Every Picture Tells a Story About Someone Who is Happier Than You Are

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Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.

—Susan Sontag
On Photography (3)

Life is not a movie. A life is made up of a million mundane moments; a movie is a carefully constructed sequence of images leading to a climax. Thus watching movies conditions us to believe that an entire life can pivot on one fateful defining moment. Movies tell us that all of our lives could be radically altered if only… For example, the explicit message of the movie Back to the Future is that a struggling, insecure, and miserable man named George McFly and his family could be living rich and happy lives if only George had socked Biff Tannen in the head one time.

My objective here is not to point out that this particular movie, like so many other movies, is predicated on the redemptive power of violence. (Although that’s certainly an essay worth writing.) But it is important to remember that movies are not designed to remind us that existence is a constant struggle, and growth and achievement are painstaking processes, achieved little by little, if achieved at all.

Of course, movies are not meant to prepare us for life (that’s what parents, teachers, coaches, and drill sergeants are for). And watching movies provides all sorts of wonderful benefits. But it is dangerous to allow cinematic sentiments to bleed into our conscious appraisal of the real world. Much life is wasted by people who expect the cavalry to come riding in to save the day at the last moment.

Although still photography lacks the narrative lure of motion pictures, “Photographs are more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow” (17). But this is also an illusion. As Susan Sontag notes in her groundbreaking 1973 book On Photography, “Life is not about significant details, illuminated by a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are” (81).

And the fact that almost all of us are photographers ourselves further obscures the unreality of the photograph: “Photographic images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (4).

This blurring of memory and memento allow photographs to seduce us in ways that motion pictures cannot; the photographs we treasure seem like authentic pieces of reality. Compared to actual memories, the penumbra of existence, photographs offer an eerie phantasm of lived experience. The contrast between nostalgia and actual physical images that are “fixed forever” is disconcerting: “Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (15).

Much has changed in the forty years since Susan Sontag first published On Photography. And although there is no way that she could have anticipated the current explosion of photographic images across the internet, the following observation is more apt than ever: “By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (24).

Today users share “30 billion pieces of content each month” on Facebook, a phenomenon which “represents the largest database of social information the world has ever witnessed.” Much of this content is made up of photographic images.

According to a recent study, when “experienced over a long time period” the “effects of passive following” of Facebook “can lead to frustration and exhaustion, damaging individual life satisfaction.” For many people, every picture on Facebook tells a story about someone who is happier than they are. For these people, “To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to re-experience the unreality and remoteness of the real” (160).

Richard W. Bray

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