It feels like I spent my entire freshman year in college in front of a computer screen, staring at photos from all my Facebook friends. I know this isn't at all what my freshman year was like, but the one feeling I can recall more clearly than any other is a slow, quiet panic. I worried that my life was over and my future was grey. I worried that these were the most vital years of my life, and that I was wasting them watching other people live theirs.
A side effect of using web sites with constant social streams is that it becomes difficult to avoid seeing how active all your contacts are. What were once merely lazy days start to seem lost, wasted. There is a pressure to talk about yourself and your day, if only to reassure the world that you still exist.
And I was not a photographer. I didn't own a camera, not even a small cheap digital one. I didn't like the thought of focusing so hard on snapping a photo that you couldn't look at the thing you were snapping. I'm still reluctant to take pictures at events for this reason. But this meant that I hadn't documented my memories. The nights playing music behind the college cafe, the volleyball games, the protests, the parties, the beautiful people and the beautiful days... I had these, but they felt insignificant compared to the combined daily updates of six hundred Facebook friends. I felt there was a glorious life I wasn't living. It was like lusting after a magazine ad or a TV spot, only the people I lusted after weren't models or actors. They were my peers.
When you spend too long staring at people on a screen, you forget that there's anything more to people than their surface. You stop trusting your own thoughts and feelings, because you never see anybody else's. You start worrying about all the moments you're missing. That's a problem even without everpresent social networks, but I feel that social networks amplify the problem.
I had lost all my friends, all the people I had grown up with for thirteen years, and now I was in this small dorm room at this strange, unfamiliar college, and all I was doing was watching. I thought about how easy it would be to spend the rest of my life this way. Inside, unheard, quiet, alone. Watching.
So I transferred schools. I started writing, tens of thousands of words a week. I had always written, but now I wrote like I wanted to clear myself out. Like if I kept going, eventually I would be empty and finished and then I could become somebody new. And that summer I started to take pictures, on my old, nameless phone with the three-second shutter speed, both to prove that I could, and to find out what I would see when I looked back at the pictures.
The cell phone was weirdly freeing. I was incapable of worrying about focus or shutter speed, lighting, aperture. I had limits which I could not trick my way out of. But within those limits, I was free to take pictures the way I wanted to take them. I knew what I wanted my pictures to look like. The technical aspects didn't (and couldn't) matter to me, so all I had to do was decide to make my photos look a certain way.
In the last two years I haven't taken a photograph that I'm happier with than the ones I took on that awful cell phone. Photography doesn't interest me; there are few photographers whose work really inspires me. I'm interested in narratives, conversations; I'd rather tell a story about what I saw than shoot it. The cell phone photographs were the one time I tried to shoot my life, and look at it; I found beauty and mystery and excitement in moments I would never have thought to remember otherwise. It's the first thing I ever made that helped me see the point to what I was doing, the place I wanted to be going. It was amateur work on the slightest piece of equipment, but it turned into a piece that — for the first time — did just the thing I wanted it to do. (The full set is archived on Flickr.)Return to Rinich.com