Smartphones have made us all photographers — or maybe they’ve made it so that none of us is a photographer. A century ago, merely possessing and knowing how to use a camera counted as a fairly notable accomplishment; today, nearly all of us carry one at all times whether we want to or not, and its operation demands no skill whatsoever. “I do believe that everybody’s a photographer,” says celebrated filmmaker Wim Wenders, director of movies like The American Friend, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, in the BBC clip above. “We’re all taking billions of pictures, so photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time, it’s more dead than ever.”
Wenders made this claim at an exhibition of his Polaroid photographs, which we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture. In a sense, the Polaroid camera — easy to use, near-instant results, and highly portable by the standards of its era — was the smartphone camera of the 20th century, but Wenders doesn’t draw the same kind of inspiration from phone shots as he did from Polaroids. “The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them,” he says, and one glance at the speed with which Instagram users scroll will confirm it. “Even the people who take them don’t look at them anymore, and they certainly don’t make prints.”
Having worked in cinema for around half a century now (and for a time with the late cinematographer Robby Müller, one of the most respected and idiosyncratic in the industry), Wenders has seen firsthand how our relationship to the image has changed in that time. “I know from experience that the less you have, the more creative you have to become,” he says, asked about the preponderance of photographic filters and apps. “Maybe it’s not necessarily a sign of creativity that you can turn every picture into its opposite.” Still, he has no objection to camera-phone culture itself, and even admits to taking selfies himself — with the caveat that “looking into the mirror is not an act of photography.”
If selfie-taking and everything else we do with the cameras in our smartphones (to say nothing of the image manipulations we perform) isn’t photography, what is it? “I’m in search of a new word for this new activity that looks so much like photography, but isn’t photography anymore,” Wenders says. “Please, let me know if you have a word for it.” Some commenters have put forth “fauxtography,” an amusing enough suggestion but not one likely to satisfy a creator like Wenders who, in work as in life, seldom makes the obvious choice.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.