At a time when we desperately need to care about Earth and the efforts to adjust our relationship to it, democratizing all our experiences fuels a complacency.
By Christina Seely
Left: Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, trapped and sinking in the Antarctic ice. (Photo: Royal Geographic Society/Public Domain) | Middle: Shackleton on his south polar expedition. (Photo: Internet Archive/Public Domain) | Right: Endurance final sinking, November 1915. (Photo: Royal Geographic Society/Public Domain)
The astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth last month after nearly a year in space. While he was floating above us, he kept a lively and playful Instagram feed.
Accompanied by upbeat messages and hashtags he showed us flowers he grew on the International Space Station, the boot of Italy, the grids of Shanghai at night, the sun setting behind the curved horizon of our planet, and sand patterns made by the winds of a desert in Africa. We were introduced to his family, what he ate for lunch, and, near the end of his trip, his longing to get back home.
Now imagine a time without photographs. A time without the Internet, cell phones, images on billboards, in magazines or newspapers, on passports. A time without family photo albums. You don’t know what your president looks like except through etchings or descriptions in passages of text; you don’t know what your cousin who lives across the country looks like; you don’t know what a human cell looks like, or the center of a galaxy. You have no photographic file for cities you’ve never been to, cultures you’ve never experienced, flora, fauna, and landscapes of the world outside your day-to-day life.
And now think of the North Pole, and the South. Most likely among the photographic images your mind conjures is Frank Hurley’s now legendary documentation of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to Antarctica of 1914–16, which has since become embedded in popular consciousness. One hundred years after this treacherous expedition — in the era of the Internet, smartphones, and social media — we can barely fathom the efforts taken to create the images of the Poles in those early days, what it meant to bring back slivers of the unknown from the unforgiving edge of the Earth, and the impact those first images had on the public’s psyche when the photographic world had just begun.
Since Shackleton’s journey in the early days of the medium, photography has evolved from remarkable to everyday. What were once unique revelations of a distant unknown have been replaced by a kind of amassed flood of visual information.
In Western culture, these photos reinforced an awe of the natural world beyond our tangible reach. The photographic plates that made it back from Antarctica have become historical markers; many who are responsible for making them never returned. Despite the cultural and political complexities woven into these expeditions, the images tell their stories and all of ours: they represent human perseverance, ingenuity, and simultaneous hubris and humility. And they meant so much more when presented to the public at a time when photographs were few. They had real power then, describing the new, pointing to the possible. And they told us something about ourselves in relationship to a visually quieter world as they built an outline of concrete facts of a previously incomprehensible place.
Because of their rarity and with little else to compete with the public’s attention there was contemplative space and time to take in this new information, to let this new visual collectively set in and make a mark as both explanation and as representation of the existential layers that come with new knowledge and the search. Space and time allow the public to adjust their perspective accordingly, to re-assess what humans are capable of, and to intentionally let this inform a path into the future.
Since Shackleton’s journey in the early days of the medium, photography has evolved from remarkable to everyday. What were once unique revelations of a distant unknown have been replaced by a kind of amassed flood of visual information. This currency of communication has come to replace speech and text. It has become instant and ubiquitous. We swim, now, in a sea of images we both make and consume.
Despite their uniqueness and representation of daring, images of the contemporary expedition mean far less to us now in a hyper visual culture where everyone’s experiences have been equalized by social media. While there is excitement and comfort in feeling we are the same as an explorer like Kelly, that we too post Instagram images of the sunset and our day-to-day moods on our travel adventures, there is something lost by the easiness and the casual context of this exchange of images.
No doubt having a running Instagram feed from space offers unique insight into an incredible journey while also upping the popularity of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to a younger audience, but there is a cost to diluting the dangerousness and complexity of surviving a year in space by using this particular platform for storytelling. Why do we need to feel that all feats hold the same weight?
So what happens when Kelly’s first image of the most ubiquitous image of them all, the sun setting (but in this case behind our home planet Earth), is set into this ever-evolving visual current? Something utterly extraordinary becomes normalized by the casualness of social media, where it gets lost in the ease of public sharing and swallowed by the culture of its larger viewing context. The reality of this image, along with that same perseverance, ingenuity, and humility held by early Arctic and Antarctic photographs, gets wiped out. It gets overshadowed by the quick act of consumption that comes with the context; a deeper reverence is dampened and lost and, with it, the reminder that something remarkable and fairly unbelievable is being shown to us.
We forget that we are small in the vastness of the universe.
I’d argue this is a problem, as Kelly’s year in space is no joke. He’s doing training and research in preparation for getting astronauts to Mars, a place NASA hopes to have people living by 2030. At a time when we desperately need to care about Earth and the efforts to adjust our relationship to it, democratizing all our experiences fuels a complacency. By setting it outside the everyday context, a museum space implies that a work of art or a historic object warrants careful consideration and is valued by culture. If you put this same object on the street, some may understand or know its story and take the time and space to consider it carefully but most will walk right by, move on with their day, assuming it is of no larger value.
Because of their rareness, the intense efforts it took to make and preserve them, and the grueling stories that surround them, those early polar photographs are still regarded by the public with reverence. This reverence allows a fact to settle more deeply: Facing the harshest elements of nature lead us to an understanding of limits. And pushing up against these limits fosters an innate respect for life and the planet we live on. The images still represent hope as examples of strength, courage, and survival in the face of these limits. Outer space now replaces the North and South Poles as our current unknown and while Kelly may have had the same breakfast as us during his time in space, his day was a wholly different kind of day than ours.
The story of Kelly’s journey and its companion images are remarkable in any context, and they have been shared in many directions on a range of news platforms, but some stories lose power when also filtered and shared through social media. Maybe its time to consider that, for the sake of the work they may need to do to inspire the public, some stories should be presented to us differently, held a little closer to the light than the rest, given to us with a bit more gravity.
Maybe some photographs of sunsets sincerely deserve more respect and attention, a considered pause, the room for a deeper response. If not, we won’t have much left that can trigger that deep sense of awe at our human feats, at the complexity of the human story, and at the beauty of our planet and the universe beyond.