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1/12/2017 In 2014 we took 1tn photos: welcome to our new visual culture | Books | The Guardian

In 2014 we took 1tn photos: welcome to our new

visual culture
We also took an estimated 30bn selfies last year and we load 300 hours of video on to YouTube every
minute. How is it affecting the way we see the world?

Royal protocol? … one of the estimated 30bn selfies taken last year. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe

Nicholas Mirzoeff
Friday 10 July 2015 11.30 BST

W ho are the Snapchat generation? They are the new global majority. They are young –
under 30 and under 21 in the developing world. More people on Earth now live in
cities than rural areas, and they are networked. Roughly half the world has access to the
internet today. By 2020, companies such as Google predict at least 5 billion people will be online.

The new majority are trying to understand the world they live in by taking and sharing visual
images in extraordinary numbers. Americans take more photographs every two minutes than
were taken worldwide in the entire 19th century. Three hundred hours of YouTube video are
uploaded every minute. On Snapchat, alone – an app founded in 2011 and banned in China –­one­trillion­photos­welcome­new­visual­culture 1/3
1/12/2017 In 2014 we took 1tn photos: welcome to our new visual culture | Books | The Guardian

700m photos are posted every single day. In 2014, 1tn photographs were taken, more than a
quarter of all previously existing photos.

There is a new “us” using the internet to share all these images that is different from any “us” that
print or media culture has seen before. Anthropologist Benedict Anderson has described
how print culture created “imagined communities”: readers of, say, a specific newspaper felt they
had something in common with other readers they had never met. Above all, modern nations
were shaped as imagined communities. From Scotland to Catalonia to Quebec, that mindset is
less powerful now. From the new feminisms to the idea of the Occupy movement’s “99%”, the
Snapchat generation are reimagining how they belong and what that looks like. They are using
new media forms to begin to change the world in unanticipated ways.

There have been previous “frenzies of the visible”, to quote film historian Jean-Louis Comolli. In
1895, the first moving images were shown in a Paris cafe by the Lumière brothers. Their one-
minute dramas showed staged scenes such as workers leaving their factory in Lyons, carefully
avoiding looking at the camera. In the same year Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the x-ray and
used it to take a picture of his wife Anna’s hand. Suddenly, humans could experience moving
images and see the hidden interior of their own bodies for the first time. A year later, the
Lumières made a film of a train arriving at a station. Legend has it that the audience ran from the
pictures of the train in terror. It didn’t happen. Changes in the visible happen because people try
to make them and anticipate them.

Today’s expanded visual media are producing a generation with better peripheral and central
vision, learned from video games. Scientists call this “probabilistic inference”, meaning decisions
we make based on incomplete information, such as when we drive a car. In the 1990s,
psychologist Daniel Simons and his student Christopher Chabris created a video test for attention.
Subjects were asked to count how often one of the two basketball teams being shown passed the
ball. As this simple action unfolded, a person in a gorilla suit walked across the screen. Half the
people watching did not notice, due to what Simons called “inattentional blindness”. Young
people today mostly tend to see the gorilla. Formerly, we were trained to concentrate on one task,
like a factory worker. Mostly, if not exclusively, we did. Now we are supposed to pay attention to
distractions such as email notifications and, mostly, if not exclusively, we do.

The first signature of this new visual culture is the now infamous selfie. The selfie is the
culmination of a long democratisation of the self-portrait. Once, portraits and self-portraits were
the preserve of artists and their wealthy patrons. Photography expanded that field almost as soon
as it was invented: French photographer Hippolyte Bayard made Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man
in 1840, the first true selfie because it could be copied. The combination of smartphones with
front-facing cameras and social media has meant that selfies have been ubiquitous since 2010.
“Selfie” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013, used 17,000% more often than the
year before. Google estimated that 30bn selfies were taken in 2014.

Media commentary has mostly castigated the selfie as narcissistic. But Narcissus, whatever you
think of him, spent all his time looking at himself; he did not make copies of his image to share
with all his friends. And the gender is wrong. The website SelfieCity has shown that most selfies
are taken by women – as many as 82% in Moscow. Already a cliche, the selfie is not important in
itself, but it shows us that the new majority is inventing ways to see itself. These work best when
there is a formal limit. Like the 140-character limit on Twitter, Vines have exploded because the
six-second limit of the video posts tests the imagination. First used for silly stunts, Vines have­one­trillion­photos­welcome­new­visual­culture 2/3
1/12/2017 In 2014 we took 1tn photos: welcome to our new visual culture | Books | The Guardian

become a form of film-making and are now used to document protests and as a form of micro-

All these new visual media are helping to create social change. Beginning with the Arab spring,
social media have changed the shape of politics. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of
African Americans aged 18-29 own a smartphone, several points higher than their white
counterparts. In Ferguson, Baltimore and Texas, phones have been used to document police
violence. These assaults, which have long persisted out of sight of the mainstream media, are
now widely discussed and, finally, officers are being indicted. In the Irish referendum campaign
on same-sex marriage, viral online videos combined with old-fashioned canvassing to create a
surprising cross-generational majority.

To borrow the term coined by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, we are seeing the rise
of a new “visual activism”. Muholi uses her work to claim the right to call herself a “black
lesbian”. She is caught between the constitution of her country that formally guarantees rights to
LGBT people and the daily reality of violence and sexual assault against them in the townships.
Her work has come to global prominence, with a current exhibition entitled Isibonelo/Evidence at
the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Using such evidence, visual activism is set to shape how the
new majority wish to be seen by themselves and by others, when the state will not, or cannot,
represent them.

• Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World is published by Pelican.

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