As a photographer, I wanted to be present in my daily life

The English duo Rob Brown & Sean Booth (also known as Autechre) recently plunged Sydney’s City Recital Hall into darkness during a performance of electronic music.

The ticket information informed me that the show would be performed in darkness. I was eager to close my eyes and immerse myself completely in an auditory experience.

However, I was not prepared for the lack of photographic opportunities that are usually associated with such events.

It’s almost automatic to capture cultural events with smartphone photos. It is not uncommon to see thousands of people recording performances with their arms raised for social media.

The phrase “pics, or it didn’t happen” is a way to confirm an experience through photography. This rule was not applicable in the case of the Autechre show.

Like everyone else, I did not raise my phone to take pictures of the show, stage, or light show because they were non-existent. Even the musicians couldn’t be seen! The recital hall was only lit by the green glow from the emergency exit signs.

Autechre was not only a feast for the ears, but it also provided a respite to having another experience through my phone. I was able to enjoy an hour of pure sonic bliss without the need to take pictures.

Photography detox

This departure from the traditional sensory experience of vision was compelling. Our screens often engross us, and if not, we see others doing the same.

This concert created an entirely different community presence. While I was focused on my auditory journey, I also listened to those around me. In the absence of smartphones, I wondered if they felt relieved not to have anything to photograph.

Autechre was not like going to the cinema, where we silence our phones and swap the small screens of our smartphones for the large screens of the cinema. The only visible thing was the sound. There was no screen or image.

I remember a time earlier in the year when I decided not to take any photos. The detox lasted for two months. I wanted to be less distracted by my phone and more present.

The recital hall was lit only by the faint green glow from the emergency exit signs. Kent Banes/Unsplash

It was challenging to be a so-called professional photographer. We are all photographers now. It would be a challenge for anyone, given that photography is a part of our daily lives and how we communicate with each other.

During my detox, I noticed how missing photography affected me. This led me to explore other creative outlets, like writing lists or jotting down my experiences in words. It was an invaluable experience to replace one artistic outlet with another.

The photography detox shed light on the social aspects of photography. Since I regularly share photos on Instagram and send daily photos to my friends to keep them updated, it was clear that my social life would suffer if I didn’t have new pictures to show. I became withdrawn and quiet.

When my family was chatting and exchanging photos on WhatsApp, I responded with emojis instead of photographic images. The detox showed me how photography is a way for me to communicate with others. It’s also a vital part of my personality.

It was not just about taking pictures to remember, but an impulse, a reflex triggered by boredom, excitement, anxiety, or the need to connect.

I had the same urge to grab my phone during the entire Autechre concert.

Completely unphotographable

Jean-Luc Nancy, the late French philosopher, explored how hearing turns us inward while seeing directs us to look outward. In his 2007 essay, Hearing Nancy asked:

Why is it that, while the ear is withdrawn and turned inwards, it is making resonant, but the eye is manifesting and displaying, making obvious?

This question is deeply rooted in the concert experience. Autechre gave me an hour of listening without having to “evidence my listening.”

I was reminded of Daniel Libeskind’s Voided Void or Holocaust Tower in Berlin’s Jewish Museum by the lack of photo opportunities. The tower is only accessible in small groups. A heavy door closes off the claustrophobic, irregularly shaped space. We were in total darkness once we entered, with just a tiny sliver coming through the ceiling.

The Holocaust Tower in the Liebeskind Building of the Jewish Museum, Berlin. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

The sound of my shoes echoing on the floor was a sign that I was alive. My camera was useless.

Autechre’s concert was a perfect example of what the absence of visual stimuli and photography can do. I was literally able to feel the physical vibrations in the bass.

As I could not see anything with my eyes, there was nothing for me to photograph. It was like deep meditation. I realized that taking photos is not something that brings me inward, despite my lack of social interaction during my photo detox.

I admit I was also among those who photographed the previous act, and the stage manager was standing under photogenic lighting when he told us to go the bathroom before Autechre’s piece.

Also, I saw people taking pictures of the concert posters near the box office. What other way could they have documented where they had been and what they had seen? In the arts, it is common to create visual content that’s photogenic and easily Instagrammable.

Autechre was radical in that they created an artwork that was completely ephemeral and unphotographable.

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