Thoughts on a sound
Hearing the digital img.
It is weird. You don’t see it at first, and perhaps, you never would’ve if you weren’t reading this now. It’s quick. The type of sound that just blurs into your surroundings. How did I detect it? It’s not loud or of much significance. Regardless, I felt that this sound must be of particular importance, persisting in a setting out of sync with its piercing sonorousness.
It’s fascinating because I don’t comprehend it. It’s an imitation. A replica of something that no longer persists, a shadow of a hypothesised object. It’s the sound of your phone when you take a photograph; the non-existent shutter. Although it belongs to another time, its presence scarcely surprises anyone. That’s how, one late December evening, I started looking it up online. I instantly became absorbed in my thoughts, searching for a reason justifying its existence.
This text is an attempt to capture my reflection as it unfolded into diverse directions and debates; from a re-evaluation of the digital image, to AI technology, to sexual harassment, to digital surveillance.
This sound originated from various 35mm film cameras, pro SLR models. Recorded in the 70s and 80s, it has simply never changed. My online research suggested that it acts as a facilitator of innovation, mimicking real-life items to help consumers better adapt to ‘new’ technologies. In 2022, however, having a camera on your phone is barely an innovation. Unhappy with this explanation, I closed the page and clicked another link to continue browsing.
It is easy to get lost online. After what felt like a minute, I had looked at thousands of images and opened hundreds of links. Submerged by visual information, I remembered an installation I saw a few years ago; an exhibition of 350,000 printed pictures. Erik Kessels’ ‘24 Hrs in Photo’ (2011) is an amalgamation of all the photographs uploaded onto social media in a single day. The artist wanted to visualise the overload of images that runs through digital platforms. What is photography in the digital age? Kessel’s work offers a potential answer.
We multiply, erase or forget the digital image as quickly as we capture it. We share, edit and download images with one tap on the screen. The democratisation of the medium of photography transformed the action of capturing a photo. On my phone, I retain pictures of PowerPoint presentations and images of ticket numbers from cloakrooms. Considering my photographic practice, I have realised we currently use images as objects of communication, rather than of memory.
In this context, this sound is a trace of the past. The pace of life has changed, along with how information is consumed. The shutter sound is, however, constant. Perhaps our world moves too rapidly for our collective comfort, and we need a connection to the past. Perhaps the sound’s presence testifies to the difficulty or our unwillingness to adapt to technologies. Nostalgia is triggered by our devices; we are reminded of a simpler time, unsaturated of images.
I happened to visit my grandmother the day after I undertook this exploration. She had put together these enormous boxes filled with hundreds of printed memories. Sitting next to her, I realised I may not ever create my own collection. Even if I produced one, it wouldn’t consist of the same type of images. Further still, it might not even contain one ‘real’ picture of me.
It’s difficult to talk about notions of reality or truth when it comes to photography. Throughout history, its authenticity has repeatedly been challenged. What’s more, in the present day, the practice of altering images has become easier and more common. In a world full of filters and AI effects, a photograph of me is likely to be a selfie, staged or altered to some extent. Modern photos of this kind are meant to be seen by others, and published on social media, not printed and placed in a box.
Staring at a family picture, I thought of the work of Tianxiang Shi and his series called ‘Twins’ (2021). At first glance, his photographs appear as ordinary portraits featuring twins posing side-by-side. It’s uncanny; I recall finding myself overcome by a sense of fear and excitement as I realised one of them was an apparition created by the artist. These images are fictional; made of real people and their AI-generated relatives.
Upon viewing digital images, I can recognise their power. There is no limitation to their fabrication; the ability to re-invent and construct reality is ever-present. These intimate portraits of AI twins are a symptom of the disintegration of the distinction between the digital and the everyday. Our incapacity to discern reality from construction is clear for all to witness. I can identify their emotions and imagine what they were thinking at the time when this image was, actually, never taken. Put differently, I can keep looking, but I can never say with certainty what I’m seeing.
It has become impossible to discern reality. At a time where fake news and visual manipulations are commonplace, the camera shutter sound is an apt metaphor for our contemporary context. It’s a lie. An effect that provides misleading information. Its presence on our phones underlines the current way we take and understand images. It appears as an expression of how information can be navigated in the digital age.
I tucked my grandmother’s photo box back onto the shelf. Maybe I will make one someday. Perhaps it will be replete with filtered faces, generated memories that never happened, and non-existent relatives. After all, the question is not whether an image is real or not. Photographs have power from their potential to be circulated endlessly, regardless of their authenticity.
Later that day, scrolling on the tube home, I stumbled upon an article that gripped my attention. The text is about a legislation established in 2004 in South Korea. Lawmakers introduced a measure that requires phones to make a loud shutter sound when taking a photograph. This act was implemented as a response to matters of sexual harassment and public abuse; devices are utilized to secretly record women for sexual content in public spaces. Alongside the article, I see images of protests. A woman holding a card that reads: ‘My life is not your porn.’
This shows how phone cameras can be used inadvertently as a signal, an alert. While some might link this sound with nostalgia or technological advancement, others may associate it with danger and intrusion. As legislation is designed to control the production and circulation of images, we are reminded of their damaging power. Images captured or used without consent can pose a threat to the person or people in the photograph. In digital social contexts, we possess no authority over an image; shared instantly with anyone, anywhere.
This sound is not a legislative requirement in the UK. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a similar purpose here. Although the camera shutter sound varies in connotations, it’s a somewhat universal language. In British society and many others around the world, we can perceive it as saying ‘an image has been taken.’ On top of that, ringtones and other technologies can be monetised as auditory accessories to be transformed and personalised. In comparison, the shutter sound has never changed or been eradicated throughout the technological evolution of phones. A reason for its presence could be its use as a warning. It is a sound not only aimed at the photographer but also at people nearby.
Last month, the British government decided that taking pictures of women breastfeeding without their consent will be considered illegal in the UK. While details on the reasons behind this regulation populate the discussion, questions around its enforcement are being left out. Perhaps the camera shutter sound will be heard more in the forthcoming years.
I closed the tab and started looking through my pictures. Various images of strangers, more specifically, their shoes. These hazy jpegs were taken when I was walking downstairs, standing in queues and sitting on the tube. I use them as visual reminders for future purchases.
It is considered not abnormal to take photographs of strangers. People doing something funny or wearing a nice outfit are popular targets. Several Instagram accounts are built around these types of material. ‘Subwaycreatures’ distributes content captured without publicly verifying if there was established consent.
Broadly speaking, an individual has the right to take pictures in public spaces without asking permission. This is naturally taken with a grain of salt. The legality of the act depends on a myriad of factors. The type of image, the context and the reason why it has been taken influence its legal status. But how should we regulate photography in public places, when it is impossible to know why and how a picture will be used?
I kept scrolling until my finger stopped on another photograph. An image of a little girl on the tube. She is wearing a facemask, covering her eyes and mouth. While the anonymity of her identity is preserved to some extent, there is a feeling of invasiveness in the image.
It reminded me of artist and photographer Doug Rickard’s series ‘A New American Picture’ (2010). Entirely shot on Google Street View, his pictures redefine our understanding of street photography in the digital age. They question the ethical implications of the medium, exploring ideas around anonymity and surveillance.
Just as in my picture, I can’t perceive the expression of the people represented in his work. Their faces were blurred by the software. Even so, I feel a sense of voyeurism. It’s not only about what is or isn’t in an image. It is also about how it was taken. Taken by machines on top of cars, Rickard’s photographs do not reveal any engagement with the figures depicted, but evidence of the digitalisation of our world. In comparison, the overall qualities of my photo emphasise the clandestine way it was taken; partially hidden, sitting three feet away from the subject.
I could have gone up and asked for a photograph or requested the name of the shoe’s brand, but instead, I just took a picture. This photographic practice presents a way that our surroundings can be interacted with and approached.
In a world full of small cameras and connected devices, when I want to remember or learn about something, I use my phone to capture and google it. The constant omnipresence of these technologies inedible transforms our relationship with our environment and others.
In 2001, the artist Golan Levin took advantage of their agglomeration in an everyday setting to create his musical performance ‘Dialtones: A Telesymphony.’ Choreographed through software, his concert was generated by simultaneously playing the sound of the audience’s mobile phones.
This artwork demonstrates how multiple devices can be transformed into a single organism. It is an appropriate analogy of our modern digital era. In comparison, it’s the accumulation of these technologies in an everyday setting that generates an environment of control. A system of surveillance where anyone can be recorded at any time by anyone.
While it is ironic, the camera shutter sound might be the only source of information we can trust. I am not saying it is a solution to issues of privacy or harassment in public spaces; it isn’t. But when muted, images become silent and silence reveals enough. As for CCTV and most systems of surveillance, it is their silence that makes it impossible to know when, and if, we are being watched. Perhaps then, the sound of danger, the sound that we truly fear, is silence.
Sitting in the tube, I took out my earphones and placed my phone back in my pocket. In the middle of the crowd, there was only silence around me. A sound that used to be unnoticeable now appears to be deafening.
The shutter sound speaks of the hidden, the forgotten and the obvious. It is a trace of a previous method of photography. The replacement of physical objects with digital code. It is an effect, a lie. Its nature testifies to how information circulates in the digital age. As an alert, it exposes issues of privacy and harassment. While it may spread fear, its absence can appear even more frightening. Taking multiple forms, it encapsulates the complexity of mundane life.
Words by MELI BERNEY