Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shortlisted: Unopened Snaps, Photos Too Hard to Keep

Jose Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, Saudade, 1899, oil on canvas (detail). 
Photo: Ferraz de Almeida Júnior [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss the point of its effect, the punctum.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Aside from its use as a sexting medium, what is Snapchat? More precisely, what is a snap? A self-deleting multimedia missive sent using mobile technology: it's a standard spy trope without the smoke, sparks, and (dire) content; visual communication inspired by Perez Hilton; one-to-ten seconds of a photo, or video – MS Paint captions optional – and then it’s gone.

But there's more.

Tech pundits entered into a frenzy after Snapchat reportedly turned down a $3 billion, all-cash acquisition offer from Facebook; most were unsure why a social messaging application based on media impermanence could be thought to be worth more. Instagram, ever-popular across age groups, sold for $1 billion in April of 2012; the majority of Snapchat’s users are 13-23 years old. Assuming an older demographic would never embrace such an anti-archive,  the question of the moment was: Will a youth user group hold steady for the app, thereby justifying the Facebook snub? Commentators answered: "no."

But perhaps Snapchat's decision to forgo the buyout didn't solely rest on the loyalty of teenagers. A mobile editor at ReadWrite sees the app fitting in perfectly with the current Web era: It’s mobile, it’s visual, and it comes with the implication of privacy­. Granted, with the right tools it’s always possible to retrieve data, but a social network noted for its discretion is unprecedented. Bearing a warrant, the NSA only has access to “unopened snaps," messages stored in a server­ – Snapchat’s own dead letter office­ – as long as their recipients opt to ignore them. And even those messages have an expiration date: apparently, an unopened snap disappears after 30 days. And no public or private timeline of opened snaps exists -- this is a large part of the app’s charm. There are good reasons to think a shift beyond the teen demographic is in play.

Jose Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, Saudade, 1899, oil on canvas (detail). 
Photo: Ferraz de Almeida Júnior [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

More and more, the digital realm is the default for communication; the digital is also our de facto collective archive. There's a wealth of history just in the residual traces such communications leave behind: the metadata of our emails and web surfing, on reverse-chronological timelines like you find on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These platforms are, by design, archival and yet we, the users, rarely access them as such. With a ceaseless barrage of incoming information, the stuff of even our recent past isn’t so quick to entice. Instagram photos are rarely revisited; we hardly engage with them when they're newly posted. Rather, how we make use of the media of social networking amounts to something much more like interpassivity. We take pleasure just knowing that such archival platforms are there, keeping record for us.

But Snapchat doesn’t allow for passive engagement. To view a snap, the recipient must press and hold their screen for that 1 to 10 seconds. This guaranteed share of attention is priceless given the increasingly pervasive distraction of the digital lifestyle - what writer and software expert Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention”. Snaps are targeted and personal; recipients are deliberately chosen (88% are sent to one person). As such, snaps are a throwback, a return to the qualities of communication inherent to speech. Snaps are a moment truly shared, in (simulated) real time.

And why not? It’s not like anyone is going to go back and look at it again. Digital images have yet to be valued like their tangible precursors IRL. Temporary social media seems to posit the idea that creation of a more meaningful digital communication requires embracing that ephemerality, making the proliferation of here-today-gone-tomorrow missives even more disposable.

Since 2010, Chicago artist Jason Lazarus has maintained an archive of images deemed “too hard to keep” by their owners. The project initiated with traditional photography in mind. He's  interested in the kind of picture that brings pain when you come across it while cleaning out a sock drawer, or on moving day, but which resists an easy toss to the trash can; it's the kind of photograph imbued with a resilient, if uncomfortable, nostalgia too potent to discard like you do the empty detritus of your life. It bears saudade, as the feeling is close to being named, in Portuguese:
“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived."
Getting rid of such an image requires a deliberate and ceremonial act, like burning. And that is where Jason Lazarus steps in. Too Hard To Keep (2010-present) is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, as part of Jason Lazarus: Live Archive, the first West Coast museum exhibition for the artist. As the exhibition text states, “This concept is remarkably similar to the Jewish tradition requiring damaged scrolls, books, and other texts that bear the sacred name of God to be placed in an in-between space, called a genizah (Hebrew for 'storage' or 'hiding').” The in-between-space Lazarus maintains consists of snapshots. Whether seemingly innocent, ambiguous, or obviously tragic, these photos carry the same mysterious charge as a Polaroid found on the street -- except here, the significance of the unknown is guaranteed, rather than merely guessed-at.

As of October 9, 2012, he's accepting cell phone photo submissions for the project, banking on the sender’s promise that their personal copy of the image will be deleted. That's too bad. When Too Hard To Keep  began in 2010, at the precipice of smartphone ubiquity, it was precisely that distinction between the physical and digital photograph that made Lazarus' concept so compelling. I submit that a photograph that is too hard to keep does not yet exist in a digital capacity. Maybe it's just that not enough time has passed to bestow on these images such depth of feeling; maybe it comes down to the fact that a digital photo can be deleted in a hasty half-second. Maybe my rejection of the idea boils down to the idea that there are just too many of them for any one pixellated image to carry such significance. Maybe the truth is digital images just can’t be held, can’t be kept.

Originally posted on Walker Blogs, December 13, 2013