from frieze summer 1995
Sinbad Says Cheese: Polaroid's Talking Camera
Besides its legendary technological prowess, Polaroid Corporation has had an uncanny knack for capitalizing on the issues making photographic consumers uneasy. The original Polaroid process cut down on processing time from days to minutes, but it also gave snapshot photographers the ability to make finished pictures (especially erotica of all varieties) free of the prying eyes of Kodak's notorious photolab censors. The SX-70 of the early-seventies cut development time to a matter of seconds, but more importantly the new process disposed of the original Polaroid's huge "pull and tear" waste flow—a real problem for consumers newly exposed to the horrors of industrial pollution.
This spring Polaroid is introducing its newest technological marvel "The Talking Camera." Using a computer chip to record messages that can be played back before exposure, the talking Polaroid may not be a technological miracle, but it does speak to the most nagging photographic issue of the '90s: fear of photography. From the media backlash following the broadcast of grief-stricken onlookers at the Challenger disaster to celebrity/paparazzi punchouts to parents complaining to newspapers about their children's pictures being used to promote unhealthy stereotypes, it's been the school of hard knocks for Americans and the politics of the image. One of the few things that people in the U.S. agree on is that they've had enough of being represented in photographs that serve little more than the bottom line of media megapolies, whether they be TV stations or art museums.
Because most people have no way of coming into contact with the media powers that be, they've taken to playing out their representational politics on a grassroots level. That means dealing with photographers in a much more active way, forcing photographs to be more participatory. People want to know why a photographer wants to make a picture and what he or she is going to do with it. Whose story is the picture going to tell and whose viewpoint is it going to support? In the 1930s it could be commonly held that the increased visual representation provided by photography (i.e., that everyone and not just the rich could have their portrait made or have their lives portrayed) would insure a greater cultural enfranchisement, a greater representational presence for all classes of people, a way for the other stories of Western society to be told. This notion has given way to a suspicion (fostered by art photographers in particular) that the photograph is a means by which a photographer communicates what he or she thinks of the world regardless of the photograph's subject. The result is the current impasse. Photographers who have been force-fed on the idea that their viewpoint is the most important element of the photograph find themselves across the camera from a populace that feels totally excluded from a medium that uses their lives as raw material. Finding it convenient to quash what has been apparent from the first photographs—that the subject is co-author of every photograph and should be recognized as a participating member of every photographic engagement—the 150-year-old regime of photographic authorship is now facing a popular rebellion. The represented have had enough and they aren't going to innocently take part anymore.
As usual, this crisis in photographic representation is a small but very visible sign of a crisis in larger representational systems, in this case American-style representative-democracy. From the revolt against incumbent Democratic congresspeople and senators to the popular call for term limits, Americans are turning on their elected representatives in record numbers. Suddenly the idea that one person can represent the needs and wishes of many or even of any other single person is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As a result, Americans are participating more in their own government by barraging their congressional representatives with phone calls, faxes, email messages, and letters. Time Magazine recently devoted an entire issue to the notion that this barrage was a danger to representative democracy, that senators and congressmen have become little more than pawns of polls and the Internet. Of course, representative democracy isn't going to end anytime soon, but the fact that Time Magazine is terrified of "mob rule" should say something about the fear sweeping through the corridors of representational power in America. The real problem isn't the coming "hyperdemocratic" revolution, it's the widely held feeling that congressional representatives don't truly represent anyone but themselves, large corporate interests, and their communally held pocketbooks. Like photographers, political representatives have crossed a line—the represented no longer see themselves as part of the process of representation.
The Talking Camera is a far cry from a cure for the crisis facing representative democracy, but the people at Polaroid are aware of the problem facing photographic representation and, in their own technological way, trying to resolve it. Polaroid's TV advertising campaign—based around cross-over comedian Sinbad—is explicit: the talking camera is a sneaky but fun way to bring subjects who don't want their pictures taken back into the process—in Polaroid's words "to share" in the making of a photograph. Each TV commercial is a short scenario of an ideal photographic engagement: Sinbad records funny introduction ("Hey, my brothers, those hoods are going to wear your hair off"—to four reticent monks); subjects pose unwillingly with grimaces; subjects hear recording and laugh; Sinbad takes picture of smiling subjects; Sinbad shows picture to subjects; everyone laughs.
Polaroid would like us to believe that the technological innovation of the Talking Camera is responsible for the happy outcome and part of the camera's appeal lies in the way the photographer "goes first" by technologically abstracting his own voice before technologically abstracting the subject's image. That charm doesn't take away from the obvious fact that the crucial element in each of these dramatized photographic engagements is **Sinbad in the person of the camera operator and his commitment not only to make a "good" photograph but to the well-being and happiness of those in the photograph. Sinbad and Polaroid start with the dissatisfaction caused by popular media's obsession with manipulation and rebut it through a process that depends on the joys of participation and a mutually acceptable outcome.
Whether you think of it as dishonestly utopian or just plain corny, the Polaroid Talking Camera TV commercials are about the steps necessary to forge a shared identity out of difference (Sinbad is black, semi-hip-hop and all of his subjects are defanged semi-conservative whites). Sinbad takes the effort to imagine a mutually funny one-liner and the subjects respond by participating in his act of representation. That shared moment of identity, difficult and fleeting, is the true subject of Sinbad's snapshots, the real political possibility of every photographic engagement, and the first step toward honest representation, whether it be photographic or political. Owning a camera (or a seat in the U.S. Senate or House) doesn't by itself give anyone the right to represent anyone else; a commitment to the changing status of representation and to recognizing the responsibility and satisfaction of placing the self-interests of others above one's own just might.