Over a million photographs are uploaded to Flickr every day. Which is a significant number in itself; more so when you consider the large markets such as China, where flickr is rarely used, with other photo-sharing sites finding favour instead. And the 6 billion photographs held on flickr also seems significant, until we realise that this figure is the same as that of the number of photographs uploaded to Facebook every two months.
The artist, Eric Kessels, took the million photographs uploaded to flickr in one day, printed them out, and installed them in Amsterdam’s FOAM Gallery, for the What Next? exhibition, a call to consider the future of photography in an age where you have to search hard to find a photography comment that fails to include the maxim, “Everyone’s a photographer now”.
The exhibition opened last November, and was widely received. Critics from circles as far apart on a Venn Diagram as The Daily Mail and Creative Review have covered the exhibition, and its underlying suggestion that we are at a critical stage in the development of photography as a truly democratic medium. And the social media platforms of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, were also active in discussing the relevance of the show, and the importance of various facets of its construction. Indeed, although a little overdue in coming forward, it seems rather apt that even this discussion of the exhibition (as with many others’) is being published through social media.
And social media is also how the majority of people who are aware of the show will likely consume it, creating a strange circularity to the attempt to critique social media’s affect on society and the arts in an age where that is a key medium, if not the key medium. I shy away from the asserting that stronger conclusion just yet.
But it is all the more forceful that we’re relating to this exhibition about social media primarily through social media when the show itself appears strongly tactile and immersive. A whole room piled with mountains of photographs, a veritable mountain of imagery. Some photographers liken it to a rubbish dump, but would the comparison to the iconic food mountains not perhaps be more appropriate? In asking whether photography has a function or value in the current stage of its ubiquity, we ought to also ask if it ever did have value? If so, the feeling of wastage induced by the lagoon of digital photographs is less a rubbish dump, it is much sadder than that.
The immersive sea of photographs in this exhibition necessitate the viewer relating physically and sensually to them. Much as the keeper of a family album might engage with the photos kept within, Kessels asks us to engage. Has that engagement with the photograph radically broken with the rise digital media? I am not at all convinced that it has. Rather, it has evolved and expanded. We still gaze at pictures of lost friends, close loves, and relatives, and we still take those evidentiary photographs to “prove” that “Look, I was there, and I did that.” Perhaps the great change wrought by digital photography has surprisingly been an increased preciousness about the photographs we have taken; a sense that the photographs I take being important to me being blurred with the notion that the photographs of master are Art. If it is important to me, then it too is Art, or something to that effect. If so, I’d consider this merely photography following in the footsteps of the wider visual arts development since Conceptual Art.
Either way, we have longed talked about the overwhelming growth of photography in the digital age. Now FOAM have given a gallery form to that, with the sparse setting of a few prints on a gallery wall being washed away by a sea of snapshots pulled from binary code. Or from daily life? You decide.
Sara T’Rula is a photographer working primarily in the UK. She mixes developing her own projects with undertaking commissioned work. In addition to this, she writes on photography and the arts for a variety of publications. Online she can be found at saratrula.com and on Twitter at @saratrula.