One very important thought
Quickly, think of something really specific you have taken a photo of. Now Google it. Has it, or something incredibly similar, been documented and uploaded by other people already? SPOILER: it almost certainly has been, many, many times. How do you feel about that? Does it devalue your image? Why did you even take the picture in the first place?
Rules 21 -24, inclusive
You’re possibly familiar with Rule of The Internet #34: “If you can think of it, there is porn of it, no exceptions.”
This famous, and yet-to-be-convincingly-disproven truism comes from the not-as-funny-as-it-should-be Rules Of The Internet, which like everything funny-weird that emerged from the internet between 2003 and 2010, originated on the notorious 4chan messageboard.
Lesser-known is literally every other Rule on the list, but amongst the unamusing in-jokes and references to My Little Ponies, Chuck Norris and the pool being closed is a little spurt of rules that have proven incredibly prescient since they were first written in 2006:
- Original content is original only for a few seconds before getting old.
- Copy 'n paste is made to ruin every last bit of originality.
- Copy 'n paste is made to ruin every last bit of originality.
- Every repost is always a repost of a repost.
What these rules recognise is a truth that all of us have discovered in one way or another since our lives drifted online. To wit: everything you share online has been done before. Every joke, every meme, every observation, every photo - there’s an infinitesimally small chance that you’re the first to upload it.
Today, being online is a little bit like stepping into The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s Total Perspective Vortex machine, which destroys the minds of its victims by showing them an immersive VR scale model of the entire universe and “a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot bearing the legend "you are here”.”
A picture is worth a thousandth of a word
Photography is one of the most popular ways for people spend their Play time. Even if you don’t consider yourself a photographer, you have thousands of photos squirrelled away somewhere. And of all the things we share online, we’re most keen to get our photos out there.
Let’s look at just one app: Instagram. 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram per day, and over 40 billion photos and videos have been shared on Instagram since it launched.
People are so keen to take photos of their food before they eat it, restaurants are making their food more colourful and neatly-arranged to encourage their food to go viral on the ‘gram.
So not only are the awful people who whip out their DSLR to snap an artful photo of their rapidly-cooling meal ruining the vibe of your favourite eatery, they’re causing the chef to prioritise style over substance in your food. And the dumbest thing is that they could have just focussed on enjoying their food in the moment, because they could most likely find a nice picture of the exact thing they just ate online on the bus ride home.
It’s all a bit dispiriting. Have we uploaded our way into a world where nothing’s worth photographing? Should we should just… give up taking photos? What can we do that’s new?
Interval: A list of things to photograph which guarantee the fresh unique subject matter you desire
MONTAG put its team of Key Thought Leaders to work to come up with ideas of things that you can gaily snap away at, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be capturing something brand new and people will gasp in amazement in your wake. The bad news is that all these photos would be either will-snappingly boring, or stupendously expensive.
📸 Screenshots of your computer screen glitching or TV screen interference freak-outs. (Or, most likely, the “Berliner Fenster” screens on the U-bahn, which seem to be permanently glitching out in order to mess with the heads of hungover commuters) There’s nothing more unique than the most delicious of screen glitches.
📸 There are plenty of incredibly ugly deep-sea fish with big dangly light-up parts and dozens of rows of teeth that have not been discovered yet - go and load up your bathyspheres (It doesn’t have to be ugly fish - last week scientists discovered a brand new hot pink and acid yellow neon-coloured fish - truly MONTAG’s spirit animal).
📸 Fast, winding rivers: because they’re continually changing shape as the water gnaws away it the riverbanks, if only very slightly.
📸 See also: Glaciers - technically, they are always slightly moving and changing. All new, all the time!
📸 According to conspiracy theorists, the earth itself has not been photographed yet, so drop Elon a line and see if he’ll pop you on his moon rocket.
📸 Finally, it turns out there is a never-ending production line of brand new things waiting to be photographed that have never been photographed before: dead people’s corpses! Nothing says “unique” like that first snap of a stiff. Make friends with your local mortician!
Every repost is always a repost of a repost
The internet has forced a tangible smoothing-out of culture: news, ideas and images travel so fast, they have no time to fester, in-breed and mutate in pockets any more.
It’s hard, for instance, to imagine a bizarre niche creative subculture like, I dunno, Gabber - a crazed ultra-fast-BPM sub-set of techno - happening now, simply because the idea would spread so far and so fast, it would be either subsumed by all similar music, laughed out of existence, or copied by everyone instantly, rendering its uniqueness inert.
The same goes for photography: it turns out everyone has always been taking the same photos of everything as everyone else. But that was fine - we were all atomised from each other, so it was only you who caught that airplane flying in front of the moon.
Then the internet came along and we discovered how unoriginal we all are. And then how did we respond? We started seeing images we liked, and copying them - deliberately composing identical images.
You’ve already likely done it in a good-clean-fun-for-all-the-family way: who hasn’t looked at the Leaning Tower Of Pisa and felt an urge to take this photo?
But there is a subtler, more insidious side to the human need to Pisa-pose. We’re making exactly the same images for everything we do.
@Instarepeat is a collection of the most fabulously mediocre visual tropes - hosted on Instagram, of course. Greatest hits include: the holding-hands-with-woman-who’s-walking-ahead photo, the utterly incomprehensible vertical-phone-in-the-wild photo and the classic that is yr-bb-moodily-rowing-a-boat.
Emma Sheffer, who runs the @instarepeat account, made a telling observation to website Hyperallergic: “I think we all constantly see imagery pop up around us that is familiar, but on Instagram it seems to be almost encouraged by the monetization of popularity.”
In other words, the motivation to take the photo isn’t simply just because it’s a nice-looking or cleverly-composed photo you’ve seen somewhere else - it aligns you, the photographer, with the kind of people who take that photo. You are a person who carefully curates how the world sees your life. You are happy to be the same as everyone else, but at least you’re carefully arranged; like a Nike ad or a Youtube pre-roll video.
This practice is a short cut to artfulness, but also expedites a larger law of diminishing returns for all photographers. As arch-blogger Jason Kotkke put it, “taking a photo of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or jumping in the middle of the road in Utah are really good ideas — that’s why lots of people do it — but each successive photo of the same thing doesn’t tell us anything new about those places, experiences, or people.”
So in a culturally super-smoothed time, where so many photos are the similar, are all photos now cliches? Has the entire world and the entire human experience been captured? And if so, why don’t we just outsource the process?
Vermöladen is a made-up word taken from The Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows, describing the fear that the amazing photo you are about to take already exists. It’s a type of hopeless frustration, unique to our time. Here’s the full definition:
vemödalen – n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist–the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye–which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.
The subtext of Vermöladen says we shouldn’t actually worry about originality: it’s all been done before, all of it, every last bit - and that should be of comfort to us all.
To which MONTAG says: nonsense. We should instead re-think why we’re photographing at all. And how we’re photographing, and why we even need to have role in the process.
As Picasso showed by mastering the traditional art of painting by the age of 15, once you’ve done it all, you need to go somewhere else and start again. Picasso didn’t keep painting in the manner of Leonardo - instead he embraced the world around him, looked at it differently, and got busy creating cubism.
Every sharp-suited marketing manager’s favourite blogger, Seth Godin, said, “Just about every successful initiative and project starts from a place of replication. The chances of being fundamentally out of the box over the top omg original are close to being zero. A better question to ask is, "have you ever done this before?" Or perhaps, "are the people you are seeking to serve going to be bored by this?””
So why share your photo of the same-old-same old. What are you adding to the diaspora? Instead, why not let your phone do all the work for you, and you can spend your time on holiday living in the moment instead of viewing Vienna through your phone screen.
MONTAG’s suggestion is as follows. Feel free to filcher, app developers, because this startup idea is a #Unicorn-in-waiting.
Seeing as your phone knows every place you have ever been, why don’t we create an app that figures out everywhere you go, cross reference your geo-location with photo-dumps like Flickr, and create a little bundle of the most popular photos in the exact locations you were in, selectively superimposing you into some of them as if you took selfies?
It’d mean that your “holiday snaps”, featuring all the best (and, remember, popular) things you saw would silently and magically appear in your photo stream and be posted onto the ‘Gram without you ever taking your camera out of your pocket.
And then you could spend your fraction-of-a-fraction-of-a-moment on the planet experiencing it first hand, instead of spending your time documenting it.