Photography’s impact on society doesn’t come down to single, striking images like it once did. Instead, the power today comes from conversations: What we talked about in 2014 often began with pictures and videos that were seen and shared over and over again.
It did not matter whether the images came from skilled photojournalists or witnesses with cellphones. Consider that Instagram alone churns out 70 million images a day. From that sea of imagery, a collective and comprehensive body of work emerged. We subconsciously curated those images based on our own experiences and attitudes — and maybe even grew a little in the process.
We were forced to acknowledge that a stubborn divide persists between many blacks and whites as images from Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City shaped and warped narratives about race, politics and police force.
Islamic extremists left us frozen and fearful by releasing video and stills of Western hostages on their knees, about to have their throats cut.
The constant visual mining of certain subjects etched a composite impression.
We will remember the many pictures of African-Americans and others raising their hands to protest the death of Michael Brown, who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson. Many photos, including Whitney Curtis’s photo for the New York Times of an African-American man confronted by armed officers, were reminiscent of Stuart Franklin’s photo of a defiant man standing before a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Athletes and other celebrities spoke to their audiences. Members of the St. Louis Rams raised their hands in solidarity with Ferguson protestors during pre-game introductions and the pictures, like the one below from L.G. Patterson for the Associated Press, raised questions about whether using the arena for political protest was right and respectful. Some NBA basketball players wore T-shirts that said, “I can’t breathe” — the last gasped words of Eric Garner caught on a cellphone video shot by a bystander as a police officer subdued and killed him with a chokehold.
But just when we couldn’t seem more divided, an African-American boy in tears hugged a white police officer during a protest in Portland, Oregon, producing a viral picture by freelancer Johnny Huu Nguyen, that inadvertently called for calm.
On the lighter side, ubiquitous food shots on Instagram and viral photos of Kim Kardashian showing off her ample bare bottom for a magazine shoot (searched for millions of times on Google) reflected the range of appetites we indulge.
And then there was the billion-dollar selfie: When Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres organized a group shot with celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, it was retweeted more than 1 million times in the hour after the shot. Advertising experts speculated the moment, captured on a Galaxy Note 3, was worth more than $800 million to the phone’s maker, Samsung.
The celebrities looked dorky but that’s the appeal. They look just like us whenever we stretch out our arms, phones in hand, and cram our heads together for a photo.
We still connect to art or a powerful photograph made by someone else, but it appears it is our work – our photographs, our food, our lives – we value above all else now. We report on our own lives and are gratified when the tools of social media instantly bring us an audience and a much coveted “Like.”
It’s easy now. You don’t need bulky equipment or an understanding of exposure, shutter speed and the operations of a traditional camera. In-phone cameras get better with each model. Even as the iPhone 6 rolled out to rave reviews, in part because of its camera, talk of an iPhone 6s with dual lenses producing DSLR-quality photos raises hopes for the coming year.
Instagram ended the year surpassing 300 million users — only four years after launching.
It’s getting harder not to be a part of this community, and you don’t need a lot of words to contribute to the conversation. Just take a picture.