The age of the image is upon us, my friends. Not a day goes by that we are not flooded by images that are beautiful, smartly produced, shiny and altogether attractive. That’s obviously true of filmmakers, whose trade it is to come up with those images. It’s the case if you walk through Piccadilly Circus in London, if you take the Tube or the bus and look at the ads around you, if you’re online and you haven’t downloaded an AdBlocker, or if you turned on the television to watch the news and find the channel is on a commercial break.
21st century images
We’re not aware of most of the images that we see. They have become visual white noise, a given in our daily life that we don’t pay attention to. That’s why advertisers make are always competing to make the 1984 ad directed by Ridley Scott for Apple. It’s dated, but still exhilarating today.
We leapt into the 21st century with one of the worst images possible: the vision of the World Trade Center collapsing and taking the lives of 3000 people in the process, all this on live TV. So many images have marked out history, and the story goes on in this millenium. Soldiers taking down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Christians protecting Muslims in prayer at Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. The body of a dead Syrian child on a beach in the midst of the refugee crisis in Europe. These all became symbols of a political, historical moment that struck deep in our collective unconscious and there are many more.
The power that images have is that their ability to tell stories will last much longer than ours. That’s why images have always been politically controlled, created, fabricated, and produced -or at the very least, instrumentalised. That’s why it’s also fascinating to hear the learn behind the image. Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers was a great exploration of this. It’s well known that The Coronation of Napoleon depicts Pope Pius VII blessing the Emperor into posterity, when he in fact dreaded the idea of coming to France and feared that he wouldn’t come back and would be retained as a political prisoner.
Flash forward to last week. Ever since the tragic homophobic shooting in Orlando, an outcry has taken hold of American society for more gun control. Representatives staged a sit-in the Congress that lasted 24 hours. As these sessions are broadcast on CSPAN in the US, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called a recess and cut off the feed. Of course it would look bad, wouldn’t it? Let’s not provide images that would make us look bad.
Well… the glorious part of this story is: Democrats in the House took out their phone, and broadcast the sit-in on Twitter’s live-broadcast app Periscope. Political censorship failed.
Behind the images
Live broadcast is what digital companies are betting on right now. Facebook is expected to revamp its live video function by enabling invitations in the feeds. Twitter launched Periscope last year and is still updating it. Instagram lets you upload pictures from your phone but not from your computer because it’s all about instant sharing. The entire idea behind Snapchat is instantaneous sharing, moments that vanish.
Thus the Internet is getting crammed with duck face selfies and gym pictures. News providers and many websites have used live video features but have only provided what is essentially a podcast, with slightly more interactivity. In the US, a third of the Internet traffic in the evening is for Netflix users. It’s expected that by 2020, video will make for 75% of it.
What’s behind the images, though? Live images are impressive and striking, because they’re meaningful and instantaneous. It’s great when they make a political statement. It’s wonderful when Google live streams the Pride Parade in 360, yet nothing happens when young people show their suicide attempt live on Facebook, or when a girl shows her friend being raped on Snapchat because she was “caught up on the likes”.
Let’s not leave these tools at the gimmick stage. New tools are being created so fast we hardly have time to learn how to use them properly before a new one comes up. In film, 3D has offered tremendous possibilities since Avatar. Since then, for one Avatar how many films have 3D only to boost their overseas gross? 360 video is accessible on a budget. You can create live content with the phone on which you’re probably reading this article. What will you create?