Obsessive photography and celebration in a digital age, by Malka Herman
“This one’s for the LAAADIES!” We scream, raising our electric green cups and holding them in place long enough for Allie to whip out her iPhone and snap a photo.
It’s our last night in Cancun for Spring Break. We are eighteen girls from Johns Hopkins University ready to experience a final wild night in Mexico at a club called Mandala. According to mandalanightclub.com “Night Life was Born with Mandala,” a claim we want to put to the test. In reality, the scene is in some ways similar to the parties in the fraternity basements back at college, only bigger. The strobe lights are headache inducing, the shots taste distinctly like cough syrup, and we shout along with whatever top ten Katy Perry-Taylor Swift-Nick Minaj singer the DJ plays.
The guys at Mandala are disappointed. While we dance with each other, they try to weasel their way in between our bodies. One particular boy methodically hits on all 18 of us. None of us are interested in being pulled away by a boy with a pelvis that rubs as vigorously as a stick trying to produce fire. We are here to be, as the guests at our hotel refer to us, “The Baltimore 18.”
What is special about tonight is not Mandala or even Mexico. What is special is that we are seniors and this is our last Spring Break experience. We spent four days without much Internet, steeped in alcohol-induced honesty, and sleeping four to a bed. Tomorrow we return to the stress of schoolwork and in about three months we will graduate. Tonight we are still “The Baltimore 18.” We want to hold onto this any way we can.
And we have virtually every minute of the night documented. Before going to sleep, Allie whispers to me sleepily, “I took so many pictures tonight. I must have like 300 or something.” The next morning she starts flipping through them. I take a shower and get dressed. She is still flipping. “Holy shit. I took over a thousand pictures last night.” “You’re kidding. Let me see!” Sure enough, there are 1,400 photos all taken over a five-hour span while we partied in Mandala Nightclub. Allie’s phone is passed around the next day while we recover from hangovers at the airport. It looks less like a series of staged photographs and more like a documentary of our final night in Cancun. We crowd around the screen reminiscing and laughing. Like a diary it allows us to relive our last night of spring break.
To many, this night encapsulates a problem with today’s society. They are dismayed by the incessant documenting of life through digital means instead of living it. High quality cameras are cheap, easy to use, and instantly accessible on our smartphones. There are currently 1.75 billion smartphone users worldwide, and the number grows everyday.
The critics have a point. As much as I hate to admit it, I often feel compelled to take a picture of even minor life events. My friends and I take selfies, send snapchats, Instagram, and upload to Facebook on a daily basis. We take pictures of ourselves dancing at parties. We take pictures of ourselves with that group of girls we only somewhat know. We take pictures of ourselves with the camel, looking at a sunset, climbing a mountain, eating cereal. When we see something funny, we no longer just laugh, we snap a photo and tell the world.
But is this really so bad? Is our obsessive picture culture really harming us? Is it becoming harder and harder to live real life instead of a simulation of it? Are we no longer in the moment? Yet, photographers of all kinds have documented all facets of life since the medium’s invention, and their endeavors are considered valuable.
I think back to my last night in Cancun and consider all this. When I recall Mandala I don’t think of the night in terms of one thousand images. My experience is not through a lens; it is a reality I lived. A sweaty, happy, ridiculous reality. To me, the images enhance and document that experience. Yes, there are a few pictures of us posing and smiling for the camera, but most were snapped in the middle of personal interactions that are meaningful, hilarious, or symbolic. There is one of Leslie grimacing while a drunken boy whispers in her ear. There is another that captures four of us, arms raised— enthralled, while confetti falls onto our sweaty foreheads. There is one of me and my best friend on top of the stage making ugly faces at each other. And my personal favorite, a blurry picture of Allie, fist pumping, with a bright yellow light all around her. Wherever we are in the future, we will always have these images and they will enhance our memories. And who knows— maybe in a hundred years these images will be found and document what it was like to be a graduating senior from JHU in 2015, maybe the images will speak volumes about our current culture and answer questions that we don’t even yet know to ask. Regardless, through them, “The Baltimore 18” lives on.
Please note: Due to confidentiality reasons the images and names in this article are not the actual images taken by “The Baltimore 18.”