Have you ever considered how weird we look when we constantly stare at our smartphones (see, I did not say iPhone here) even at the most intimate of situations?
Photographer Eric Pickersgill did, and the result is a strong series – Removed – showing how the connection between us and the world comes at the expense of the connection between ourselves.
Eric did not do a lot. He only subtracted any smartphone device from real life scenes, yet asking his models to keep their gaze and focus. The result is on the epiphany level revelation.
Eric shares with us how the series came to be:
The series began when I was at an artist residency in upstate New York last year, just a few weeks after getting married. The residency was at CAC Woodside and while there I became really home sick and wanted to be with family which I think was this response to just getting married and not wanting to be away. So I spent the mornings working at this little cafe and one morning I noticed this family eating breakfast together where they were all sharing the same physical space however they were engaging with people and content elsewhere and maybe it was the beautiful light and the mother who wasn’t using a device that made me see the situation as a photograph. I didn’t make that picture but it exists in my mind as an image, a very emotionally charged image.
It startled me into noticing the use of phones a lot and was also around the time that other artists where photographing the use of people with devices kind of in a photojournalistic style. I knew that I didn’t want to make photographs of people just using the devices. That seemed too exploitative to just walk around and point the camera at people without their participation or perhaps their implication in the whole thing.
One night after getting back from the residency I slipped back into my old ways of using my device while in bed with my wife despite having that moment of realization in New York. As my eyes began to slowly close while checking my emails, I awoke to the sound of my phone hitting the floor. Before I thought to bend over the edge to pick it up I looked at my partially curled open palm resting on the edge of the bed that still held the shape of my dropped device. I realized that was how I would be able to make the photographs for Removed. The absence of the device points to it more so than if it were present. The device being removed also means that the person in the photograph must perform this gesture. They know what the photograph is about and are willing to work with me to make this art. It is a collaboration of sorts.
Eric tells us that the series has been on display in several shows and reaction was pretty mixed. I can see why. Seeing those photos makes one realize how disengaged with our surroundings we are when actually we feel fully engaged with our emails and social media profiles.
The response to the work has been varied. In the context of gallery shows there has been a range of responses. Some seeing the image of the potential head on collision feel embarrassed or perhaps emotional if they have been impacted by an accident caused by this. Others, specifically when accessing the content online, proudly exclaim “hypocrite” or “too bad I’m reading this on a device”. My reaction to that is one of satisfaction. These photographs are existing in peoples lives as a way to make them pay attention to this social shift. I’m not attempting to tell others what to do with their time, I’m just hopefully offering up a moment of realization much like the one that I experienced in the cafe’ at the onset of the project.
I think ‘digital detoxing’ is a weird way to say that. I think calling technology ‘toxic’ just doesn’t add up with the reality of the thing. I suppose the creation of computer waste and industry is toxic on the planet but in the context of “detoxing” oneself from all things digital just makes for an off balance comparison. Maybe this is semantics. I do think you need to be aware of how long you are spending on your device and be deliberate about it. If using it in public is your intention and you don’t mind alienating other people then by all means have at it. I just personally need the reminder to put it down because it is an addiction. The affirmation of others that we get with these things feels good and we go back for it more and more. Right now in the launch of this project it has been getting a lot of attention and I am finding myself really sucked into communicating with others and trying to be timely in responding to people about the work. I feel like I owe people that.
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