Over the past few years, numerous articles have been published on the trend of millennials valuing experiences over possessions, how we’d much rather go to a concert, take a cooking class, or explore an Instagram playground than buy a car or make a down payment on a house. Of course, even if this notion is true, it is drastically oversimplified; cars and houses are far more expensive than concerts, classes, or even most vacations, and with rising student debt, dwindling, if any, savings accounts, and a bleak full-time job market, most millennials (including myself) don’t have the money—or even the hope of one day having the money—to own their own home or a new car. So, I’m less interested by the premise of millennials being anti-possession, and more by the ways in which internet photography is transforming experiences into possessions, and therefore into forms of capital that exist in the same realm as possessions middle-class Americans of the past sixty years have traditionally spent their money on.
This past Sunday, I went with my wife to the Lincoln Park Conservatory with the thought of surrounding ourselves with nature (albeit man-made). As we entered the glass-enclosed jungle, a man in his sixties with deeply suntanned skin, a mandarin collared indigo dyed shirt with frog closures, and cropped army green trousers sat cross-legged on a bench and began playing the flute. My instinct was to ask him if I could take his photo, but I decided it would be rude to interrupt his playing or the experience of listening to him play. Instead, my wife and I walked through the Conservatory with the idea of looping back to listen to him near the end of our visit.
When we eventually returned and found a bench near the musician, we watched as a row of amateur photographers took unsolicited photos and videos; at one point, the scene became so absurd that one person was taking the photo of another person taking the photo of another person taking video of the musician. This meta-line of photographers isn’t necessarily the norm for experience-based photography, but it still speaks to the way photography has come to function within public environments. Do I know if all of the photographs that were taken of the musician ended up on the internet? No, but the odds are high. When I took a group of high school students to the MCA to see Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg over the summer, the trip became more about taking photos of Murakami’s vibrant artwork to post on Instagram than actually looking at that artwork. To be clear, I was posting photos of the Murakami exhibit as well, although I abstained from posting any (and only took a handful of polaroid photos of my wife) at the Conservatory.
What strikes me in these scenarios is the ways in which intent (as well as unconscious and subconscious thought) can transform an experience into a possession. If I go to the Conservatory or the MCA, or anywhere else for that matter, for the sake of taking photos/videos to post on social media (whether I realize it or not), how is that “experience” different than going to a store with the intent of buying a new pair of jeans? What becomes of the experience when it’s secondary to the possession (of that experience)?
For millennials (including myself) public, artistic-looking documentation of experiences has become a form of capital. We don’t invite friends over to our house to swim in our new pool as an expression of financial success; instead, we take photos of our trip to the Grand Canyon to show we’re adventurous, or of the Women’s March to show we’re socially and politically conscious, or of the Murakami exhibit to show we appreciate art. In essence, we hope to become the people we represent ourselves as on the internet, and do so by viewing and capturing those experiences through a screen, simultaneously removing ourselves from the experiences while we’re experiencing them. A more cynical writer than myself might ask how Instagramming an art installation is any different than viewing that same installation on Instagram. I won’t go that far, especially since that claim discounts the existence of physical space and the body, but it’s disturbing to think about how real and virtual life can unconsciously coalesce.