I have wanted to visit New York City for almost as long as I can remember. As such an anticipated event, I had certain expectations of what I would see and do, which influenced the things I photographed. What I perhaps haven’t acknowledged in myself before was the desire not just to hold up the camera and blindly snap everything I saw, but to take deliberate and considered images; either for their aesthetic, or because I felt there could be some deeper meaning applied.
New York is such a famous city that images of it are everywhere. There is something about NYC that is eminently photographable. It seems familiar, even if you’ve never been there, its buildings and streets displayed in countless movies and tv programmes, available for us to know virtually what it’s like before we ever set foot there. The ability to become familiar with somewhere we have never been through photographs was remarked upon in wonder by an English columnist in 1861, yet in modern times it is an entirely familiar concept. There is practically no way you could take a photograph in a New York City public space that hasn’t been taken thousands, if not millions, of times before. The prolific nature of imagery surrounding New York City was one of the things that inspired my desire to go in the first place. As Sontag notes, ‘photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at’; it is unlikely that I would have such a strong desire to visit if it were not so famous that representations of it are everywhere. Why bother to take any photographs at all then? Why do we take photographs which in all likelihood are only poor replicas of those which already exist? Take, for example, figure 1. All the photographs were taken on my iPhone 6S, creating a different image to one taken by professional equipment. The light was quite challenging, the mix of sun and cloud making it difficult to get the right level of brightness. Although you can see detail on the buildings, there is a streak of light across the picture, the best I could do in those conditions. Furthermore, this is such an iconic image that of course photographs of it already exist; a simple google search of ‘empire state building from rockefeller centre’ returned hundreds of images, and these are only the ones retrieved from that specific search phrase. The same could be said for a photograph I took looking north onto Central Park. The image is iconic, and so well photographed, that even if you had never been to New York you would recognise it.
It is established then that there already exist many images of New York, superior to my own in quality. Yet I still felt compelled to take these images. I wanted the record that I had been there, that I had seen these things and photographed them myself. More than simple aesthetic, to me it evokes being there, how it felt to be atop that great skyscraper, endeavoring to achieve the perfect shot of a building I have seen reproduced time and time again in popular culture, and longed to see myself for more than half my life. Others who have been to the Top of the Rock may look at this photograph and remember their own experience, but because I took the photograph, I remember in more detail. Memory, nostalgia, to evoke a sense of being there; all inspire us to photograph that which has been photographed before. Moreover, no one will have had the same exact experience as I did. In that way, this photograph becomes unique, even as it will have been clearly duplicated. The same can be said for these shots of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
These photographs were posted on Instagram. Instagram is relatively new compared to some of its social media rivals, but is hugely popular; in June 2013, 3 years after its launch, it had 130 million registered users, who had shared over 16 billion photos. I imagine this figure is much higher now, but those figures alone demonstrate its popularity as a social media platform. The proliferation of photo sharing sites, such as Instagram, has meant sharing photographs digitally has become more common. Increasingly throughout the week, I was taking photographs with the aim of uploading to Instagram. This desire to post on Instagram reflected my wish to record my trip through photography, but also to share images I thought were particularly pleasing. The pressure to take a good photograph is exacerbated by uploading to Instagram and exposing it to the culture of ‘likes’, an environment where the worth of a picture is determined by its popularity. Yet the majority of the photographs I posted were also taken for memory, somewhat negating the pressure of creating a worthy picture, as unlike some Instagram posts they are valuable to me regardless of their Instagram worth. However some photographs were entirely motivated by appearance. Figure 6 is the best example of that. These trees could be absolutely anywhere. It does remind me of walking in Central Park, but unlike photographs of famous buildings or monuments, if someone saw this with no context, there is no reason why they should guess it was taken there. Whereas someone might view my photo of the Empire State Building and remember their own trip nostalgically through it, I doubt the same thing would occur if I showed them this photo.
Other photographs taken mainly for the purposes of aesthetics are unmistakably from New York. They are not about capturing long expected memory but about the photograph itself. Naturally they have nostalgia imbedded in them; I can use them as vehicles for remembering experiences but it isn’t the primary reason for the photographs’ existence. The other photographs of the Empire State Building were taken not because of the building itself, but because of what was happening in the sky behind it, the building cutting across these sometimes dramatic skies. The clouds in New York are fascinating to me; they seem to move so fast, constantly changing and providing a new background to the skyline, and it was this that I wanted to capture. Sontag looks at photography within tourism as a way to shape experiences; a reaction that occurs when unsure of what other response to give. This is not the case with these photographs. They were taken deliberately to capture some aspect of my experience in New York. Aesthetics play into my decisions because of Instagram; they are representations of memory, yet also I wanted the photographs to look good on my profile. Therefore social media influenced the selection of these images, a process often unacknowledged when considering collections of photographs. Despite this, memory was still a stronger motivator than online recognition. Instagram was simply the tool I used to create my collection, a modern equivalent to a photo album.
Whilst some of my photographs were inspired by capturing experiences, some were to record what I perceived to be the strangeness and difference of American culture. We speak the same language, share some of the same popular culture and have aspects of a shared history, but there is definitely a huge difference in culture. Sometimes we might forget, but they are as foreign to us as any other nation. One thing I have observed in America is an obsession with flags. They display their flag everywhere. In the UK, you would probably find it odd if you walked down the street and someone was proudly displaying the Union Flag in their garden. In America, it’s fairly commonplace. Commonplace enough, it seems, that they even put flags in more unusual places, such as at the end of a crane.
The obsession with flags is merely a manifestation of their obsession with patriotism. Notice here the US Armed Forces recruiting station, located right in the middle of Times Square (complete with American Flag on the side). For me this seemed entirely bizarre, to have a recruiting station in such a touristic place, so brazenly just there. Tales from friends on year abroad in America has meant that I was not as surprised as I once might have been to see such blatant patriotism and cultural difference when I went to New York. I expected it to feel foreign, as much as I was familiar with it from media and TV shows. Still, the recruiting station definitely surprised me, enough that I wanted to photograph it, and register my disbelief at it being where it was. These differences made up a part of my experience, and so I felt it was necessary to include them in my collection, to make the representation more accurate.
Slater asserts that the decisions we make when we take photographs are how we construct images of ourselves and the stories we wish to tell. The photographs I took, and more importantly those I chose to share, shaped my representation of my week in New York. Famous buildings, memorable experiences, and cultural differences were all things that I uploaded photographs of because they told the story of what I had experienced. Some look at the modern compulsion to document our lives through photography sceptically, calling those who photograph themselves narcissistic. I disagree, from my own beliefs and experiences. The photographs I take represent special memories and experiences, and although I may upload them to social media and appreciate the ‘likes’ they might receive, the real reason I took them was for the meaning they have to me; Instagram was simply my tool to collect and present them. Social media is important, as it inspired the documentation of the week, yet my motivations were more personal. Instagram had a greater role as a tool than anything else. My photographs of New York weren’t simply a reaction, but the result of considered action. I can’t speak for the motives of other people, but the optimist in me chooses to believe that others photograph for the same reason. To experience the moment, relive it, and smile. Yes, life shouldn’t be lived through the lens of a camera, but there is nothing wrong with using it to capture memories.
 ‘DP’, columnist in Once a Week (London), June 1st 1861, quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography (London, 1979), p.184.
 Susan Sontag, On Photography (London, 1979), p.3.
 Nadav Hochman and Lev Manovich, ‘Zooming into an Instagram City: Reading the Local through Social Media’, First Monday, 18:7 (2013), accessed at http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4711/3698.
 Damien Sutton, Photography, Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), accessed at http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/stable/10.5749/j.ctttswn6, p.204.
 Susan Sontag, On Photography (London, 1979), p.10.
 Risto Sarvas and David Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media – The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography (London, 2011), p.7.
 Don Slater (1995), quoted in Risto Sarvas and David Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media – The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography (London, 2011), p.6.
Hochman, Nadav and Lev Manovich, ‘Zooming into an Instagram City: Reading the Local through Social Media’, First Monday, 18:7 (2013), accessed at http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4711/3698.
Sarvas, Risto and David Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media – The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography (London, 2011).
Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London, 1979).
Sutton, Damien, Photography, Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), accessed at http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/stable/10.5749/j.ctttswn6
All photographs were taken from my Instagram, which is @hannahscales95, and have been included with their original captions (minus hashtags).