NEW YORK, United States — Kudos to Andre Agassi and Canon, whose 1991 advertising slogan captured the future of photography better than they could have known: today, image is everything.
In our increasingly virtual experience of the world, the mundane scrimmage of our “real” lives seems to have dropped in pre-eminence — even in ontological significance — behind the manicured “reality” of the image we post and project. “Photos or it didn’t happen,” we like to say, meaning that without submitting sufficient documentary evidence, without propagandising our very being, our existence on the digital plane, and thus in any culturally-relevant sense, is left wanting. Instagram is literally life, you might say; the rest of our days, spent merely setting up the shot, is just behind the scenes.
We’ve been approaching this point for some time now, at least since the mid ’90s when John Berger described the disembodying effect of technology: “All that is left to share is the spectacle, the game that nobody plays and everybody can watch.” Without corporeal presence, we are reduced to appetite, he went on to say, concluding that, nowadays (meaning even then), “people have to try to place their own existence and their own pains single-handed in the vast arena of time and the universe.”
But if self-expression is now an existential imperative, then every one of us is a kind of auteur. We are the writer-directors (and stars, and cinematographers) of our image-selves — if only the disembodied spectacles of them — complete with our own channel, a dedicated swathe of the new, Wiki-reality all to ourselves. To paraphrase the late, great Sam Shepard writing about the people of Los Angeles, we are now the people we pretend to be. We may not be our physical selves anymore, or not only them, but our digital escapism permits us a kind of freedom and fluidity we have never before known, as our avatars take a seat at the table that is essentially the Matrix.
Which makes the politics of this new plane worth some consideration — especially for the members of Generation Next who, as the primary architects of the new virtual landscape, have the most to gain or lose in the way it is built. To begin with, who profits from the kind of user-generated image culture, beyond the owners of the platforms on which they are projected (many of whom, including Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, and Evan Spiegel, the co-founder of Snapchat, are themselves Millennials)?
Who owns the image?
While the rise of social platforms and availability of high-calibre smartphone cameras have turned everyone into shooters and sharers, we have also seen the traditional subjects of our 2-D mythologies — models, performers — take commercial control of their likenesses in a new way, growing enormous stores of influence-capital, which they can cash in for actual cash, as image-makers and distributors themselves. See: Hadid, Gigi and Bella, for example. This seems a crucial, if somewhat cynical evolution of the inmates taking over the asylum. But when images are made and shared at the express behest of a brand, those images will only ever be just that: an expression of appetites, a call to action, to buy.
We are all the editors-in-chief of us-dot-com, the publishers and publicists of our own stories.
When the brand itself is a person, though, what we are buying into is a bit more complex. Beyoncé, say, commissioning Awol Erizku to make the portrait of herself pregnant with twins is not entirely different from a mercantile prince doing something similar 500 years ago (though certainly it lacks the irony with which Michelangelo might have depicted a Medici). What has changed, even in the last few years, is the dissemination of that image. It used to be that pop and movie stars relied on the image-making power and distribution of a magazine or record label to create and communicate their persona. Now the construction and distribution of self is the express purview of the artist — as it is, de facto, with all of us. Just like Beyoncé, we are all the editors-in-chief of us-dot-com, the publishers and publicists of our own stories — our own mini-media empires.
It turns out, however, that launching this us-ness enterprise is not exactly a Herculean task. No matter the specificity with which we are all attempting to express our individuality, our distinct view and personality within the maelstrom of universes real and digital, we are all choosing from the same, pre-determined drop-down menu of options, the same few filters — like creating an identity on NikeiD. But, even if the tools we are restricted to are limited, we know now the import of the story each image is telling, know the worth of the thousand words it communicates, because this is where image becomes “image” — when a picture becomes something larger, something like reputation, or what we talk about when we talk about branding.
In the process of cultivation, and curation of our own streams, we have become critics of everything visual, scholars of the form, Talmudic appraisers of images, looking for every signifying symbol. We all have an idea of what Millennial pink means, for example, or how subtle a flex those sneakers are, just as we all have an idea of the effort that has gone into the creation of that sunset photo in Greece, what amount of photoshopping has gone into that projection. And image culture is, of course, subject to the same crises of authenticity and obsolescence that are raging elsewhere (cries of faking a lifestyle, faking an image are loud and frequent, as is the demand to move on to the new, the next).
What sets the image industry apart is the potential it poses and the stake it affords us. In the image economy, we own what we project, at least notionally. With that ownership comes opportunity – real, revolutionary possibility – to change the world, perhaps, to build portals into new modes of behaviour, of interaction, to display alternate values, ideals.
And maybe that is happening down some deep rabbit hole of the dark web we don’t know about. What we generally see, though, tumbling along the top soil of the image industry feeds is that, instead of speculating in new terrain, pioneering new territories of openness, new modes of exchange, new cities of tolerance and creativity, we seem content to cling to the values imposed on us by the market, to play bit parts in the consumerist machine, hocking ad space on our abs to move merch for someone else. Instead of Utopia, we’ve made avatars that navigate a digital dystopia with dope travel pics from Ibiza. Instead of visionaries, we remain shills, surrounded by all the opulence imaginable for a single selfie on the Titanic while the water rises over our shoulders.
This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: “Generation Next”. The issue is available for purchase at shop.businessoffashion.com and at select retailers around the world.
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