The other day on WNYC's show Soundcheck, they had a debate about whether it's OK to take cellphone photos at rock shows. Personally, I think it's fine as long as you're not one of those jackasses who keeps his (and it's never her) phone aloft throughout the show, taking movies and blocking my view. It's none of my concern if you're more interested in getting a good photo than experiencing the show.
But they never got around to talking about why so many people take cellphone photos in the first place. Ten years ago, a tiny minority of people took pictures at shows, and they usually got asked to stop. Obviously, that has a lot to do with the fact that now virtually everyone has a low-res digital camera in their pocket, and there's nothing venue security can do about it. But there's more to it than that.
Why do people feel compelled to take almost totally useless pictures of rock shows? (Can anyone tell me who the bands in these photos are?) I'm sure some of them put the pictures up on their blogs, but I'd bet the proverbial house that when the memory on the camera-phone gets filled up, the ill-composed snaps of that totally rad Jack Johnson show from three months ago are the first to get deleted.
Maybe people just have an irrepressible urge to document. And I'm the last one to poke fun at that. A lot of cellphone movies wind up on Youtube, but the sound and picture are terrible -- does anybody watch them if they don't feature something ghastly like the lead singer punching out an audience member? Still if you have a long, prestigious list of shows under your Youtube alias, that could bring some perceived cred or at least pride. It's the 21st century equivalent of thumbtacking concert tickets to your dorm room wall.
Perhaps we can benefit, as always, from a few lines by the English poet Raymond Douglas Davies:
People take pictures of the summer
Just in case someone thought they had missed it
And to prove that it really existed
Taking pictures at shows is like making your own souvenir, so it's participatory and somewhat unique – everyone gets to take their own shot. And when you're paying close to a hundred bucks a ticket, plus parking, Ticketmaster gouging, and gas, you darn well want something that proves you were there. So there's the incontrovertible evidence, right there on something as personal as your cellphone. Or maybe it's like throwing sneakers at the stage was 15 years ago -- a way of erasing the distance between the performer and yourself.
On a related note, I wonder if waving opened cellphones at concerts is more energy-efficient than waving lighters. I suspect it is. And waving lighters is pretty much restricted to people who smoke, so using cellphones makes power ballad appreciation accessible to more than just people who are committing gradual suicide. Then again, cellphones just don't have the romance of an open flame.