Cancun, cocktails and cameras: How digital photos have altered our actions and rewired our thinking

Nicole Neverman, 18, packed lightly for her spring-break service trip to Juarez, Mexico: sunscreen, a sleeping bag, a 7.1 megapixel Canon Powershot and two memory cards. The St. Thomas freshman will snap hundreds of pictures — many before she arrives, since the group of 25 drove.

Twin Cities college students are documenting this week’s spring break thoroughly, snapping pictures at every hour, at every angle, in every setting, in every degree of intoxication.

They will return with sunburned shoulders and full memory cards. As they dab on the aloe vera, they’ll upload their pictures to Facebook and begin commenting on one another’s shots. Spring break will never really end.

The ubiquitous digital camera and its liberating delete button have turned life into one ongoing photo op.

George Eastman must be grinning in his grave. His lofty marketing campaigning has finally been realized.

‘A vacation wasted’

Eastman, the founder of Kodak, initially sold the camera on its ease of use. He introduced his patented film camera in 1888, coining the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” The phrase stuck in the American lexicon.

Eastman articulated his goal “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.” He wanted his cumbersome camera to feel accessible.

Eastman made advertising a major budget item, and it became a cornerstone of his business success. By the end of the 19th century, the company was spending $750,000 annually on promotion. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s annual advertising budget was around $100,000.    

Kodak’s ad campaign not only sold a product, but manufactured a necessity: souvenirs of life. To be a dutiful parent, to be a patriotic American, to be a responsive human, Kodak insisted, photograph your life.

Kodak’s early ads focused on holidays and milestones, tapping into a wellspring of sentimentality. Baby’s first Christmas. Grandma’s last. Miss it — that is, miss the photo op — and regret it eternally.

But the camera’s purpose was not limited to preserving memories for the future; it was about gaining a fuller experience of the present. This 1908 ad asserts, “A holiday without a Kodak is only half a holiday.”

This marked a revolutionary concept: Without a camera, life was no longer complete. The philosophy was articulated in even bolder terms in a 1900 ad insisting, “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” Why bother taking a trip if you’re not going to photograph it? The vacation’s value was realized by photographing it.

Kodak aggressively extended its reach, crafting the tagline, “All out-doors invites your Kodak.” One 1911 ad pictures a girl sailing, her cheeks rosy, her hair blowing, her navy dress swaying. The text reads, “Let Kodak keep a picture record of your every outing.”

At the time, “every outing” marked a significant extension of the special-event camera. A century later, the digital camera does indeed record every outing.

Ellen DeGeneres poked fun at our intrusive camera habits while hosting the 2007 Academy Awards. During a live segment, she strolled up to Clint Eastwood, whipped out a slim digital camera and asked the woman at his side to snap their picture. DeGeneres promptly assessed the picture, deemed it inadequate and asked for another shot. Real life — even a live broadcast of Hollywood’s biggest award show with Hollywood’s most venerable star — gets put on hold so we can capture it on camera, DeGeneres suggested.

But the camera’s influence does not end there. It also converts non-events into events, flashing a red-carpet spirit in the most mundane places. In many cases, Neverman said, it’s not the pictures that help her remember an event; it’s the picture-taking that makes an event memorable. Like the speech tournament she attended last year in Ames, Iowa, where she and her Honor Roll friends set this lofty goal: fill a memory card. “It was the game of the day,” Neverman said. And they won, posing with statues and strangers and having a grand old time. 

Quantum theory holds that the act of observing an event can alter its outcome. Cameras represent that observational eye. Their presence alters the course of nearly every event, especially when young people are involved. Flash a saucy expression as you sip that Strawberry Mimosa. Lick the person next to you. Surprise. Emote. Perform. The sleek silver camera signifies an attentive audience, daring us, goading us on and challenging us to make an ordinary moment a Kodak moment. 

‘Don’t waste film’

Before the first megapixel digital cameras hit stores in 1997, photography played a smaller role in the average American’s life, neatly compartmentalized, relegated to special-event albums and organize-later shoeboxes, away from our computers and our daily thoughts. The camera surfaced reliably at graduations and anniversaries, vacations and reunions, capturing people in their Sunday best and conveying an air of stiff formality.

The group picture was a staple, the surest way to get the most value on film and photo development. Line everybody up — better yet, stack them sideways, shoulders turned. Squeeze them in and smash little Timmy’s face into Grandma’s bosom. Get close — uncomfortably close. You should be able to feel hot breath on the back of your neck. You should be tight up against the uncle in front of you. Airtight.

When it’s through, you may have lost your innocence but you will have stretched Aunt Sue’s dollar to the max. And she’ll be terribly pleased. She’ll drop her camera into the dark, sticky bottom of her purse, cut the cake and resume the celebration with added zeal.  

In these pre-digital days, trigger-happy children required careful regulation. “What are you going to take a picture of?” mothers asked suspiciously, having already paid to develop photographs of the carpet and the sky and the back of the lens cap. “Just take one,” they’d insist. Parents were less afraid of damaging an expensive camera than of ruining a roll of film. “Don’t waste film” was an unquestioned rule, right up there with “Don’t eat yellow snow.”

Today, a digital camera makes a handy babysitter when bored kids are underfoot. Children are taking pictures at an incredibly young age. Two weddings I attended in 2006 featured camera-crazed flower girls. They were each 3.

Note that Sophia is oblivious to the bride standing behind her. She’s holding Grandma’s camera, an expensive one, which she will soon drop twice, losing possession and crying until a resourceful aunt gives her a disposable camera from the nearby Wal-Mart (note Mia’s camera).

The criteria by which we once photographed have evaporated. That moment of hesitation — "Is this a good enough picture?" or "Is this worth the cost of developing it?" — no longer strikes. As a result, milestones — blowing out birthday candles, donning Halloween costumes, gripping diplomas — constitute a shrinking fraction of the photo album (which primarily exists on the computer now).

The Hollywood mantra, "Strike a pose," has grown outdated. Young people pose unceasingly. Blowing kisses, making surprised faces, posing like Charlie’s Angels in front of the Spoonbridge and Cherry or a McDonald’s arch. Any setting suffices. "We take our cameras with us everywhere," said my cousin, Sarah, 22. "And if someone says, ‘Get together,’ we do."

The younger you are, the more reflexively you pose. The camera is now a prop in children’s lives, as ubiquitous as strollers and sippy cups.

And it’s something more. With its emotional substance and interactivity, that palpable give and take, the camera becomes a character in their young lives. Begun at birth, the relationship is built on hazy yet happy associations. My friend Emilie from St. Paul described her 8-month-old son’s response to the camera on her blog:

He sure knows how to work the camera. He can be in the worst mood, but if we start taking pictures, he lights up and turns into a little ham. I don’t know if he’s made the connection between the camera and the pictures it produces (doubtful) or if he just senses that it’s all about him and feels special.  

That general sense of being special and the warmth of unadulterated attention are the baby’s first associations with the camera. It is linked to coaxing and cooing and flashing.
Life as a Hallmark movie
But the posing in pictures is only half of it, if even.

It’s in the editing and presentation where the real image-sculpting occurs. We delete any unflattering pictures and Photoshop the keepers, sustaining a favorable image of ourselves and our lives, played out in a computerized slide show. Look how many friends I have. Look how much fun I have. Look how photogenic I am.

We sprinkle fairy dust on our pictures, subconsciously employing advertising techniques: tinting the lighting to a warmer hue, writing poignant captions, setting them to music. We view life by sepia snapshot.

Even grandparents are getting in on the act, thanks to the holiday gift of the year, the digital photo album. It casts an edited version of life into motion — all frills, no spills.

Pictures function as ad campaigns for every element of life: relationships, institutions, goals. Dorm pictures promote the alma mater. Work parties endorse the career. Thanksgiving feasts sponsor the family. Scenic vistas recommend the vacation. St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans support the circle of friends.

These manufactured ad campaigns have a broad impact, shaping our memories, our daily actions and our future decisions. Northwestern University psychology professor Dan McAdams says we implicitly draw on our life narratives at key junctures, deciding whether to change careers, ZIP codes or mates.

Some consider our photo obsession a symptom (or cause) of narcissism. But there may be good news underlining it. University of Minnesota psychologist Mark L. Snyder has studied “self-monitoring” individuals — that is, people who are keenly aware of their image and self-presentation (i.e. Facebook members who frequently change their profile picture) — and found that they are more positive, outgoing, stable, expressive and influential than another group who was less interested in public display.

And they are better entertained during spring-break road trips.

Christina Capecchi writes about culture and the social impact of technology. Capecchi can be reached at ccapecchi [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 03/19/2008 - 10:59 pm.

    Nice article and close but misses a chance at being on target. I don’t see any of the words “publication”, “Web”, “Internet”, “model release”, Flickr or any medium (except Facebook in parentheses) mentioned. Maybe next time you will have room to state more of the significance of digital file formats–that they are modified (you mention Photoshop), transmitted, stored and retrieved. Maybe some people think that goes without saying.

  2. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 03/20/2008 - 12:23 am.

    P.S. On second thought I missed, too. And this article does touch on the instant gratification that people receive from publication online–it may even be that instant gratification is a fundamental benefit users find in computers.

    The first generation of Americans who had a home personal computer and a network available to them have reached maturity. I guess I think it worth saying explicitly that before they were born, about twenty years ago, that medium didn’t exist for ordinary people.

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