What the Camera Tells Us About Ourselves


If you look closely at the famous image above, you will see the first photograph of people — a historic event. It dates from 1838 and apparently shows one man having his shoes shined by another man. There were doubtless other things going on in the streets and on the sidewalk — moving carriages, animals, strolling couples and the like — but the technology of early photography permitted the camera to capture only those things that were relatively stationary for about 10 minutes or more.

With this photo, a new history begins that has social as well as technical implications: our concern over how we look to the camera’s eye. In other words, one more thing to manage and one more reason to be self-conscious. Such is the price of progress! A new and very personal preoccupation had been created by the genius of human invention — an unintended consequence of a set of scientific advances, one I’d like to say a few words about, as it relates to everyday life and the need to change your life, too.

Of course, mirrors existed thousands of years before photography was invented, but allowed mostly for private consideration of one’s appearance. Cameras made the private public and gave new perspective to how one looked, since a mirror only told you about the image you could see looking directly back at you, not from behind or in profile. For a long while, photos were largely posed and often took the place of painted portraits that a family of means might hang proudly at home.

Posing gave the subject some control over the picture. He could dress up, choose the background, and count on the photographer to use only the best of his work; that is, to create a finished product that made the subject look good.

As photography expanded to non-professionals, snap shots were, by definition, relatively spontaneous, with no guarantee to flatter those captured while walking, talking, eating, and the entire range of activities that others might observe “in (unstaged) life.” The internet brought us to our current situation vis-a-vis our photographed appearance. Pretty much anything is now fair game, including pictures that are embarrassing. Indeed, one suspects that unattractive images are more likely to be posted than those that make us look desirable, at least when others are doing the downloads. Appalling has trumped appealing.

A Korean Puppy and a Fifth Air Force Aerial Camera, 1951. Sourced from the US Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

A Korean Puppy and a Fifth Air Force Aerial Camera, 1951. Sourced from the US Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

We now live in an age of the big “reveal” or, to use English properly, “revelation.” We are revealed in more ways than we can manage, with the internet playing its part. No longer can a permanent view of us at our best be guaranteed. The result is either to accept that we will sometimes look like crap to those who chance upon our picture, or to make sure that only our most trusted camera-ready friends see us as we really are, without carefully arranged hair, makeup, a good shave, and the happy face that we show to everyone else.

Daily life has changed with the ubiquity and portability of the camera/phone. Not only can those who are not present use the dark magic of the lens to see our shouts and frowns and scowls, but we see them too. We see, if we are open to it, all the things that make us look good and bad, not just in terms of physical beauty, but decency, as well.

The camera has become a kind of moral score keeper. Potentially, at least, we observe even those qualities that we wish we could block from self-awareness: expressions of unkindness, indifference, and contempt.

Before a time when the photographer forced his images upon us, we only knew what others risked telling us about ourselves. And, of course, in polite society, this still doesn’t happen with regularity, unless you are a public figure. Our friends don’t want to hurt our feelings, so, whatever they say usually is spoken tactfully. And, our enemies can be dismissed, at least most of the time, because they are, after all, our enemies.

The unposed photo has removed the friend and the enemy from the conversation, equally. We now are face-to-face with ourselves more often than ever before, and in a way that only the camera makes possible. We have a more “god’s eye view,” a little harder to deny, a bit more insistent on truth. As the poet Rilke observed in writing about the Archaic Torso of Apollo,

…for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

The photograph now sends us a message. Be the best you can be, not just in appearance. Shrink your vanity and become comfortable with yourself, so that you care less about the opinion of others. Be as good in the shadows as you are on stage. Control your anger. Show kindness. Whether privately or publicly, don’t do those things that would shame you in a crowd. Indeed, you must change your life. So must we all.

The top image is Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, 1838. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.