Empowerment vs. Regret: Essena O’Neill & Jeff Wall

Here are two stories from the photography world this week that are tangentially (and eerily) related:

Australian teenager Essena O'Neill, a popular instagrammer (and youtuber & social media maker) had a spectacular flame-out in which she re-captioned her instagram photos to reveal how much she'd been paid to make particular posts, how much photographic effort it took to create a perfect selfie, and to generally lift the veil on the downside of what it takes to be an instagram star. (Essena had 922k followers before pulling the plug.)

After re-captioning, she deleted all her photos, though you can still see traces in the Internet archive. For what it's worth, she's rebooted with a new effort here including this tear-filled explanation, above.

"Young people can find out the reality behind 'the perfect Instagram life' and how nothing is perfect about spending every single day making your life look perfect online. That is not real; that is not inspirational..."
Editorially, while Instagram is an incredible tool for visually re-presenting the lives, interests, and photographic fascinations of smart-phone owners (your friend with the flip-phone ain't on Instagram) there are clear and obvious downsides, especially for teenagers, and it's refreshing to see the press pay attention to someone who's choosing to create and manage their own media (and online "self") in a different way.

Concurrently, The Guardian spent time with Jeff Wall, whose "Dead Troops Talk" (below) sold for more than 3 million dollars at Christie's in 2012. The High Museum owns a Wall, as well.

© Jeff Wall

The piece talks about how as a student, Wall studied painting & drawing, "meticulously copying images from Robert Frank’s seminal photobook, The Americans, before he discovered conceptualism." And then, the review's kicker:

"He’s still troubled by his decision to turn from one to the other. “I still don’t know why I slithered away from painting to photography and I have never been able to figure that out,” he says. “It may just have been youthful stupidity or the fact that I was an over-confident and in-a-hurry adolescent in the late 1960s – when the possibilities of photography first registered with me. I was very restless in those days. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done it differently.”

For all his success, he sounds regretful. “Not regretful because I love photography and am still excited by it, but I’m still haunted by the idea that it was a misstep and all that followed has just been a big mistake.” A brilliant mistake, I reply, taken aback.

“I guess so,” he says, sounding unconvinced. Like his best photographs, Wall reveals just enough to keep you guessing."
Update: Later today, while listening to the always worthwhile Note to Self in which Manoush Zomorodi interviewed novelist Walter Kirn about smartphones and the nature of surveillance, Kirn had a long quote that seemed infinitely relatable to second-guessing one's own participation in posting your photos and status updates across the social web.

"It looks as though we are confidently and voluntarily giving up every last bit of private information to the Web; it looks as though the last thing we fear is having our privacy invaded. But I've started to wonder if whether it's a kind of 'you can't fire me, I quit' reaction. That in a world where we don't expect privacy; in a world where the default setting is 'you can find out anything about me', we want to be in control of our image. And a generation that's trained to make itself look good on Facebook is really in fact converting a certain anxiety it has about its real self being seen, into a performance.

You've got two options when you find out you're under surveillance. One is hide, and the other is perform. We pick perform."

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