By: Hannah Bredar
The days of Polaroids and darkroom photo development have been replaced by the modern era of digital ubiquity. Photography apps have risen in popularity among smartphone owners, as users are now able to take, store, and send pictures from one device. The Snapchat app is a particularly pervasive example. Indicative of the times, the name of this app is a quippy hybrid: “snap” morphs with “chat” to imply a short exchange, quick as a shutter speed. But what’s the point? Why not use real cameras? What’s the allure of Snapchat? Allow me to explain.
Let’s assume you are on a white water rafting trip and pull your raft up onto the bank of the river. The lighting is magnificent, the rapids are terrifying but magnetic, and you realize this experience MUST be shared. You whip out your phone, open the Snapchat app, and take a picture. Assuming all of your friends also have Snapchat, you can send them this picture. However, the app gives you the ability to set a time limit for the number of seconds for which the photo will appear on your friends’ phones. If they click on the picture but are not paying attention for the six-second time limit you have set for it, they cannot reopen it! This scene before you — the mesmerizing dance of swaying trees and violent rapids — will go unappreciated by all but you unless your friends are paying attention for those six seconds you allow them.
So the question remains: what’s the point? What consequences do your friends incur from this experiential time limit? On the one hand, Snapchat limits one’s exposure to nature. Your friends only have six seconds to see and process the picture you send. This is no way to experience the wild! A six-second photograph can’t convey the triumph of the water’s strength as it shapes the riverbanks, nor does it hint at the ravenous sound of the falls in the distance, nor the lulling scent of sun-warmed balsam firs lining the shore. And then there’s you. Does looking through a lens put distance between you and your object of focus? Snapchat differs from ordinary digital and film cameras in that it is a form of social media; you are sending this picture to specific recipients. In all likelihood you are anticipating their reactions, allowing those to color your own immediate experience. We all know this feeling: it is difficult to be fully present when we are sending an email or a last-minute text. This is why there are hands-free laws and those omnipresent signs that read, “No Phones Please!” Snapchat, too, can be a distraction. Like many other kinds of social media, it prevents full absorption of one’s surroundings as one attempts to send time-limited photos and videos to one’s entire social sphere.
On the other hand, Snapchat could be portraying nature realistically: wilderness is something fleeting, rare, and valuable. One must be present and attentive when one is exposed to it. Snapchat enforces this reality, disallowing prolonged exposure to the precious vistas, permitting just a hint of sublimity. That human desire to have more of something after just a brief taste could encourage further rafting excursions and thus increased wilderness education. This is good: the more that people know about the natural world, the better we will be at protecting it. Additionally, as the Snapchat photographer, you are forcing yourself to view the scene piecemeal. The grander scope of the roaring water, the glaring sun, and the threat of hidden boulders has a tendency to overwhelm, and the limited parameters of your smartphone’s screen may allow you to process the vista more thoroughly, and to cherish it.
It is controversial whether or not Snapchat’s cons outweigh its pros. Long-form nature film, on the other hand, is widely accepted as a comprehensive representation of the wilderness. It educates the masses on the value of the wild, combining cinematography with narration to tell the history of a place. If individuals are inadvertently educating their peers about this history through apps like Snapchat, the primary consequence will be increased awareness. Is this deleterious? As you stand on the riverbank, taking a photograph and sending it off to your social sphere, you are neither mentally nor emotionally present. But imagine the good that could be done if your friends are paying attention when they open the photo! They are introduced to a world of dynamic beauty and sublime ferocity, if only for six seconds.