Often, when I couldn’t find what my mum asked me to look for, she’d tell me, “Look past your nose and you’ll find it”. It was always her way of telling me I should increase my effort into finding what I’m looking for, because it might be right in front of me. Today those words came back to me as I read the small print of a flyer for tonights one-off Alicia Keys show in London, which explicitly stated that this would be a mobile phone / camera free event. Phones will be securly locked away in a pouch for the duration of the show and only unlocked at the end by the venues security.
Being a photographer, the first thing that popped into my head was “Damn it! I won’t be able to shoot the show”. After a few calls, that quickly became a reality. But then I started to think about the reasoning behind this quite stern request.
Our mobile phones are the key to the world. You have everything that has ever been documented in your pocket. Videos, pictures and articles can be seen in full HD in a matter of seconds. Infinite possibilities of enlightenment right at your fingertips. Although, lets be honest, most mobile phones are held up high and used as a digital mirror for selfies. Technology for all it’s merits, has enabled us to show exactly what we’re doing at any given time and make it available for the world to see. 50 years ago, if an event happened, you relied on journalists and photographers to provide their views. Now we have the power to live streams any event, while anyone can tune in and add their view. Our phones are our supercomputers.
We live in a world where experiences are shared milliseconds after they have happened. Apps like Snapchat and Periscope give viewers an opportunity to act like they’re Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Looking into what people are doing as they are doing it. I recently joined Snapchat and the other night was joined by viewers who watched as I slowly went crazy from being stuck in standstill traffic for several hours. I found myself giving updates every 30 minutes, randomly talking to my own face on the screen expressing my frustration of being trapped in my car. Snapchat users have an urge to show snippets of their lives to complete strangers. This extends to our experiences at music shows. I have to admit I’ve also benefitted from this as I’ve been able to see performances from shows that I wasn’t able to attend. But some people go overboard. Creating 500 second snaps, recording the entire show 10 seconds at a time. I often think, did you actually see the artist at all? You might as well have stayed at home and watched a YouTube video.
Of course, it’s all getting a bit ridiculous, video can never really capture the actual energy in a venue. But spending the majority of your time watching the show through your phone has to disconnect your attention from what is right in front of you. You’re too focused on making sure that you’ve applied the right geotag filter and trying to get your snap on the London Story feed. I scratch my head in disbelief when I see people using the front camera to capture themselves and the act in the same frame. Often choosing to make sure that their face takes up the majority of the screen.
I often shoot at live music shows and get a first hand view from the pit of how people in the crowd use their phones. Most point the camera at the stage to capture what they see. Others, take 10 second snaps of themselves singing their favourite songs. What I find weird about this is that some of those people are actually in the front row, approximately 6ft away from the actual creator of that song, who’s singing directly to them – live! But some choose to experience this through a 5 inch screen instead of interacting with the artist that’s right in front of them. I’ve been confused by this phenomena for a while. Why would you not relish the chance to look one of your favourite singers in the eye and sing back the words to them? Why not try and get a moment up close and personal with an artist that you’ll remember for years to come? The problem with that is, who’s gonna know about it? How will your 26 snapchat followers know how well the performance was and how close you were to the stage? If you didn’t post it on Instagram, were you even there?
So, I’m starting to understand perhaps why Alicia Keys decided to put a ban in place against using mobile phones and cameras at her London show. I’m presuming that she wants to feel the engagement from her fans and for them to be a focused recipient of her performance, a craft that she’s spent a large portion of her life creating and cultivating. I’m sure an artist doesn’t want a song that they’re performing reduced to a snap that’ll disappear in 24 hours or have to go on a mission like Kanye to purge live videos off of YouTube. Maybe they just want it to be remembered in the hearts and minds of their fans who pay for the privilege to be there.
Real life happens when you look out in front of you, away from social media, where you’re bombarded by the views and opinions of hundreds and thousands of people you don’t know personally. We’ve become so used to it, that now it’s actually quite liberating to find a moment to log out of the digital world. I went to a dinner once where there was a forfeit to down a shot every time anyone looked at their phone. Some people got pretty drunk that night because it’s a habit we just can’t seem to drop. We’ve developed an addiction to wanting to know everything that’s actually happening around us and sharing what is happening with us to the world.
I’d like to think that Alicia Keys and her team are forcing her fans to come to the show and let go of that dependency to use their mobile as a window to their lives and just get them to focus for a few hours on what’s happening right in front of their noses – a performance of songs they might actually just enjoy in realtime. If you’ve paid to go see Alicia use her slender voice to sing stories about her journey through life, you might find yourself doing something quite different tonight. You might feel the lights stimulate your brain and evoke a feeling of movement through your body as you dance to songs that make you sing out loud. Your hands, which will now be free of all devices, may just be able to express themselves in ways you didn’t know they could. When the show is over, your phone will be released from it’s lock and key secured pouch, and then you’ll use those 140 characters or snaps to just talk about how great the show was – without a shot or video in sight. The difference this time will be that every expression will be a unique one.
After the show tonight, there will be no snapchat videos just like another 20 people with the same point of view. Your view of the show will be your only view, so tell it as you experience it. Maybe it’s what Alicia Keys wanted all along, maybe she wants you to listen to the pages of her diary, maybe tonight you’ll actually watch a show and live in the moment. Free from the distractions of the world, free for a short time, you’ll experience an element of freedom according to Alicia Key’s.