Why are humans so obsessed with self-documenting?

Phone cameras are 21 years old, but humans have been documenting forever.
June 8, 2018

On the 21st anniversary of the first cell phone photo, an ASU historian looks at the evolution and future of capturing our own image

Was this the face that launched a trillion selfies?

A small newborn, Sophie, wrapped in baby blankets and with a full head of hair, was photographed by her father Philippe Kahn on June 11, 1997. What's unique about the image is Kahn took it with a makeshift cell phone camera that sent the image immediately to all of his friends and family in real time, making it the first cell phone photograph.

Now it seems taking photos with our cell phones is as natural as breathing, and people born less than 21 years ago, like Sophie, will likely share hundreds — if not thousands — of photos using their phones in their lives and never give it a second thought.

On this interesting technological anniversary we asked Arizona State University art historian and Professor Corine Schleif, whose research focuses on Medieval and Rennaisance art, to reflect on our human desire to document our lives, and how it's manifested over the centuries.

Question: The first photo sent via cell phone was a picture of Kahn’s daughter to his friends and family. Have we always had a desire to document our lives like this?

Answer: I think that we have always had a desire to document our lives — our presence, our being there — to make ourselves ever-present or to prolong the present. We haven’t always wanted so much of our everyday lives to be documented, however.

Q: Sending a photo of your new baby seems like a modern thing to do; was there any similar behavior in the past?

A: Certainly whole families wanted to be recorded. We have epitaphs from the Renaissance that document whole families, not showing them at an everyday activity, but formally posed: palms pressed together, kneeling in prayer. Thus they could pray for all eternity. The arrangement showed their positions in the family: mother, father, daughter, son, arranged hierarchically according to gender and birth order. One moment in time was perpetuated in that these portraits differentiate the various ages or stages in life. For example, girls, marriageable women, married women and widows would have worn specific hair styles or head coverings. Nuns, priests and monks were also distinguished by their dress. 

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Detail from the Epitaph for Ursula Holzschuher Imhoff. The different headcoverings and positioning of the figures related to the family hierarchy and ages of the members at the time of the image's creation.

Q: How is a cell phone camera photograph different than past mediums?

A: We use our phones and pocket cameras to produce something that is more momentary than a painted portrait and more ephemeral than even a paper snapshot. They are quickly made and quickly discarded. But we also produce far more of them than did our predecessors using the more expensive and time-consuming media of the past. We can therefore be less worried about how good or bad we might appear. These pictures also function as an aid to memory. They provide a quick, easy way in which to share a moment, but these are ever-changing glimpses and very unlike the moment in a sculpted epitaph or painted portrait in which the makers composed a condensed formal idealized summary moment for all eternity.

Q: Do you think cell phone cameras have changed the way we interact with art?

A: Yes. We can now often take a picture of the art along with us. This means we can take it into our own possession — whether it is architecture that we admire or detest or a great master painting that we finally got to see in a big museum or an image shown in a lecture that might be on the exam.

Q: Have cell phone cameras affected the way we make art?

A: Yes. Painters of the 19th and early 20th century often used photographs — but didn’t want to admit it. Today preparatory photography no longer carries such a stigma and I think that using pictures as part of our rhetoric is becoming increasingly important to everyone. I would hope that in the future everyone would make more use of pictorial rhetoric — not just artists. Scholars of the future will hopefully no longer see the necessity of transforming everything into written language. There’s a lot of truth to the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Q: Past mediums like painted portraits were expensive and not readily available, yet most folks today have a cell phone camera. How will that affect the way we document ourselves in the future?

A: Cell phone cameras make photography and self-documentation far more democratic. The ease of photographing, archiving, duplicating and sharing makes it possible to document nearly everything pictorially. So we will be able to make and view more pictures showing process and events — including videos. We can now so easily make videos with sound that we can store in our little devices, which can be used by law enforcement, journalists, teachers, students, craftsmen, hobbyists and politicians. My hope is that we can one day take this several steps further, that we can move from the current distinction between the object in the picture/video and the subject taking the photograph or making the video. In virtual reality we will one day be able to feel what it is like to be the people that we now photograph or film. Perhaps one day we will be able to send each other digital files that not only preserve the look on someone’s face when they are sailing or parachuting but actually to share some of the sensations as if we were they. Ultimately this might help us to have more empathy for each other and for all living creatures.

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ASU programs give kids a head start on sustainability

June 8, 2018

Children engage in learning about nature, writing and science in Young Adult Writing Program by exchanging emails — with trees

As Dorothy and the Scarecrow learned, sometimes nature talks back. In the land of Oz, that meant taking an apple in the face from a tree. For a group of elementary students attending the Young Adult Writing Program (YAWP) at ASU this month, the trees across the Tempe campus are responding in a much less frightening fashion — via email.

Associate Professor of English and director of YAWP’s parent organization, the Central Arizona Writing Project (a local offshoot of the National Writing Project), Jessica Early themed this year’s iteration of the program around the intersection of writing and science as part of the national project’s agenda to embed innovative writing instruction into science learning for youth.

And that’s not the only way folks at ASU are providing kids with an appreciation for and strong foundation of knowledge about the natural world: The Sustainability Teachers’ Academy has been educating K–12 teachers across the nation on how to incorporate sustainability science into their classroom curriculum since 2015.

Mankind’s current trajectory as it relates to the Earth’s resources is not sustainable, said Molly Cashion, regional program manager for the Sustainability Teachers’ Academy. “So it’s really beneficial to students to start that kind of thinking earlier in the K–12 sphere because it’s going to inform the way we’ll move forward in the future with jobs and how we live in the world.”

The trees write back

Early’s idea to have kids write to trees as part of YAWP was inspired by an Atlantic article detailing a program in Melbourne, Australia, where various trees were assigned email addresses so that residents could report issues like dangerous branches. Instead, people wrote musing letters to the trees about their beauty, current events and life in general.

That kind of engagement with nature and the respect it engenders is exactly what Early was hoping to achieve, and it appears to have worked — more than one of the children wrote to the trees on ASU’s campus thanking them for providing the oxygen that allows them to live.

Still more were besotted with a sudden curiosity for the all things green, asking questions like, Why is stuff poisonous? And, why do avocados have seeds?

“The idea is to inspire a feeling of wonder in kids when it comes to the outdoors,” said Kelly Hedberg, program instructor and founder of Dig It! Outdoors, an after-school gardening program that specializes in garden-based education for children, adults and educators in Arizona schools, community and public settings.​

“In school we don’t really learn about nature,” said Jackson Sitchler, 10, who attends Ward Traditional Academy in Tempe. But he was clearly enjoying himself at YAWP — an anthropomorphized onion he drew to illustrate a writing assignment sparked dozens of questions from other kids wanting to know things like, Do onions have genders?

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Catalina Bracamonte, 8, of Phoenix, examines the texture of a palm tree at the Young Adult Writing Program for fourth and fifth graders from around the Valley on June 6, 2018. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Early met Hedberg and fellow YAWP instructor and Dig It! Outdoors educator Cory Pfitzer through the program’s involvement with Broadmor Elementary in Tempe, where their children go to school.

Sensing an opportunity to leverage Hedberg and Pfitzer’s gardening knowledge in service of merging science education with the arts, Early invited them to attend a National Writing Project workshop on teaching writing and science, then worked with them to embed writing workshops into the Dig It! Outdoors curriculum for grades K–5 at Broadmor. Finally, they adapted that same model for YAWP.

“Their work as informal and formal educators to bridge science learning and writing practice is creative, innovative, and socially and environmentally embedded,” Early said. “This is some of the most rewarding work I get to be a part of, and I am inspired by such amazing educators and the ways they are influencing Arizona youth at local schools, in the community and at ASU.”

Sustainability education starts early

And it appears ASU programs like the Sustainability Teachers’ Academy are influencing local educators in kind. Recently, Jilliann Feltham, a nutrition education program coordinator for the Osborn School District in Phoenix and an alum of the academy, collaborated with ASU sustainability alum Amanda Coates to implement a composting program at schools in the district.

“It’s a really great example of how the academy doesn’t just show teachers how to teach sustainability science curriculum” but also encourages them to demonstrate it through tangible projects, Cashion said.

The Sustainability Teachers' Academy is hosting three five-day workshops for K–12 teachers this summer: at the University of Montana June 18–22; at Paul Smith’s College July 16–20; and at Emory and Henry College July 30-Aug. 3.

The academy is also working to develop a database detailing sustainability projects teachers have created to serve as a resource for others, which will be accessible later this year, and hopes to put more of an emphasis on helping local schools with such longer-term endeavors as continued teacher training and connecting with local stakeholders.

Top photo: YAWP instructor and Dig It! Outdoors educator Kelly Hedberg teaches kids about the texture of the eucalyptus tree bark on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now