I went to a birthday party in February 2013. Two friends of mine, Jacob and Khari, were born just a week apart from one another, and they celebrated together every year. A hundred or more college students packed into their tiny apartment that winter, tossing their coats onto an erupting goose-down mountain on the couch. Theatre geeks sprawled together on low pillows singing and laughing and gossiping. The room’s volume seemed to double every few minutes. My shoes, sticky with spilled beer, stuck to the floor as I squeezed through the crowd. It wasn’t exactly my scene, but the birthday boys had asked me to take pictures and I wanted to leave them with a memorable image of the night.
When I carry my camera at a party or wedding or news event, my world narrows to what I can see through the viewfinder: subject, composition, and light. Those are the three building blocks photographers use to capture a moment. The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” and through all the jostling, sweaty elbows I saw these expressions of utter joy flash across Jacob and Khari’s faces. I lifted and tilted the camera to surround them with their friends in the frame and —
The shot, which sits at the top of this article, came out perfectly (if I do say so myself.) It cuts through the fuss and frenzy of the scene to tell a story about its subjects. Here’s what it felt like to be Khari at this moment, in this place, at this stage of his life. Here’s what it felt like to be Jacob.
Photography is more like writing than anything else. It’s not about bringing you into an environment, it’s about showing you something about what it was like to live that moment in that environment. And, as a moment-driven medium, it plays a unique role in our lives that virtual reality, an environment-driven medium, can’t replicate.
But that’s not how Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the company that hosts the vast majority of the world’s new photographs on its servers, seems to feel.
During his keynote at Facebook’s F8 conference Monday, Zuckerberg spelled out his corporate mission: “Give everyone the power to share anything with anyone.”
With appropriate zeal for a Silicon Valley techno-messianist, he presented that mission as the antidote to everything from Trumpism to the horrific violence people are living through in Syria. And he made clear that while Facebook may empower its users to share “anything,” he has a specific vision of what that anything should be.
When I was a baby and I took my first steps, my parents wrote down the date in a baby book so they could share it with friends and family. When my nephews took their first steps, my sister took photos and videos on her phone so she could send them to us. And when my daughter Max takes her first steps … I want to capture the whole scene with a 360 video so I can send it to my family and my friends and they can go into VR and feel like they’re right there in the living room with us.
You or I might wonder at the logistics involved in the young billionaire keeping a stereoscopic 360-degree camera handy with an operator ready to go at a moment’s notice. But it’s hard to deny the futuristic appeal of recording the moment Max hauls herself up on a chair leg and ventures out across the expanse of their living room as a virtual reality scene. He can return to it again and again in his old age, laugh at the hoodie marl he preferred back then, watch his infant daughter toddle, then turn to look at the delight on his own young face.
“We’re always trying to capture this purest form of an idea or an experience,” he said.
If that’s how he wants to remember Max’s childhood, more power to him. Virtual reality is a crazy, exciting technology with implications we’re only just beginning to understand.
But the way Zuckerberg talks about photography, as just a point low on the exponential graph of information richness, makes me nervous.
Through his billion-plus customers, Zuckerberg may have more power over the way we create and share stories than any other single person in our species’ history. But he thinks about subjective experience and memory with all the nuance of an electrical engineer.
Photographs — including selfies and awkward group photos, fulfil a specific role in our lives. If virtual reality replaces photographs it will be by erasing, not enriching the way we think about and return to our pasts. Memory will become an environment we inhabit, not a set of feelings and stories we return to. And it will be a more remote destination; you can’t hang a virtual reality experience on your wall.
Some people will argue that VR’s impending dominance is only a good thing, the Darwinian triumph of superior technology over the played-out. We’re witnessing the beginning of this as Facebook in particular and social media in general move to emphasise fleeting experiential content like Live Video over more solid, static totems like photographs. And Facebook’s purchase of the virtual reality platform Oculus tells you a great deal about how they imagine the online social future.
But I have to admit I’m not on board. I’d much prefer to live in a word where the two media live side-by-side, and where people engage with both on their own terms.
Is such a world possible? It looks like that’s up to Zuck.