Since being ordained a Roman Catholic deacon in October 2009, I have appeared in a lot more family photos than even my large family requires. I shudder to think of the scores, perhaps now hundreds, of snapshots of me in my vestments, an arm around someone else’s wife (or husband . . . or both), the obligatory (and sincere) smile lighting up my face as delighted friends and family members I do not know snap pictures of the newlyweds or the newly baptized. Almost as soon as the “Got it!” is heard, the pictures are on the Web.
Who knows . . . perhaps I’ve become an Instagram phenomenon and I don’t even know it!
The smile is a conditioned response to the turn of a camera in my direction. Whether as an elected official, a professor, a speaker or a deacon, my teeth appear and my mouth turns up on the cue of “smile!” every bit as reliably as Pavlov’s dogs salivated to the ringing of a bell.
So I’ll say it again: the smile is a conditioned response. Because it has been conditioned by social dynamics, the pointing of a camera in my direction exerts a form of social control over me.
This is the power of the cameras in our personal lives.
Both my father and my stepfather-in-law lately have marveled at the extraordinary quality of the snapshots the ubiquitous smartphones take. My stepfather-in-law is an avid (and quite fine) amateur photographer; at one time, a number of his nature shots decorated my office (when my office had more wall space for the exhibition). But even he is inclined to abandon the extra piece of hardware (once an actual SLR with rolls of film, more recently the digital equivalent) for all but the most creative and serious of photographic endeavors.
With the omnipresence of the smartphone and its remarkable little camera, together with its instant access to the social networked universe, comes a new kind of subtle (or not so subtle) social control. Want proof? Pull out your phone for a shot at a mildly embarrassing moment for friends and listen to them shout, “Don’t put that on Facebook!”
Some ancient cultures, when first confronting the magic of photography, feared that the photograph somehow captured a person’s spirit, or essence, that a picture somehow acquired power over the person portrayed. While we, more sophisticated, know that nothing is taken from the subject of the photo other than reflected light, there is more truth to that discomfort with the photographic image than we might like.
Secret videos of sexual exploits suddenly expose unwitting and unwilling co-stars to embarrassment or, potentially, blackmail. Secret videos in changing rooms, showers and bathroom stalls make many jittery about their privacy even in these seemingly private places (there’s even a newly developed dressing room mirror that will track what you try on . . . who knows what else).
Those of us who have chosen to live in the public spaces, whether as public officials or other kinds of “celebrities,” should have done so fully cognizant of the degree to which we would no longer control our presentation of self. Even so, we may be shocked to find how our image is used and abused by others. The art of selecting the photo to complement the news story (Are you the hero of the story? Then a fine photo. The jerk? You’ll look like one) is an ancient one, but now bloggers and trolls do it, too.
Meanwhile, the rest of us, who have not consented to such public visibility, walk an uncertain path through the jungle of personal and “private” video records, hoping never to be caught off-guard, hoping our injudicious post or embarrassing photo will not be shared with a world of strangers by some “friend” we had forgotten we “friended.”
We’ve been empowered by this digital technology to share much more of our lives with more of the people with whom we’d like to share it.
And we’ve been trapped in a culture of instant images and spontaneous “sharing” in many ways well beyond our control. It’s part of a business model, making money off our private lives.
These “liberating” technologies are, in their own way, a form of social control. Instant, high-resolution images can “go viral” and change a person’s life . . . by design, by accident, or even by force.
Simply knowing that is true exerts a subtle control on our conduct. We do it to each other. We do it to ourselves. Maybe it’s all good . . . but it is a form of social control.
So . . . smile!