Pictures Over Experience?


We recently published an article about She & Him enacting an anti-photo policy at a gig. Signs were posted saying “At the request of Matt [Ward] and Zooey [Deschanel], we ask that people not use their cell phones to take pictures and video, but instead enjoy the show they have put together in 3D”.

It reminded me of a story my Father told me about a Frank Zappa concert. Apparently, people were given opaque-lens glasses at the request of Zappa and the band so that, audience-members could more fully experience the music without any visual distractions.

I had a serendipitous moment shortly after reading the article. I came across this Actual Advice Mallard meme and began to think about the impact of photographs in our social lives and whether capturing memories has turned into something less genuine, something more empirical.


I say this as someone who used to go to festivals and gigs, taking hundreds of pictures only to be viewed on MySpace by no one; and that included me. I realized I was more preoccupied with getting the pictures than actually enjoying the event. I wasn’t really collecting memories; I was cataloguing them – as if it was proof of some sort.

MySpace’s glory days are over and have been replaced by more instantaneous blogging, social networking websites (SNS’s) and apps: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and more recently, Snapchat.

The proliferation of these websites and the increased portability of camera technology have led about a trillion people to say that nowadays “everyone’s a photographer”. It’s hard to dispute that notion, especially when you look at the stats. More than 500 million pictures are uploaded to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat every day; more than half of those are on Facebook alone.

Uploading and sharing pictures are just one factor of the online social landscape. Facebook now has 1.11 billion active users; there are 293000 status updates every 60 seconds and over one billion tweets per week. It seems excessive, but I can see how the figures mount up when I look at my Facebook and Twitter feeds.


I thought it was interesting that it was usually the same people, or same sorts of people uploading pictures of their lunch and writing status’ about how they tripped over in public. These seemingly banal things are now being catalogued online by similar sorts of people.

When I say “sorts of people” I mean different personalities types. A good deal of psychological research is looking into who does what online and why. For instance, extroverted people who seek social interaction are more likely to use Facebook, while those who use Twitter are less extroverted and are more likely to seek informative experiences. Much of the literature considers SNS’s to be different tools used by different personality types for different reasons.

One aspect of sites such as Facebook is to generate social capital. Research has linked this to self-esteem and suggests that SNS’s are tools for selective self-presentation. People present themselves in a considerably preferred way, maximizing what they consider to be positive and more socially enticing. Sadly, this makes me think of the numerous profile pictures I’ve seen that have been edited on Photoshop, or even MS Paint, to maximize eye lashes and six packs.


Other research has shown these SNS users tend to have higher levels of extroversion, narcissism and exhibitionism as well as higher frequencies of picture uploading and sharing (I couldn’t find a PDF that wasn’t behind a pay wall, I have a copy if anyone is interested).

Pictures on SNS’s shape our impressions of others, the world and what is considered acceptable and desirable. Johnny Winston of Stanford University suggests that “photography plays an important role as users value the image’s ability to show rather than tell”. It’s as though photographs are being used selectively to present what’s considered by peers as an ideal image or an “awesome life”. Christine Rosen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (Washington, DC) calls this “eg0-casting” and says that nowadays, people are presenting themselves online like “products”.

The research paints an interesting picture; selective self-presentation seems to be the attraction to a lot of people. But you have to wonder, is proving yourself getting in the way of the event? I think for myself, back in the MySpace days, it certainly was.

I’m sure you can recall going to an event and seeing a sea of LCD screens. Some pop up now and again, but some are there for the entire spectacle. If you search for a gig on YouTube, especially for more high profile musicians, you’re bound to find hundreds of poor-quality videos of the same show. It seems a lot of people experience the show through a phone both during and after the event.


The trouble with the research however, is that it mainly uses questionnaires and correlational data. As a result, it’s difficult to discern the actual causes and effects. Instead, it shows relationships between personality types and online habits. So I’m not trying to say that everyone who uses Facebook is a narcissist, or that uploading pictures is a marketing strategy. Because there are, of course, success stories from the SNS world.

Photographers Jim Mortram and Eric Kim have found considerable success through online mediums; Olivia Bee was discovered on Flickr at the age 14. I’m also sure there are bunch of people I don’t know of who have found success.

I think it relates to what the individual deems important. I know I’d find it more enjoyable to chow down on my steak, rather than having a photoshoot with it. But you have to wonder whether people are seeking to take pictures of things that prove how interesting they are and putting the presentation of the experience before the actual experience.

But of course, this is nothing new. People have always been looking for ways to present themselves depending on their personal needs. As the authors of the paper ‘Mirror Mirror on my Facebook Wall’ said: “The Internet has not created new motivation for self-presentation, but provides new tools to implement such motives”.

Image credits: Cell Phone lights by DeaPeaJay, Everyone is staring at their phone, on the Seoul Metro, Seoul, Korea November 2010 by Marc_Smith, Selfie at The Top of The Rock by mollybob, Wave those mobile phones by James Cridland

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Clicks for kicks.

    Dunno if it’s a common practice, but it’s not unusual for me to take pictures with no intentions of uploading them. Do writers feel the need to publish every poem and short story that they churn out?

  • Tom

    I will usually take a picture of two to have on my Facebook, so when I go back later on it will remind me of the time that I went to that concert. Or it could be a conversation piece when I show someone else.

    Even when I did video/photos for a concert legitimately I still made sure I paused between clicking away to enjoy the show

  • Rabi Abonour

    The Zappa anecdote reminds me of an experience I had meeting the Preservation Hall Jazz Band before a show back when I was in high school. I casually told the band that I was excited to *see* them play later. I was immediately, if gently, cut down: “You should be excited to *hear* us, not *see* us.”

    I wasn’t a photographer in those days, and it doesn’t necessarily apply to this recent shoot vs. experience debate, but as a music lover it has stuck with me all these years – I am always conscious of those words going into a concert.

  • darylcheshire

    On Friday, noted people using flash to photograph fireworks.

  • bob cooley

    One note: Just having a camera (or a smartphone) does not make you a photographer.

  • Sarcasm

    Everyone who doesn’t act appropriately like me the must be doing everything wrong!

    How dare someone photograph my ‘oh so indie and cool’ music gig on such a vulgar piece of technology! Unless they are using a vintage film camera, then it is ‘artistic’ and therefore ok.

    And I don’t photograph my food and put it on facebook, that is way too passe, so anybody who does this is an idiot. This is a fact. I’m too busy putting status updates about global warming and baby pandas dying(but i still buy the products that cause this)

    Never mind the fact that my whole life is built around telling people why they are wrong and how stupid they are, I wouldn’t have to do this if everyone was smart like me.

    I am really doing the stupid people a favour by telling them how to live their lives, I can’t understand why they don’t appreciate it though?

  • colinvincent

    Yes, please send to “reg at cvdigital dot com”. Other research has shown these SNS users tend to have higher levels ofextraversion, narcissism and exhibitionism as well as higher frequencies of picture uploading and sharing (I couldn’t find a PDF that wasn’t behind a pay wall, I have a copy if anyone is interested).

  • B T


  • Marco

    Please send me a copy to my email too. Thanks for your offer and the interesting article. :)

  • Marco

    Eh, eh, I’ve seen people shooting with flash behind a glass window and staring puzzled the resulting white photo on the camera lcd. :D

  • Bill E. Lytton

    Thankyou, I’m away from my laptop at the moment, but will send you guys a copy tonight. Bill

  • Bill E. Lytton

    I watched Searching For Sugarman recently about the musician Rodriguez. One if the guys said that in his early days he sat with his back to the audience because he was nervous, but it was actually better because it forced you to listen to him.

  • Theranthrope

    I’m curious to see if there are higher levels of levels of extraversion, narcissism and exhibitionism among Petapixel article submitters.

    …because I would prefer to see more articles about… you know… -actual- Photography; gear and techniques, rather than navel-gazing meta-articles about peoples’ reactions -to- photography.

  • Theranthrope

    Having the cash to plunk down on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III or Nikon D4 (or equivalent) doesn’t one a photographer, either.

  • Lee

    Bill – fantastic article. I’m fascinated by the research into who does what and why with social networking. I’d love a copy of the PDF, please

  • Jim Mortram

    With the net, we have it in our power to rally together, use it as the tool it most certainly is for communication, sharing, educating, informing, as a launch pad for creative, amazing ideas, solutions and endeavours, or it can just be a narcissistic, sociopathic minefield. As ever the choice is ours to make.

  • nullhogarth

    The word is “extrovert”, not “extravert”.

  • bob cooley

    Yes, hence my statement, “just having a CAMERA…” last I checked, both the 5D and D4 were cameras.

  • bob cooley

    Bill – if you could forward one to me as well, I’d really appreciate it! robertcooley (at) gmail


  • Rich Sustich

    Extrovert, extravert, what’s one letter? Don’t get me wrong; correct spelling is critical to communicating and comprehending the message. In this case, while the word was misspelled, it’s meaning was obvious. But sometimes one letter can change everything. On a road trip to a nearby brewery in New Glarus, Wisconsin (guess which one), I saw a book entitled, “The Audacity of Hops.” Who knows, if President Obama had used that title, he might have won by an even bigger margin!

  • nii

    Taking photos changes the experience of an event/trip… but sometimes it forces you to look more carefully. On the other hand you can´t be “photographer” and participant at the same time.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    You got an email I could send it to?

  • Bill E. Lytton

    Hi Lee, do you have an email I could send it to?

  • Lee

    Yes. This interface baffles me. How do I get it to you without posting it publicly?

  • AGuest

    I’m confused as to what you would use to take a photo if it’s not a camera you have in your hand. The potato in the other hand?
    Thanks, Bob.

  • bob cooley

    I think that’s meant to be snarky, but it makes no sense…

  • 9inchnail

    Personally, I like taking photos at concerts and shows and I DO look at them afterwards. They don’t end up forgotten in the archive.
    I find it fascinating that people have a completely different relationship to their own photos than to random other photos of the same subject. I mean, there are a million photos of the Eiffel Tower, still people photograph it, when they are in Paris and cherish that photo much more than any professional shot that might be more visually pleasing but has no personal meaning to us. Same for concerts. If I attend a show, I can find videos on Youtube the next day, maybe the same night. But I always prefer watching my own stuff even if other people had way better angles, better cameras, whatever. I want to watch my videos and photos. I don’t know why artists can’t grasp that. Have they never been fans of a band and taken photos?

  • other

    I disagree. In most circumstances you can’t be a good photographer without actively participating to some degree.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    No worries, do you have twitter?

  • Lee

    Just followed you…

  • Robert Johnson

    Yes it does. How else do you take a photo but with a camera? A photographer is a person who takes photographs. A professional photographer uses photography to earn money; amateur photographers take photographs for pleasure and to record an event, emotion, place, or person.

  • Robert Johnson

    I been to tons of firework shows all over the world. Now the enjoyment is either seeing the expressions on my kids or taking photos of the event.

  • Corey Smith

    I cant tell you how many times i have taken photos with no intent to upload them. But at the same time i cant tell you how many times i have gone and taken photos for the only purpose of uploading them to facebook or other SNS.

  • bob cooley

    Just having a camera does not make you a photographer – it makes you someone who takes pictures – there is quite a difference. I can’t help you if you don’t understand the difference.

  • Bart

    Taking pictures with that camera does, by (loose) definition.

  • Bart

    Look in your dictionary.

  • Bart

    Too confronting?
    Thinking about photography, pff, the nerve of this blog.

  • bob cooley

    Merriam-Webster: One who practices photography; especially : one who makes a business of taking photographs.

    Practicing photography is quite different than just taking pictures. It has to do with knowledge, application, etc.

    Kindly go troll elsewhere.

  • Dude

    The definition proves you wrong bob. It says especially one who makes a business taking photographs, NOT exclusively one who makes a business….. This implies that people who don’t make it their business are also covered under the broad term photographer, no matter how poorly they practice photography. Hence the now commonplace term ‘everybody is a photographer’.