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Camera phones, sharing or oversharing?

We’re a culture obsessed with photographing and uploading every last moment, but an increasing amount of clubs are saying “no” to the camera phone.

Native Indians believe that every time someone takes a photograph of you it steals a little piece of your soul. Imagine if every time you took a selfie you lost a part of your soul. We’re all guilty of it; that habitual moment when you reach into your pocket, pull out your smart phone and take a carefully orchestrated selfie in the mirror of a club toilet, upload an Instagram photo of an expensive cocktail, send a smug Snapchat from the front row of a gig. But while camera phones may have given us the ability to chronicle our lives like never before, have we also lost something of ourselves?

More than 55 million photos are published to Instagram each day and 350 million to Facebook. We have perfected our pouts into a motor reflex; we ‘check in’ at the trendiest restaurants; we tag someone we’re sleeping with for a week in a photo that’ll remain online forever. Humans love self-disclosure, and you don’t have to be a Harvard scientist to guess that receiving “likes” releases dopamine in the brain. When we share personal information that others “like”, it activates a reward system that triggers the same kind of pleasure we receive from food or sex. Each with our faithful band of followers, it’s easy to see why we’re the #humblebrag generation. But perhaps now that’s about to change.

An increasing amount of clubs and bands are saying no to the camera phone. Here in London a mere flash of the phone would earn you stern words from the likes of Soho or Shoreditch House and have you shown straight to the door in the Groucho. For such exclusive establishments (members clubs or otherwise), banning phones is part of cultivating mystique, and they’re right, a little mystery goes a long way. As Shoshana replies to Jessa’s declaration that she’s not on Facebook in Lena Dunham’s Girls, “you’re so fucking classy.” We all know there’s no better way to drive your ex crazy than disappearing from their social media radar, and yet we insist on posting our every move on the Internet. What ever happened to leaving it to the imagination?

In Europe, nightclubs like Paris’ Le Baron instate a camera phone catharsis as a way to protect their celebrity clientele, while Berlin’s Berghain’s reasoning is more egalitarian: safeguarding us all in the debauchery that goes on inside (and if you’ve ever been to Berghain, rightly too). Once upon a time the paparazzi were confined to the front doors of clubs, now you can’t even escape them in the bathroom; in the old days a shock of flashbulbs would line the streets outside Annabel’s and Studio 54, but now an iPhone lurks ominously over a toilet cubicle. Most of us might not fall pray to the prying lens of the paparazzi, but the rise of social media gives us less control about what people can see us doing and undoubtedly leaves us all a little overexposed. If no camera phones in the club means no incriminating photos on Facebook to haunt you in the morning, then count me in.

In a recent article, The New York Times attributed Brooklyn nightclub Output’s ban on camera phones to “returning to grass-roots night life by silencing the P.R. machinery that hums through New York’s top clubs.” Raising a valid point: that we’re all self-publicists really, trying to frame our experiences in the best possible light. There should be an Instagram filter called 'Rose Tinted Glasses' because, let’s be honest, the whole point of the app is to trick people into thinking our lives are more beautiful than they really are. When you consider that photo sharing is bound up in a culture of competitive bragging, Output’s rule doesn’t seem so strict. “Dancing is encouraged,” reads their website, “egocentrism is not”.

If Output is enforcing a ‘back to basics’ ethos, several bands that have banned photography from their gigs are attempting to do the same. “It’s for the art!” protest the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Savages, She & Him, who in turn urged their fans to enjoy an unmediated live experience last year. And who can blame them? We’ve all seen it, arenas transformed into galaxies of small blue screens. We’ve all felt the urge to elbow someone in the ribs for obstructing our view with their shitty phone. We’ve all mediated our own experiences by messing around on our smart phones when we should be concentrating. Camera phones give us the ability to capture any moment, rendering the everyman the news reporter and bridging distances between loved ones the world over, but equally think of all the moments we miss while we’re staring into our screens.

Camera phones might have democratised the practice of photography but they’ve arguably devalued it too. Now, it’s hard to imagine a time before camera phones, when nightlife photography provided a rare insight into a subculture and a momentary glimpse into an underworld. In the early days of i-D magazine, Thomas Degan and Nigel Shafran would grace the London club circuit with their film cameras, publishing iconic photos of club goers in the pages of the magazine. It wasn’t long before the likes of Patrick McMullan and Nan Goldin made names for themselves by photographing club culture too. But could there be iconic nightlife photographers in an age when everyone’s a pocket’s reach away from a camera in a club? And if ‘taking a photograph’ is supposed to be capturing a moment, making the ephemeral enduring, then shouldn’t we choose our moments more carefully? 

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use our camera phones altogether, that would be both unrealistic and hypocritical. But it has begun to feel like nothing is sacred. There’s no place for the camera phone in my fantasy club; a playground of dark corners and bad behaviour. While gigs should be about anticipation and unmediated experience, clubs should be about mystery and debauchery. There are no photos of the best nights out of my life. In London, Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, New York I’ve awoken, still drunk, feeling like the night before was a dream. Was it real? You can’t be sure. You reach into your pocket, grasping for evidence. A cloakroom ticket. If you’re lucky, napkin with a number scrawled on it. But your iPhone? Nowhere to be found. Did I have fun? Clearly a little too much.

@MillyAbraham