When a jet engine failed during a commercial flight earlier this week, one passenger put on a pressure mask, pulled out his smartphone and started filming. As the cabin around him filled with smoke, Scott Welch took unnerving selfies. The plane made a successful emergency landing, Welch posted his images and videos, and was soon memorialized when the clips went viral. It is one of those stories very emblematic of our times, and in its musings about Welch’s filming, “The New York Times” quipped:
It is no longer enough to record seemingly every last moment of life with your smartphone, it seems. Near death is fair game, too.
This leaves me wondering about two things. First: How did it take our selfie-obsessed culture until late 2014 to document an emergency landing with self-portraits? Secondly, and much more seriously: Was filming the right thing to do?
Sure, there wasn’t much a passenger could have done to assist the plane staff in this example, and they can’t be expected to just calmly sit around, waiting for what might very well be the end. But filming your own potential death just has this strange feeling about it, a feeling that is both strange and somewhat unsettling.
Of course it is first and foremost a sign of our snap-happy culture. Digital cameras have brought about an unprecedented torrent of photos. Apple has been proudly marketing its iPhone camera with the claim that more photos are taken with it each day than with all other cameras in the world. Judging by the numbers released by photo sharing app Flickr, that claim might very well be true.
The staggering number of smartphone images is of course due to the omnipresence of camera-enabled phones. A popular saying among photographers goes “The best camera is the one you have with you”, and so the increased number of photos and videos is simply true to the fact that people can easily reach for a camera whenever the opportunity presents itself. It is also due to the emergence of what writer Craig Mod has dubbed “networked lenses” – smartphone cameras that allow for instantaneous sharing with the world. They have enabled a willingness on many peoples’ parts to always keep cameras rolling. In the “New Yorker”, Nick Paumgarten wrote about how this trend is changing our experience of reality. “Life is footage”, he remarks.
Which brings us back to the smoke-filled cabin of Welch’s flight. What does it mean that his first impulse was to start documenting? As the examples show, constantly filming and taking photos is a development many people have noticed and discussed. But the reactions have been all too predictable: They are often a call to be more mindful in the face of technological progress, to consciously make room for the analogue world in a digital time.
But here’s a thought: What if the omnipresence of cameras and the act of recording helps some people to be more firmly in the moment than if they weren’t documenting it? Maybe it isn’t so much about the result of that documentation – the arguably inflationary amount of selfies, time-lapses and photos – but about the mere act of consciously documenting?
I don’t think filming or taking photos necessarily means being absent. Sure, mindlessly engaging in any kind of activity is never desirable – but it speaks of a certain cultural snobbism to assume that every teenage wielding a camera is doing so without thinking any further. There may be occasional slip-ups that show terrible judgment, documented on sites like the aptly called Tumblr blog “Selfies at funerals”, but they are merely a testament that it takes time to get used to this new technology.
In fact, I believe that over time, documentation has become much more imbued in young people’s minds than before – they are very consciously taking images because they are aware of the effect they will have. Taping and sharing a near-death experience may leave a strange taste in some peoples’ mouth. Some people clearly find it reassuring, as it makes them feel more rather than less in the moment.
As with most new developments, the always-on nature of photography is being rightly scrutinized. But it would be naive to dismiss it as a self-absorbed trend, rather than a new way that people perceive reality.