Since the advent of mobile phone cameras and social networks, the number of pictures taken and shared on the net has rocketed to some unthinkable 10,5 billion (International System of units, 10.500.000.000.000) in 2014. And it is increasing. This prompted Joan Fontcuberta (Barcelona, 1955) to playfully rename our species as Homo photographicus.
Why do we take so many pictures? Because we can do it? Ok, modern photography (or postphotography) permits it to a level unheard of before. But why should we want to take so many pictures?
There must be something psychological in it, and too many people, famous and unknown alike, refer to it, but no one with as much clarity as Susan Sontag in On Photography, where we can find at least 6 reasons for that expansive behavior.
- Fostering the sense of property: “To collect photographs is to collect the world”, for “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed”. Others speak of “bringing home the world” or “capturing the spirit of the place”.
- Providing evidence: “A photography passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened”. So, when taking a selfy with that fine monument in background, “Photography will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, the program was carried out, that fun was had”.
- Calming anxiety: “The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel”, and “Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun”.
- Giving a sense of participation: “Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation”.
- Conferring immortality: “After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never have enjoyed otherwise”.
- Promoting collective identity: “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself -portable kit of images that bear witness to its connectedness”.
Some authors suggest other capacities of photography that may be added to Sontag’s list, such as privatizing our visual experience with our own pictures, as opposed to the public images of a site or a character, or making tangible the memories as albums, posters or posts in the web, or providing a proof of existence to the picture maker in the social networks.
All those putative reasons for taking pictures can be thought of as shared intuitions, but there are some facts related to the human visual system that are far better empirically established, such as:
- We are able to understand the sense of a scene in less than 1/10th of a second.
- Images increase the understanding of text alone information by 20 % in drug package leaflets, and by a staggering 300 % in fitting instructions.
- The sense of seeing is the first in the hierarchy of human senses, followed by hearing.
- More than 80% of all nouns and verbs of 15 languages studied by psychologists and anthropologist of the Max Planck Institute are related to seeing.
And that impressive performance of the human visual system can probably be traced to its anatomy and physiology. For instance:
- Near 50 % of human brain cortex is devoted to the processing of visual signals.
- Almost 70 % of all human sensory receptors are in the eyes.
- Each human optical nerve has 1 million of nerve fibers (the olfactory nerve, by comparison, has 30.000).
As some say, the human brain is visually wired.
Homo photographicus, then? We have every reason to suspect that we are so because, in the end, we are Homo visualis.
Up to now, our being visual has been mainly confined in the majority of humans to the visual decoding of messages, but technological progress has made possible for increasing numbers of us to code visual messages without the need of being artists or pro photographers, and we are sending as many messages as we like, breaking our visual silence.
By the way, I don’t think that such plenty of images is pollution; I thing it is just chatter, learning a new language by practice.