Lost in Self: Digital Photography and the Emptiness of the Western Soul

Spencer Kellogg | @TheNewTreasury

I was in bed when the phone rang. My old roommate had sent an email with a string of text and a photograph that looked oddly unfamiliar. It was me, a long time ago. Ruthlessly stoned and sporting a clean jaw without the hair that would come to dominate my chin in later years, I stood proudly holding my little white Shih Tzu ‘Beaufont.’

“Strolling down memory lane,” read the first line and as I lay dreaming of that distant past on the hill above the rushing James many memories crawled through my mind’s eye. The sensory feeling of discovering yourself again in an image that you never knew existed is a peculiar and funny one. In the age of instantaneous photographic manipulation & gratification, a film still from the past feels like the time capsule of the modern age. A photograph, like many new loops in our western web, simply doesn’t hold the same substance and bravado as it once did. Before, its lens captured time in a way that was dogmatically definitive and without falsehoods. People might have their picture taken only once in an entire lifetime. What was, was.

Now the camera, the photograph and the porcelain statues of existential subjectivism have been reduced to a never-ending diary of lost meaning. What is there to show when we have seen it all? What face is worth looking at when everyone is aware of the phone flash? How many more days and months and years can it go on like this? Somewhere, in the back playground of our lost dreams, the beauty and magnificence of time are still present. People smile with a frankness of being & their eyes flicker shut at all the wrong times. Now, you enter a museum and it is not the painting that matters but the shameless rendering of its fat on the end of a selfie stick.

This dulling of our artistic and emotional selves has been sold as the latest convenience in an age of exponential technology. The camera was once a machine operated by masters of time. Today, the democracy of the lens has reduced its philosophical weight to that of an empty plastic bag. Our relationship with photography today has morphed into a meandering & expressionless pit that pitches our own sharp emptiness outward for the world to see. We say the things we already know to be true:

“Look at me.”

“This is what I am doing.”

“I am so happy.”

“These are my friends.”

“I am on vacation.”

“I am eating dinner.”

“I have fun.”

And so on and so on. Forever and ever it continues as an exercise of mental and creative vapidness. I do it, you do it, we all do it. Orwell, Kurzweil, Huxley and many others had warned of this spurious cliff and yet here we are at the bottom looking up. How did we get here? With our arms out and our wallets emptied we allowed it to happen. Fallen prey to the phone and its robotic brain.

The email continued. My friend told me of the bizarre anxiety he felt when late one night he dropped his cell phone into a toilet. Thousands and thousands of pictures gone in a flash and yet, now, he could not remember one of them. An archive of nothing. An empty time capsule. When a device has the memory capability of a thousand years what does a single moment mean? When we can fill our little phone screen with the nightmares of every waking hour, what does it mean to be fully awake?

Where is the western soul? Is it lingering in the subhuman heat of the broken blacktop? Is it dancing poolside with a Chanel bag in tow? Does it eat from the same shattered plate of love & misery? Is it calling out from the cracked egg land that begs for water but has been written by the dry sun? What people have we become? What is there left to show?

I look up from the page and someone is taking a picture. I look down on my phone and it crosses the screen.

Featured Image Source.


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