Avery McCarthy’s Documentary Shows Us How Selfies and Camera Phones Are Changing the World

Up-and-coming filmmaker/photographer Avery McCarthy got tired of having the same discussions about today’s camera phone takeover, so he decided to expand the conversation. With his documentary Brave New Camera, McCarthy investigates the ways in which Internet-connected camera phones, and all the social networks they’re attached to, have shaped not only popular culture, but also manipulated individual identity.

No, he’s not just talking about the implications of Kim Kardashian’s selfies. Rather, McCarthy and his interviewees dive deep into society’s new form of visual communication, which has ultimately introduced us to worlds never seen before. Here, the director discusses his inspiration for the project, the future of this phenomenon, and what the world would look like now if it didn’t exist.

How’d you get the idea for the documentary?
Me and my co-creator Kara Hayden were sitting down for coffee about three years ago. We both majored in photography, and this is when Instagram really hit. Watching the world reorient to this social image platform, especially [a photo-oriented] one like Instagram, was disorienting. We basically said we should talk to people about it. We reached out to a few people in our network and did on-camera interviews with them, and it snowballed from there.

What do you think camera phones could be capable of down the line?
I’m hesitant to predict the future of this phenomenon—I’m struggling to understand the present. We’re talking to so many people on so many different spectrums and the way people use their cameras today, and the closest analogy we keeping come to is that it’s a language or an alphabet. There’s so many different ways you could use it. It’s a direct expression of the human condition.

This project is very much about exploring what’s happening now, in all of its human complexities, because a lot of the conversations happening about this, either they tackle a very small corner of it or they paint it in broad strokes in a way that really simplifies just how complex it is. A great example is selfies. There’s a lot of media and writing out there that draws a direct line between selfies and narcissism. With a phenomenon as widespread as social image sharing and with the sub-phenomenon of selfies, to take a look at something like that that’s happening across so many demographics all over the world and reducing it to a casual criticism doesn’t do our understanding of this phenomenon justice. It doesn’t really help anybody. It’s sort of just a satisfying thing to read on the Internet sometimes.

What’s interesting about camera phones is the way it not only captures memories, but is used to manipulate or shape our identities.
Yeah! And we do explore that in the project. We talk a lot about the concept of identity, and there’s actually a fairly long history of people shaping their identity with images, going back to this woman, the Countess of Castiglione. She was really the first person to fashion her identity through images. She was wealthy enough when photography was a new technology to commission an image of herself on an almost daily basis. She would dress up in different dresses and try on these different looks and put these different images out there.

Obviously, now it’s widespread, but the reason you see such a quick adoption of it is that it really taps into this core impulse we have as human beings to tell other people who we are. It’s the same impulse that drives people to choose a certain piece of clothing or live in cool neighborhood or wear make-up or drive a certain car. It’s all a visual presentation of yourself. The camera and the social networks attached to those cameras now are such an efficient and really easy way to extend the reach of those identity choices that everyone makes on a daily basis.

It’s also shaped pop culture so much, whether it’s caught crimes or started the nude photo controversies. Have you thought about what the world would be like without it?
That’s like being like, ‘What would the world be like if we didn’t invent the computer?’ The pop culture thing is all linked. It’s almost inseparable because when you have a phenomenon like this that’s such a direct outgrowth of human impulses, you get more mundane impulses like selfies but then you get this impulse that goes back to the earliest cave paintings to document what’s happening in front of you. You look at the earliest cave paintings and they’re kind of like emoji stories; it’s a one-to-one record. When you live in a complex society, as we do, there are elements, like this recent slew of documentation of police abuses. It’s not that it’s happening more now, it’s that people have cameras now.

If these cameras didn’t exist, things would be able to be hidden a lot more. You’re seeing things good, bad, private, and public that you weren’t meant to see. It has such complex ramifications.

The world is so much bigger now because of camera phones. The way it’s progressing, do you think it’s ultimately a good tool?
“Good” is such an interesting word in this context. We had a panel at SVA to release the trailer and we had a panel discussion with some of our interviewees, and in the panel, there’s this moment where we’re talking about these images and whether they’re good. I’ll reference Nathan Jurgenson, who’s a social media theorist who we interviewed and he’s been a researcher for Snapchat, and his response to questions like that is, ‘Images are social right now. Two people are sitting in a coffee shop, is it good? Are they good at it?’ It’s not really the right word to describe this phenomenon because it functions in a lot of different dimensions than in just a good-to-bad spectrum.

Image: Brave New Camera/Stephen Grande Jr.

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