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Picture this: the images we take of ourselves are as disposable as our lives

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

As the medieval astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square strikes the hour, a crowd of tourists duck and crane to capture its face in the viewfinders of their digital cameras and on the screens of their mobile phones. The crowd is so large that those in front go down on their knees in order to afford those behind them a clearer shot.

Should the massed photographers choose, they could come back on the hour, every hour, until they get the shot they desire; or, alternatively, they could buy a professionally taken photograph in a nearby shop, or even download a perfect image from the internet. But no: they must have their own work of art, in this age of mechanical reproduction, and so they clutter up the cobbles. Skirting the edge of throng I observe snidely to my Czech companion, “One of them is undoubtedly taking the best ever photograph of the clock” and she snorts snidely in turn.

When I was a child, in the 1970s, we already thought Peak Photograph had been attained – if, by this, it is taken to mean a state of affairs in which the amount of imagery produced was in excess of our capacity to experience it meaningfully. I’m not talking here about John Berger’s decontextualisation through- reproduction of artworks, but of a far more profound loss of engagement: the world itself was being emulsified by so many exposures, and so losing whatever haptic quality it once possessed. Instead of touching tree bark, or crumbling earth between our fingers, this sense was being gratified by the toggles, lenses and grips of cameras; while our once wondrous viewing of exotica had already become synonymous with tedium – a social ritual that lives on in its computerprogrammed form as the slide show.

That was in the Instamatic age: the modish cartridge film system that allowed for easy aiming, snapping and reloading. But then each new photographic technology has seemed to privilege facility rather more than fidelity. The box Brownie was the Instamatic the 1900s, bringing within reach of ordinary people a capability that previously only belonged to the exalted: that of representation. In his fine book The Discovery of France Graham Robb notes that in the albums of the late- 19th-century French peasantry there are no photographs of children; it was pointless to expend so much time and money on an individual that might – given the death rate – prove more evanescent than its depiction.

Now we have the complete inversion of this, and from our standpoint the short trip to the developer’s seems an insufferable trek, yet it’s been a scant decade-and-a-half since this was the way. Our attitude to photographic images has also transmogrified; instead of being a form of recording, they have become incorporated into our visual field: we are all cameras now, with our shutters open, passive, recording not thinking.

It won’t be too long before all those ovalframed sepia scraps have finally mouldered away and there will be no rummaging through shoeboxes in junk shops for painfully posed photographs of the 1923 works outing to Pontypridd. But up there in the cloud the crowd will continue to multiply without end. So heedless have we become of our own image that second-hand mobile phones now invariably come with a SIM card chock-full of discarded intimacies.

What should we do about this triumph of trompe-l’oeil; the blotting-out of the real by a blizzard of its selves? Well, to begin with, let’s stop skirting the crowd photographing the astronomical clock. Plunge right in! Interpose yourself between the lenses and their object! It doesn’t matter any more! Whatever respect photography may once have deserved is now superfluous in view of its own superfluity. Amateur photographers may be disregarded – most professional ones outright shunned. After all, while it may be true that a large number of monkeys typing concertedly could probably come up with this column in year or two, any of you reading it could probably take most of the photographs in this magazine, given a couple of hours.

As we walked on through the narrow, winding streets of Prague, I explained all of this to my companion and she laughed bitterly but didn’t demur. It could’ve been because she was steeped in that peculiarly Czech sense of the visual world as a shadowplay (one that has given rise to an unrivalled culture of theatrical puppetry); or perhaps it was simply because she herself was an unhappy pro snapper.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God