A True Record

by Amanda O’Donahue

Manipulating our photos can create a false impression of who we are.

Photography, although a wonderful medium for art and an excellent form of documentation, has been pushed to new extremes. Instead of photographers using the camera to capture glimpses of real life, they are staging and manipulating the photos to the point of actually altering the appearance of life itself. This intentional act of posing photos can distort our view on life and our memory.

There is a growing change in the world of photography and it goes further than the editing of photographs — the most apparent way photos can warp reality. The context around many photographs are often staged now. We are able to hide behind the lens and fashion “candid” moments.

We can establish a “fake” context for our photos by posing ourselves or objects in the photos to look natural, lending the photos and, as a result, our lives, a more polished aesthetic than what may be true. It can be as simple as shifting an object out of the frame because it distracts from the main focus of the photo. In the case of a photo shoot with an established purpose other than to record a time in one’s life, changing the environment to work for the photos is logical. However, if the intention of the photo was to capture an authentic moment in one’s daily life, such as a meal with a friend or an especially nice outfit, changing the context of these photos changes the perceived effect. Moving things or altering the photo through simple processing like adding contrast, lengthening the exposure, or adding a filter can all create a new, more unrealistic context around these photos. In addition, we often take multiple photos and choose the best looking one, even if it’s not the most accurate.

Some extreme but good examples of this fabrication are the photos of former Instagram sensation, Essena O’Neill, a teenager who earned herself over half a million followers and a modeling contract through her photos. Her Instagram was similar to many Instagram accounts that currently exist; it brimmed with photos of O’Neill lounging on the beach, relaxing by the pool, or in seemingly luxurious venues. As Megan McCluskey reported in TIME in 2015, O’Neill stated she would be deleting her social media because it was “consuming her life.” O’Neill said “Social media … is contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other.” Essentially the majority of her photos were sponsored: a modern take on the traditional pin-up girl. These “candid” appearing photos were actually the result of staged photo shoots.

O’Neill’s story is an amplified version of a common practice: staging photos, or sharing photos selectively, to give the impression that there is more behind them than there actually is — essentially, to create a virtual reality.

We are no longer treating our photos as a means of recording life. Rather we are using these images to lend lives a certain aesthetic value. The almost unnoticeable shift in the thought process behind our photos will not only have the potential to change how others see us, but also how we see ourselves when we look back at them, thus affecting our memory.

This influence on our memory happens because we often employ devices outside of our own memory to assist us in remembering, such as photos. Susan Langer, author or Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, summarizes this tendency well by saying, “Even our personal history as we conceive it is, then, a construction out of our own memories, reports of other people’s memories, and assumptions of causal relations among the items thus furnished. It is by no means all recollection.” If memory is not only a result of our actual thoughts but also the influence of outside factors, our virtualization of our reality through our photos will, at the very least, influence our memories of certain events, if not of whole time periods in our lives and whole time periods in society.

The end result of our stylistic take on our current life may mean our futures are affected because our memories will be filtered. That filtering may affect our present life, as it did O’Neill’s, causing us to feel as if we must always keep face and maintain an aesthetic ruse for ourselves that in the end may leave us questioning our intentions or the ultimate value in our own lives.

Such a potential loss —of myself — is why I resolve to be more conscious of and more careful about how I take my photos by, paradoxically, being less attentive in how I take them.

True, a photo is never real. But my life is — and I want to live and remember it as honestly as possible.