Margaret Renkl: You’re pointing your camera the wrong way

Beware of what happens when we make ourselves the center of our photographs.

(Damian Dovarganes | AP photo) This April 19, 2018, photo shows Library of Congress photo curator Beverly Brannan, left, and exhibition curator Anne Wilkes Tucker talk about "Migrant Mother," Dorothea Lange's moving portrait of a destitute farmworker photographed in 1936 at a pea-pickers camp near Nipomo, Calif.

Nashville • Not quite halfway through the new season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” a young woman, Portia, breaks into tears at breakfast. She is staying at a luxury resort in Sicily as the personal assistant of one of the wealthy guests. While her tablemate, a true vacationer, takes smiling selfies with the shining Ionian Sea in the background, Portia glances across the terrace at her despairing employer. “Is everything boring?” she asks, her voice quivering.

Portia’s problem is only partly the obscene wealth to which she exists in permanent adjacency. As her breakfast companion’s cheerful self-portraits suggest, she is at also odds with her era: “I just feel like there must’ve been a time when the world had more, you know? Like mystery or something,” she says. “And now you come somewhere like this, and it’s beautiful, and you take a picture, and then you realize that everybody’s taking that exact same picture from that exact same spot and you’ve just made some redundant content for stupid Instagram.”

This is the cry of anyone in Portia’s generation who is paying attention. It should be the cry of everybody else, too. With the advent of the self-facing camera, the human world turned in fundamental ways.

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange often said. That was surely true of Lange, whose iconic photographs of Depression-era migrants and urban bread lines captured the beauty as well as the profound anguish of the period.

Today we understand something essential about the grim existence of the poor nearly a hundred years ago in part because Lange, a successful portrait photographer, turned her lens away from wealth and used it to capture suffering. Even for the people of her time, her work was revelatory, urging downcast eyes to look up and out, to see — and truly register — the struggling.

That’s not what the most frequently used cameras exist to do anymore. My son and daughter-in-law, who are frequent campers, have seen people queued up at least 50 deep to take phone selfies at popular national park waterfalls and rock formations.

When we think about this transformation in cameras, if we think about it at all, it’s generally to focus on its mental health implications, particularly for girls and young women, or to lament the folly of people who have lost their lives in search of the perfect selfie. But in the context of the number of selfies taken every year — billions, according to Google — it’s worth considering what that impulse says about our culture and wondering what opportunities we are losing as a result.

The greatest danger in flipping the camera toward ourselves isn’t miscalculated risk or the loss of self-esteem. The greatest danger is what happens when we make ourselves the center of the photograph, the center of the world itself. No wonder Portia believes that everything is boring. Solipsism is a closed system.

The first time a young couple posing for a selfie declined my offer to take their picture in a scenic spot, it dawned on me that something had changed about the world. People prefer to smile up at their own faces reflected in a lifted phone because taking a photograph is not primarily a way to commemorate an experience anymore. Nowadays many people are seeking experiences that will provide an enviable backdrop for a selfie. There are murals all over my town that exist for no reason but to attract the selfie takers. Maybe they’re in your town, too.

The self-portrait is a time-honored art form, of course, and there are good, even pragmatic reasons to point the lens inward. I love seeing my son and daughter-in-law smiling, cheek to cheek, in their travel photos. But the natural world does not exist for them primarily as a backdrop, and selfies aren’t the only photos they take. I also love seeing the gorgeous, miraculous world through their eyes. I wish social media were full of pictures of the gorgeous, miraculous world.

I don’t mean just the breathtaking waterfalls or the glinting sea or the dizzying views from the tops of mountains or the apex predators sunning themselves at the edges of ponds or fishing in mountain streams or just ambling idly along in a wilderness increasingly filled with people. I mean the extravagant everyday world all around us, the one we mostly ignore, even as it disappears.

I keep thinking of what it might be like if we all took the time to photograph such commonplace miracles. What it would be like if all the people with cameras in their pockets transformed themselves into documentary photographers — like Dorothea Lange, like Baldwin Lee — to make a collective record of a truth about the world that most people haven’t yet troubled themselves to see?

The truth of gleaming crows calling to one another through the scaffolding of buildings that rise in the places where rooted pines once stood. Of nearsighted opossums snuffling through fallen leaves. Of blue jays robbing squirrel dreys for stored nuts and field mice taking shelter in abandoned buildings. Of a vulture riding a thermal, its great wings extended in benediction.

There is no simple way to banish the ennui of our age, but maybe it would help if we stopped looking at our own faces and turned instead to documenting the vanishing natural world in all its manifestations. Perhaps that change would change us in more essential ways, too. Would we finally learn to love the magnificent planet we were born to inhabit? Would we fight to save it?

Portia is right: There was a time when the world had more — more mystery, more magnificence — and, for now, it still has those things. The ordinary world would take our breath away if only we paused our podcasts, took our earbuds out and listened to the wind in the pines. If only we looked up from our screens. We need only to point our cameras out and let them teach us to see.

(Courtesy of Heidi Ross) Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.