Eric Pickersgill’s images turned into an internet sensation when they created a debate about our use of mobile devices. He talks to Karen Sheard
Eric Pickersgill’s large-format black & white images show people in North Carolina, USA, concentrating on their mobile devices rather than the people around them. However, these are ‘staged’ reconstructions of everyday situations the photographer has already witnessed.
Eric refers to them as ‘re-enactments’ – performances of scenes he has encountered while driving around. He said: ‘The majority of the photographs occurred originally as observations. Then I intervened, explained myself and recreated the initial observation.’
How it started
The idea for the project came about when Eric, who was missing his new wife while away on an artist’s retreat, noticed a family in a café all sitting together, but isolated from each other by their device usage. He made the following notes: ‘Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, New York, is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, and alone in the company of her family.’
He tells us about that moment:
‘I was at this low point of feeling homesick and isolated, so that made it like this repelling moment where I thought, “Wow! These people are really not taking advantage of their time together.”’
For Eric, it was one of those perfect moments you later regret not photographing, and the scene stayed in his mind, leading to his idea for a photography project based on the question of how using personal devices can affect our relationships.
‘The motivation wasn’t to create a body of work to shame or bash people who use technology,’ says Eric. ‘It was more to create a piece that operates like a mirror so people can see what they’re doing and bring attention to something that’s become normal quite quickly.
‘If a sub-culture of people were the only ones who had access to those devices and were using them as often, I think the rest of the world would be quite suspicious or concerned. However, it’s something we’re all partaking in, so I think we’re less cynical as a whole.’
Eric is keen not to be seen as pointing the finger, but more as an active participant in the culture he is describing. ‘I want to make sure I’m not coming across like I’m slamming technology,’ he says. ‘I think that would close down the conversation.’
The project has also made Eric more aware of his own device usage. He and his wife now have a policy of leaving the phone in the car when they go out for dinner. ‘We’ve noticed that we have better and more sustained interaction with each other when the device isn’t there,’
he says. ‘But it’s weird, because you still reach for your pocket to see if it’s there and that’s when I start to think about the word “addiction”.’
The issue is complex. He adds: ‘I think there are huge benefits [to technology], because sometimes being near people is just not possible. But when you can be ,and you’re still accessing other people who aren’t there, I think that becomes problematic – at least for me personally.
‘For me, talking on the phone is not the same as sitting across the table from my wife – looking into her eyes and having face-to-face interaction.’
Eric also tried to use the shoots to make his subjects aware of their own usage. He asked them afterwards about their relationships with their devices. Many had strategies such as leaving their phones charging downstairs overnight or banning them from the dinner table, but he also found a unanimous admission of device dependence.
‘It’s certainly accelerating in acceptability, but there’s this guilt I think that people have right now because the changes are happening within our lifetime,’ he adds.
‘We haven’t had anyone born with their mother having a device in her hand – you know, taking a selfie – and then living a full life expectancy and then dying with a device in their hand. That hasn’t happened yet, but it will, maybe just after my lifetime. I think we’re still experiencing this shift.’
For his first pictures, Eric experimented with images of his wife in a café, taking a shot of her with a device in her hand, and then without, and then using Photoshop to paste the empty hand over the other shot.
‘What I realised is that, first, I suck at Photoshop,’ he says. ‘The other thing was that there was no difference in facial expressions. So I was like, “Why am I making this harder on myself? I’m going to have people perform: I’m not going to Photoshop it out.”
‘I love that this implicated the person in the picture. They knew what the photograph was about – it wasn’t just me going around and taking pictures in the world and then Photoshopping them out without people’s permissions.’
Some have argued that using Photoshop would have given a truer representation of the moment Eric was recreating, but Eric says it was not his intention to be journalistic. He feels photography is too often trusted as a true representation of reality – which is dangerous.
‘I think I have my own troubled, relationship with photography,’ he says. ‘I’ve studied it for many years and am cynical of the medium, or at least I’m cynical of people’s lack of cynicism towards photography.’
He continues, ‘Although I respect what journalists do, the news industry depends on the belief of photography as being able to objectively represent truths, and as someone who has spent the past 12 years being an image maker, I feel there’s no truth in photographs. They have four walls at the left, right, top and bottom, so it is cropping a moment and compressing it into a two-dimensional space. And then there’s a world of possibilities with editing.’
When Eric eventually uploaded his images to his website, he had no idea of the impact they would have. The series had been online for months, but it was only after a friend, Andrew Stern, interviewed him for the website techinsider.io that they really took off. A few days after the story came out, the images were all over the internet – without Eric’s permission. It is with a touch of irony, and perhaps paradoxical, that a piece of work that questions our use of technology should become so successful online.
Eric’s first photos have been ‘liked’, ‘shared’ and ‘viewed’ on thousands of devices. He recalls his initial reactions: ‘I remember on one of the first days I Googled my name and saw that someone had totally ripped off the pictures from my website… I was like. “This is terrible! Andrew, does this happen?” and he said, “Yes. If you want to go after them you can send a cease-and-desist, but you’re going to waste a lot of time.”’
Instead, Eric decided to concentrate on the debate that the exposure had attracted. His images have been picked up by numerous publications and sites around the world, sparking many discussions over whether or not our devices are causing greater isolation in society.
Eric feels the popularity of his images lies in the fact that we are going through an unprecedented period of change, which is happening universally. ‘There isn’t a culture right now that isn’t interested in talking about this subject, and I also did it in a way where I’m not accusing people,’ adds Eric. ‘Also, I think the performance part is referential to debates about photography and journalism and realism – what’s true and what’s not. It caters to so many people that I guess it had to take off, although I had no thought of that whatsoever.’
Eric’s images have proved divisive, attracting a mass of positive media coverage and debate, but also some negativity. ‘There are people saying the project has a neo-Luddite slant, but these are generally people who haven’t read my statement and haven’t seen I’m not trying to bash it,’ says Eric. ‘I just want to illustrate this very specific moment in history and do it in a way that communicates an idea.’
See Eric’s website at: http://removed.social