We take millions of photographs – but how does it all impact our eyes, brains, and bodies? In this article, we will investigate how selfies can alter our perception of ourselves and impact our moods and memory.
Taking a photograph used to be a lengthy process: from composing a shot, through developing the film, to printing the image. Nowadays, we can document our lives almost instantly. Thanks to our smartphones, we can always have high-end cameras within a hand’s reach. From taking selfies to capturing natural scenery, we’re taking lots of photos.
It was estimated that people took an astounding 1.2 trillion photos last year alone. So the question becomes- does modern photography affect how we perceive the world and ourselves? To find the answer, special eye-tracking software was used to assess why selfies sometimes look a little “off”, and researchers specialising in photo psychology were interviewed to determine what impact photography has on us.
Let’s begin with what is probably the most controversial form of contemporary photography – the selfie, loved by some and dreaded by others who believe taking selfies is a sign of being rather conceited. Indeed, taking selfies varies from other photos. With ordinary photos, you evaluate the scene and think about what the photo will look like in the end. When it comes to selfies, however, the focal point is typically our appearance.
There is major pressure to ensure you capture the photo from the right angle, get the right lighting, and so on. As a result, selfies can be more time and effort consuming than they appear. Very often, they can be a projection of the person we want to be, like the best version of ourselves. Whenever we take a selfie, it seems to look a little “off”, which created the need for the introduction of many filters and touch-up applications to ensure that the photos we post look exactly the way we want them to. An example of such an app is Facetune 2, the sequel to what is undoubtedly one of the most popular touch-up applications available. It enables you to tweak multiple things with it- you can make your nose thinner or broader, adjust the size of your mouth, and even smooth out any wrinkles or get rid of blemishes and imperfections overall.
But why do selfies don’t look quite right even without applying any filters? In the opinion of Boris Paskhover, a facial plastic reconstructive surgeon from New Jersey, selfies do not represent our actual appearance, and make us more self-deprecating. A few years back, he began to notice a disturbing pattern among his patients. They would show a selfie on their phone screen and point out how big their nose looked in the photo. He said that proportions in the photo were off, distorting how the person looked to a certain degree. To establish this degree, he cooperated with researchers at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Stanford University to construct a mathematical model which can measure that distortion. The results showed that if we were to compare a picture taken from a typical selfie range of 12 inches with a portrait taken from five times that distance, the selfie makes the nasal base seem roughly 30% bigger. If you take a selfie holding the phone around 12 inches away from your face, your nose will seem about 30% wider than if the exact same photo was taken by a person standing five times further away from you. One of the other researchers even created a program to reverse the effects of taking photos from a close range. With the use of sliders, you can reverse the distortion in the size of your nose or move the camera back to make your face appear flatter and get rid of the fisheye effect. It can be used by Dr. Paskhover to show potential patients seeking rhinoplasty due to social media anxiety what their nose actually looks like. Our main takeaway from this is that all of the factors, such as the distance or the angle of your selfie, can distort your appearance even without applying filters.
Another area of interest which remains in the early stages of research is establishing how taking and posting selfies makes us feel. One study published by York University focusing on college-aged women revealed that women taking selfies felt worse than those who didn’t. They felt more anxious, had a lower confidence level, and thought they were less physically attractive as compared to the group that did not take and post selfies.
And what happens to us when our camera is pointed at something other than ourselves? Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at New York University, believes that taking photographs can have both a positive and negative impact on people’s experiences and memories. She claims that taking photographs can negatively affect our recollection of experiences that are not mainly visual, such as concerts or grabbing some food.
In her opinion, it will really hinder our ability to hear the music, or taste the food to the fullest. And when it comes to “doing it for the ‘gram”, can our experiences remain enjoyable when we intend to document them on social media? As it turns out, not really. The concern about what other people might think draws our attention away from whatever we are photographing. The official term for this is self-presentational concern or anxiety, which may take us out of the moment and make our experiences less enjoyable. So, what advice does Alixandra have for those of us who want to document, highlight our enjoyment of things, and even share them on social media, but want to strike a balance, maximising the good and minimising the bad effects? She does not advocate avoiding sharing photos on social media. Instead, she believes it is crucial to stay in the moment when taking pictures, and leave the sharing part for later to not detract from the experience itself. However, we need to mention certain positive effects too. The process of taking photos can really immerse people in an experience and leave them more engaged, therefore increasing their enjoyment level. Alixandra Barasch’s research demonstrates that the mere intention of taking a photo is enough to get those results- it is not necessary to actually take the photo. The positive effects of taking photos can be observed especially in the case of more observational type of experiences. Since we are documenting the scene in a given way, we are required to focus on particular details.
So, we have established that being in the moment when taking photographs is beneficial- but how does it translate to the real world? According to Chris Burkard, a professional known for photographing picturesque landscapes and extreme sports, claims that when composing the image, what you are not including in the shot is just as important as what you are including. To find out how doing photography for a living may alter the way he looks at the world, he contacted Tobii, a Swedish firm producing special glasses tracking the wearer’s eye movements. When your eyes are focused on a specific spot, these glasses follow your movements and trace a path. The meeting took place at the Exploratorium, a science museum located in San Francisco full of Instagram-friendly exhibits. Chris Burkard and Peter Rubin, WIRED Senior Editor, decided to use Tobii’s eye-tracking software to see the difference in the way professionals and regular people look at the world when walking around the Exploratorium.
The next part of the test took place in Wired’s office. Its aim was to find out how professionals look at photos, and if they worry about the details more than amateurs. In order to do that, Chris and Peter looked at a number of various photos, including those taken by Chris, and assessed their quality. As they did it, Tobii’s eye-tracking software followed their points of interest. The outcome was that Peter spent more time looking at fewer points, whereas Chris took more advantage of the time he spent looking at the photos. According to the heat map presenting what their eyes focused on, Peter’s eyes were all over the place, while Chris had fewer points of interest. He was more focused, selecting the particular details in the photo that make it stand out and analysing them carefully. At the Exploratorium, Chris also displayed an interesting approach to taking photos. Before taking the camera out, he wanted to make sure he looked at the chosen object from every single perspective to find the best angle. The reason behind it was, he said, that the second he pulls his camera out, his perception of the object changes, and his main focus becomes composing the image instead of just looking at the parts your eyes, nose or hands are naturally drawn to. Chris found interesting objects and then found the best way to capture them, while Peter put it down to luck. Overall, in both tests, Chris had a more deliberate approach to taking photos than Peter. His expertise in the field and technical knowledge allowed him to eliminate any clutter and focus on particular details.
So what have we learned about the impact of photography on our lives? While selfies can distort our appearance, taking photographs can actually uplift our moods, facilitate remembering experiences, and make us feel more engaged in the moment, provided that we are documenting things like landscapes, and not distracting ourselves from activities which require our full attention. It is definitely worth considering the next time you take your phone out at a concert. And also, conventional wisdom is right. Worrying about how many Instagram likes we are going to get makes us feel worse, regardless of whether we point the camera at ourselves or the world around us. No matter how good you may look in a photo, sometimes it is better to just keep it to yourself.