Column by Judith Williamson
A few years ago in this magazine I wrote about a Panasonic camcorder ad that showed the image of a girl flying a kite, with the slogan 'Treasure the memory as much as the moment'. The child was smiling over her shoulder towards the camera - in other words, at the person behind it. The main issue I raised at the time concerned the implication of responding to a child's activity with a camera, rather than with actual attention: it was troubling that the potential 'memory' represented by the recording was presented as more important than the lived 'moment'.
Nevertheless, that ad showed that the basic structure of personal photography had remained remarkably consistent, from the time when cheap, lightweight cameras first made home snapshots possible, to the presentday era of domestic recording on camcorders and mobile phones. The last major structural change in the family photograph took place when the carefully posed studio portrait was replaced by the informal, spontaneous-feeling snapshot, and the meaning of the camera underwent a fundamental shift: the 'objective' view of the formal photo taken by an outsider gave way to a 'subjective' view of someone who was part of the scene. Despite enormous changes in technology over a long period, this understanding of the camera's view within personal photography remained constant from the Brownie to the camcorder. A grainy blackand-white snap of children on the beach, and a full colour, sound-and-moving-image recording of baby's first steps, share the same premise: that you photograph someone (or something) that you're looking at - the camera represents your look. It also represents your feeling: it is implicit in the mode of family photography that you are photographing someone you care about and want to remember. The look is not neutral (as implied in the professional studio) but emotionally invested.
Today, a new kind of personal photography has broken into this established structure. The selfie, the self-taken snapshot of oneself, has taken hold as a type of informal photograph that overturns many of the structural assumptions outlined above. The selfie completely changes the meaning of the camera, since it presents a view that the person taking it has never seen, and cannot see, except in a photo or a mirror. Rather than representing one's own look, it represents the look of others, or rather it aligns one's view (on looking at the photo) with the view of others - as if one were outside oneself. But these external views, which cannot in reality be subjective, do not read as objective either (as a formal portrait might): they are invariably 'fun' views taken in extremely informal situations, so that it appears the camera itself is a sort of wacky character on the scene. The structure of the selfie says a huge amount about our time: it externalises the self, which can be interpreted as a form of narcissism, and also suggests a level of anxiety - as if it was necessary to check that one is really there. The interest in photographing oneself is part of the facebook culture of self-presentation via externalities, but it also suggests an inability to be just a subject - it embodies a drive to be both subject and object of the look at the same time.
This brings us to the latest Panasonic camcorder ad, with its bizarre image of a laughing man's face superimposed on the body of a young child covered in messy pasta. 'You should have seen the look on your face', says the caption, and the image brings us, precisely, the look on the man's face - erasing the child's. The inset, smaller image shows both faces, which is the point of the camera: 'The Panasonic W850 is reinventing the camcorder, featuring a unique second camera that lets you shoot two different subjects at the same time. With picture-in-picture recording you can film the main event and your reaction...' or, to put it differently, you can produce a selfie simultaneously with the image of the loved one, in this case the child. This is the Panasonic's USP in an era of widespread mobile phone photography: 'Mobiles do moments - we do memories. And now those memories can be twice as good.'
As in the earlier camcorder ad, 'memories', offered by the product, are set against 'moments', still seen as inferior. Now, however, Panasonic promises to double the memories, offering recall both of the child's funny expressions, and of 'your' own. Except, of course, that you cannot actually 'remember' your own face, so this would not be a memory, more an out-of-body experience. The person who would see the adult's face is the child, but the child is not taking a photo and is not addressed by the ad - 'you' are. There is a new photographic mode implicit here: it suggests that, rather than being subjectively in the situation, focusing on the other person, you both become external characters in it, as in a film. The meaning of the camera has shifted yet again, in a way that is new to domestic photography, as the camera angle no longer represents a particular person's look, but takes on a diegetic function - the camera tells a story through multiple views of its own. This is part of an increasingly widespread trend in photography, for example when mobiles are held above people's heads at concerts. There is as much to say about this new, subject-less view of the camera as has been said about the subjective 'gaze' of previous eras: its cultural and emotional implications have yet to be fully explored. Where the camera is turned upon the self, however, its circuitry resembles very accurately the structure of narcissism - the subject becoming its own object.
The effects of this structure on the potential for interaction are illustrated, no doubt unconsciously, in the layout of the Panasonic ad. In the main image, the 'selfie' obliterates the child's face - even though this is not how the double-view filming will appear in practice. The ad unwittingly reveals the deeper implications of what it promotes, as the selfie replaces the image of the other, and the camera represents not a person's own look outwards, but their wish for the camera to look at themselves.