For photographic storytelling, cameras are becoming optional

I never would have chosen to be cameraless in one of the most photogenic parts of the world, but since I am it’s turned into an opportunity to reflect on my relationship to photography — past, present, and future. My dad likes to joke about the obsessive vacation photographer who, when asked how the trip went, would reply: “Don’t know, haven’t gotten the pictures back yet.”

There’s always been a tension between the desire to soak in experience through our primary senses, and the desire to augment our primary senses with gear that enables us to record, edit, preserve, and share what we experience. But here on the sundeck of the Kaitaki ferry, waiting to cross the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton, augmentation is ascendant. You can see the whole spectrum of photographers and their gear on display. Happy snappers with their low-end digicams, videographers with camcorders, serious photographers with their digital SLRs.

Although skills and inclinations vary across that spectrum, everyone shares a common appreciation for the thrill of photography, and advancing technology keeps renewing that thrill. But as I watch my fellow passengers snapping and filming all around me, I’m aware that a sea change is underway. I am certain that some of the photos and videos being shot all around me today will turn up on Flickr and YouTube, and that I’ll be able to find them by searching for words like Kaitaki and Wellington and Picton and ferry, and for the date May 12 2007. There’s even a small but growing probability that some of this imagery will be geotagged and thus correlatable with precise locations along the way.

This collaborative annotation of the planet opens the door to a new dimension of pictorial storytelling. We will no longer be limited to the images that we ourselves have captured. We’ll be able to combine our own deeply personal images with the most interesting ones shot by others who have been to the same places. In some cases, those will be photos that no contemporary photographer could have taken. The other day, in the library of Wellington’s Te Papa museum, I was looking through drawers full of gorgeous black and white photos from New Zealand’s past. I don’t think many of those have yet been scanned and uploaded and tagged, but inevitably some will be.

Deeper layers of annotation are possible as well. At the GOVIS conference, a lunch companion mentioned the work of David Rumsey, whose digitizations of historical maps provoked a standing ovation at OSCON 2004. Rumsey has the wonderful idea that by making these exquisite hand-drawn maps available for everyone to curate and to use, he’ll enable us to add a historical dimension to the stories we tell with our own (and other) photographic images.

I can’t deny that I’m missing my camera, and that this essay is partly a rationalization of circumstances I wouldn’t have chosen. I really enjoy taking pictures, I’ve got an eye for taking decent ones, and I’d like to be doing that right now. But I also like the idea that it’s becoming less necessary to carry and use a camera in order to tell pictorial stories about the places we visit and the people we meet.

PS. In case you are wondering I did not post this from the ferry. The unevenly distributed future does not yet extend that far.

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6 thoughts on “For photographic storytelling, cameras are becoming optional

  1. I recently lost my camera’s battery charger and I am camera-less until a new one arrives. I like your perspective on this. It’s comforting. Although I suppose it requires you to stay on the beaten touristy path :)

    Someone should build – A flickr/maps mashup where you can input the route of your trip and the dates and it will put together an automatic album for you.


  2. “I suppose it requires you to stay on the beaten touristy path”

    That’s true for now. (Of course, I only have a handful of days so there’s not time to get far off the track anyway.)

    Case in point, I’m at Punakaiki right now:

    So, naturally, lots of coverage. But the unevenly distributed future becomes more evenly distributed over time.

  3. Jon, your concept doesn’t scale. It’s kind of elitist to say, ‘oh, I’ll just rely on other people’s photos’. If everyone relied on other people’s photos, then there’d be nothing in the photo repository. It is also not very polite to leverage the work of others without giving something back. TANSTAAFL… and if there is, people will despise you for taking advantage of it.

  4. “It’s kind of elitist to say, ‘oh, I’ll just rely on other people’s photos’.”

    That’s seems an odd way to describe it. I would, of course, have chosen not to be cameraless, and I would certainly have contributed to the photo pool if I could. But from this perspective, I’d have felt less obliged to take pictures of things I know are well captured, and instead tried to expand the diversity of the photo pool.

    The other day, for example, I was here:

    I was itching to take a photo of that spillway across the road in Otira Gorge, but I couldn’t. However, Seashelle did, so now I can show it to you, and I can thank Seashelle for providing the photo. And someday Seashelle, or you, might thank me for providing another photo. This kind of gift economy clearly does scale.

    A related thought about these places that everyone loves to snap. Why not webcams? Why not be able to go there virtually and have a look around? With solar power and satellite communications we could put remote viewing into locations far from the urban areas where most webcams sit.

    I’m sure some folks would see that as a travesty. But I dunno. I had to travel a long long way to see this crazy place called Hawks Crag:

    I’m glad I did, but I wasn’t able to bring my family to that place and I’d like them to see it in action, with cars creeping toward one another around a blind bend under the crag. I expect it’ll happen someday, and if it does, something will be lost and something will be gained.

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