Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Apr 03 2013 11:27 AM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Documenting our lives visually has changed the way we live them

BY VALERIE SCHULTZ Contributing columnist

It's early morning, and I'm waiting to catch my vanpool to go to work. I'm watching a woman in the parking lot, who is using her phone to take a picture of a stray cat. She holds the phone casually in the direction of the cat, and then goes back to texting. I see this cat most mornings. It's a pretty regular-looking cat, not much of a photo op. I imagine that this same woman, 10 or so years ago, would probably not have taken out an actual camera in order to capture this cat's image. And I realize anew that, thanks to our phones, we are now a nation of photographers.

I got myself onto Facebook so that I could see the many photos of friends and family that everyone else was always talking about -- you know: "Oh, yes, I saw it on Facebook!" -- but now, apparently, as my 13-year-old niece informed me, Facebook is no longer the happening spot to see the latest photos. Now there is something called Instagram, which you also have to sign up for, and "follow" people rather than "friend" them, which sounds a little more voyeuristic, and which I don't feel like doing.

Will it never end? I suppose not, as technology marches ever forward, and as our appetite for new apps and venues for self-expression is never satisfied.

Remember the days when taking photos meant loading a camera with film, taking a finite number of shots, and then dropping the roll of film to be developed and printed, at some expense? Remember flashbulbs? Remember those odd, drive-up Fotomats, that didn't seem big enough to fit the human working inside of it? I remember once paying for a roll of 24 photos of various groupings of My Little Ponies and thinking that I couldn't afford much more of this artistry for my preschool daughters with their instamatic cameras. I remember having to wait several days, then 24 hours, and then one hour, to get the prints of possible Christmas card photos, and then having to retake them and start the processing all over if there wasn't a decent one of the whole family in the envelope. I remember getting double prints, in order to give copies of photos to grandparents. Now grandparents have to go on Facebook. I mean, Instagram .

I'm dating myself with these memories of customs that are gone. Photos now are instant, and appear everywhere instantly, except in print. Those smart phones we cart everywhere actually take pretty good photos. We are a nation of documentarians, preserving the grand and the mundane. I know people who document absolutely every event in their lives, as though, without the photo to prove it, they won't believe, themselves, what they did that day.

Not only are we a nation of photographers, we are artists. We photoshop, crop, overlay, color, enlarge and enhance with a swipe or a keystroke. We also take videos of just about anything that moves. Then we post and text our images through cyberspace, and this incredible feat is considered normal, even humdrum: as the kids say, whatever.

Now I sound dated and crotchety. I have never been a photographer. My phone, which is not smart, holds about five photos, most of which contain some part of my thumb. Photography is not one of my gifts. My husband is the family historian, and he delights in recording our lives for posterity. He believes not only in getting the shot, but in posting it online as quickly as possible, along with a witty caption. In just the past few days he has photographed dinner, trees, me, plastic dinosaurs, nephews hunting for Easter eggs, and a tortoise on its deliberate way to a sunny backyard. When we had to exit the freeway one morning so that emergency vehicles could reach a semi that was on fire, possibly due to overheated brakes, I fretted that I was going to be late for work, and he took advantage of the stop to photograph the leaping flames against the predawn sky.

On the upside, however, every time I look at a journalistic photo in a newspaper or magazine, documenting some current event, and visible in the foreground are the extended arms of lots of people taking photos of the same thing, I realize that the effects of our ubiquitous phones are not trivial. This ability to document our lives visually is changing the way we live them. Now that everyone in America, and perhaps on the planet, has become a photojournalist, light can be shed on dark deeds that used to go unnoticed. Our phones can be recorders, truth tellers, and thus equalizers, as well as instruments of democracy and justice. Maybe the collective urge to take random photos of everything is less frivolous than I thought.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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