The Bombastic Proposal: the marriage of digital photography with social media has fundamentally altered the nature of the photograph for most Americans — to such an extent that this combination of technologies has resulted in the metaphorical death of the amateur photograph.
During the 20th century, photographs taken by amateurs had two primary purposes: documenting life and artistic expression. While most photographs were only seen by family members, lucky amateurs might get their work published in a zine or shown at a local gallery.
Regardless of distribution, the purpose was still primarily documentation and artistic expression. But with the advent of the cellphone camera and social media, the fundamental nature of the amateur photograph changed. In the ten years between 2010 and 2020, the amateur photograph was transformed from a tool of documentation and expression into a means for advancing one’s value in “the personality market”.
The Personality Marketplace
Philosopher Erich Fromm observed that romantic relationships in the 20th Century did not often begin from a place of mutual self-giving love, but rather got their start in the competitive “personality market”. Fromm observed that young men and women would use clothing, education, manners, grooming, cosmetics, and their sexuality to make themselves more valuable on this personality market. And what was being sold? Happiness.
Consumeristic cultures tended to see the romantic relationship as the primary “product” to fulfill human needs for belonging, meaning, and fulfillment. It was assumed that the more valuable a person you were able to “buy”, the more fulfilled you would be. Some economists today refer to this as sexual economics. Many consider these behaviors as an innate part of human nature, part of evolutionary mating selection. There are even video courses and books on how to “hack” the sexual economy and land yourself a more desirable mate.
Erich Fromm, however, seemed to disagree with or at least question these assumptions. He wondered if perhaps these kinds of behaviors had less to do with innate human nature and more to do with our modern capitalistic economies. That perhaps we mirror onto our human relationships the same values of the marketplace. That capitalism has taught us to objectify the other into a product that will fulfill all our sexual, emotional, and existential needs.
What if we took Erich Fromm’s concept of “the personality market” and extended it beyond romantic relationships?
Personality market forces are at work in other spheres. The same way a shopkeeper might rearrange their endcap to increase sales of canned soup, we often feel compelled to rearrange our personalities, our clothes, and our words to succeed at work. Or we might name-drop obscure indie albums around our cools friends so they don’t think we’re squares. Constantly rearranging our image is perhaps the only way to succeed and survive in modern capitalist society.
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About 15 years ago, the amateur photograph was for the most part separate from this personality market. Grandma might be impressed by a new photo of the grandkids, but that was about it. Times are different now. The amateur photograph has gone through a metamorphosis. It has become a tool, maybe the primary tool, for increasing our value in the personality market.
Instagram, of course, is the easiest target for this critique. Instagram started as a way to share cellphone photos with friends, but with its like-based incentivization structure and algorithm controlled experience, it now encourages users to share photos as a way to increase their social value.
The “influencer” is the prime example of this change. An influencer is an entity who’s existence blurs the lines between person and company — a celebrity who’s fame is birthed primarily out of their use of self-taken photographs for the promotion of their own personal brand and the brands that pay them. The photos influencers take often appear to be amateur authentic expressions of life, but despite their amateur appearance, these photos are fulfilling professional market purposes. And it’s not just influencers, it’s all of us. Do any of us take truly amateur photos any more? Has Instagram unwittingly destroyed the amateur photographer?
Now almost everyone is a professional — not when it comes to craft, but when it comes to intent. Our photographs have become advertisements for our own personal brand. Even soccer moms and football dads are posting photos of their children to Facebook and Instagram, not as memory devices, but to boost their value on the personality marketplace. You don’t need to drive a BMW to make the whole neighborhood jealous — you only have to post a photo of your son on the 50 yard line. Our kids have become cogs in the attention economy. We have become the product we are selling to the world. And the digital photo is our most powerful tool. Are there any major differences between the user-interface design surrounding a photo of your new niece and an advertisement for AirBnB? They all look the same on Instagram. Ads and content have become one. Facebook even lets you pay money to boost a personal post.
Each photo we post, like a passing billboard, lives for only a moment, for a handful of likes, and then is gone forever, buried by the algorithm in an endless river of images. The photograph was once an object we used to keep old memories alive, but now it is like us, just a flicker in the universe of the internet, destined for death the moment it is born. This is a nihilistic viewpoint I don’t hold about people, but I’m afraid the algorithm and the marketplace do.
If the amateur photograph is dead and the artistic photograph is on life support, is there a way to revive them? I don’t know if I can yet. I still feel too addicted to the rush of seeing myself validated in the marketplace. For the amateur photo to come back it would have to be connected to a source of belonging greater than the marketplace with real people taking photographs together, not caring as much what happens online.
Note: The author is completely aware of the irony and hypocrisy of this tirade. The author is also aware that he is by no means an academic. The author would also like to assure readers that by critiquing capitalism he is not advocating for a Leninist state, so there is no need to send the Ayn Rand trolls out. It is possible to want something better than the current form of capitalism without hating the positive things it had done.
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