which he stores his images. Those last two are slow-moving targets as long as he uses common filesystems and formats, and the risk of physical corruption can be addressed by cycling his media every so often.

    Your methodology has a dependency on Adobe continuing to produce and maintain Lightroom. It’s organizationally easier right now, but riskier and potentially far more expensive long-term.

  • Tedd

    What JoshC said.

    It would probably take no more than a few minutes with the search engine of your choice to come up with a dozen different, perfectly good ways of organizing your photos. And that’s precisely the problem.

  • JohnS

    The company I work for sells hardwood primarily in Michigan and Indiana. but we also sell lumber on the internet which is limited only by the customers willingness to pay shipping. It is a niche business that is not to crowded. We are thinking of building a machine that automatically snaps pictures of the front, back and side of boards and stamps the board with an sku. A limiting factor has been the desire of internet customers to buy a board unseen. We are hoping to post pictures of every board available. Our other uses are to snap pictures of damaged product shipped to us and having the drivers snap pictures of product rejected by customers to identify where we made the error in processing. Also the drivers snap pictures of vehicle damage if they are in an accident to limit expanding claims. commercial use of digital photography is going to expand a lot in the future.