Now Is the Time: Barely Into the New Millennium, the World Is Facing an Image Problem

Now Is the Time: Barely Into the New Millennium, the World Is Facing an Image Problem

By Reed Kram

At the start of this year, the photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov walked down a hall at the Jakarta Institute of Technology, his camera raised. His focus darted left and right as it had thousands of times before, scanning the environment, searching for the decisive moment where human experience and aesthetic composition match a guiding idea. His view passed over graduation photos on the walls, the determined eyes of the alumni conveying the seriousness of their achievement as well as their parents’ hopes for the next generation, eventually peering into a large hall in the midst of a lecture and the moment arrives. Snap. One of the billions of photographs taken on that day in January.

The number of photographs that will be shot over the next several years is without precedent and almost beyond comprehension. Last year camera phones alone shot over one trillion photographs. We are living in an accelerating fever dream of photography documenting virtually everything. Soon enough all of us will effectively be able to capture every moment of our waking life many times over if we choose.

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab, my former colleagues, recently developed a new camera system that takes one trillion photographs in a single second. Incredibly, their machine is able to capture light waves in slow motion as the photons move across a water bottle, bounce off the end and reflect back again. As MIT postdoc Andreas Velten puts it, “There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera.” Although the MIT system requires a battery of sensors and computers to handle the virtual flood of pixels, history has shown that before long these types of devices will be in the hands of millions.

The latest technological developments have radically increased our access not only to imagery, but also information and opinions. Each person is beginning to have links to "big data" about everyone else within seconds. As the number of highly educated people and communication channels explodes worldwide, there is a corresponding growth of analysis. The talking heads of television have evolved into millions of bloggers, social media gurus, and twitterers.

True insight remains a rare and ever more valuable commodity. University of Pennsylvania-based psychologist Philip Tetlock has studied the predictions of hundreds of experts, government officials, professors, journalists and others who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” Tetlock documented the long-term accuracy of 82,361 predictions and found that the forecasts of many of the experts were in fact worse than if they had rolled dice.

Both imagery and data can mislead as often as they illuminate. “Pictures promise to clarify but often confuse, “ reminds Malcolm Gladwell. “The Zapruder film intensified rather than dispelled the controversy surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The videotape of the beating of Rodney King led to widespread uproar about police brutality; it also served as the basis for a jury’s decision to acquit the officers charged with the assault.”

One might assume that as the number of images increases to infinity, it is impossible for any individual photographer to stand out. Working on this project, with these photographers, we found the reverse to be true. In an endless image landscape, all photographs are not equal. Individual protagonists with a unique perspective become more important, more valued, not less. To paraphrase Marcel Duchamp: I don't believe in photography. I believe in photographers.

Now is the time for insight, photographic & analytic: for isolating signals from skyrocketing amounts of noise.