What Happened When This Photographer Removed Phones From Images

October 15th 2015

Laura Donovan

Photographer Eric Pickersgill has been contacted by hundreds of journalists regarding his viral photo experiment Removed. In the project he removes phones from photographs to show just how much we've integrated technology into our lives—oftentimes to a fault.

Eric Pickersgill's Removed photo project

For his project, Pickersgill observed people using their phones and asked them to recreate the scenes without the phones in their hands, so the gestures are the same, but the devices are gone. Unsurprisingly, these photos highlight our struggle to unplug and be fully present.

It's no secret that this pervasive attachment to phones can be harmful. ATTN: staff writer Kyle Jaeger recently wrote about "phubbing," which is when you ignore the people around you to check your phone. Researchers say phubbing can hurt relationships, and it can also prevent you from living in the moment. Like many of us, Pickersgill is guilty of phubbing, having done it to his wife at home. This is partially what inspired Pickersgill to carry out the Removed photo experiment.

Eric Pickersgill's photo project, Removed

ATTN: had a chance to chat with Pickersgill over the phone about his project. Here's what he had to say about it.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

ATTN: I read your anecdote about a family using their phones instead of engaging with each other at a cafe in Removed's "about" section. You said you see this everywhere. Why do you think people use their devices to disengage with those they care about?

I think it happens as often as it does because people are OK with it. If we weren't all kind of implicated in it, then people would repel more in the moment. So you would just get frustrated enough with the person next to you to say something to them, but for whatever reason, I guess because content is so engaging, we just accept that the people around us are on their devices. So then we do what others in our groups do: access ours ourselves. I'm not trying to say that doing it is unacceptable, but it's definitely an obvious and dramatic shift and I think the photographs are a way of pointing back at that to kind of re-imagine our own reality.

Eric Pickersgill's photo project, Removed

ATTN: Is there a reason why your photos are in black and white?

For me, a photograph in black and white doesn't represent reality exactly the way we see. I know some people don't see in color, but a black and white photograph points toward the fact that the image is staged for me, so it's not exactly representing the real world. It's a reenactment. And there's a long history of performance in fine arts photography where black and white film was utilized. The other thing is the camera that I'm using is a large format film camera, so it uses a 4 X 5 inch sheet of film for each exposure. I used that camera and that process partly because I'm kind of a romantic and I fell in love with photography in the dark room when I was younger.

[This type of camera] also presents a kind of validity. So when I'm approaching a stranger, they're much more likely to participate and take the moment seriously and recognize that experience as art versus having this kind of seemingly ominous digital camera that tends to, I think, [seem like] more of an exploitative tool.

ATTN: I remember a time when it was rude to have your phone out at social events, but now it seems like there's always at least one phone on the table or present during get-togethers. Why do you think this device attachment became so common and lost its rudeness?

I think because if anything happens enough times, it becomes normal. It repeats itself. [It's like] the idea of rolling through a stop sign and not doing a complete stop. People just do that.

ATTN: This reminds me of a recent viral photo of an old woman enjoying a big event while everyone around her is documenting the moment on their phones. Have you seen this?

No, I haven't seen that. I'm not making this up to sound like my cause is really good, or that I'm fully committed to not using phones, but I don't look at a lot of media online, so this is my first time really seeing a lot of content.

ATTN: Some people defend their phones being out because they want to "document the moment" on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, but I know when I post something on one of these platforms that I'm constantly waiting for likes and comments from other people even though I'm still occupied in real life. So do you think the social media justification in these situations is merely an excuse not to be present?

Eric Pickersgill's photo project, Removed

I think it's definitely extracting the person from their present experience. Their intent is to construct a version of themselves online so that other people who aren't present can perceive them a certain way. We're all kind of performing. I think that's the other thing that relates back to my project: how people perform using their devices. While using devices, we're performing as different people. When we're trying to document our lives through a photograph, which we know is very selective and excludes things on purpose, you're very much so intentionally editing the way people see who you are. Your identity is essentially a performance as well.

ATTN: Yeah, and there's been a lot of research on the idea of "Instagram vs. real life" as well.

[My] project itself is a commentary specifically about photography too because the device is mediating the experience: both physically by blocking your vision from what you're seeing and then also your attention and kind of verbal interaction with other people. There's also this other layer because you're transmitting information through [the device] to other people and it's not necessarily factual, although we're still thinking photographs are more and more like facts.

Take the idea of body cameras, for example. That's almost opening up a can of worms where you're saying that an image coming from a designated person of authority is an un-tampered with image. That's risky to me, to have that as an acceptable piece of evidence. Like a photograph in a courtroom could be easily doctored to look like something else.

ATTN: In your photo series, you show more than one type of danger with this behavior: the risk of pushing loved ones away and also getting into a car accident or something like that. Are you hoping your project prevents people from getting into these kinds of situations?

Eric Pickersgill's photo project, Removed

If the photographs do that, which is a completely uncalculatable scenario, but if it did prevent someone from getting [hurt], that would be great. I have trouble saying that that's my full intent because right now I'm feeding into this media frenzy, so I'm helping thousands of people access more content. If I start to defend the project in the sense that I want to do this PSA, then I think I'm setting myself up to be a hypocrite. I hope people are just aware that if you're using the device in certain situations, other people around you may have a different opinion of the way you're using your time. Ultimately, it's up to the user, right? But you have the freedom to decide to use your device around other people. It's up to you.

Eric Pickersgill's photo project, Removed

ATTN: What has the general response to your project been?

The only side of it that I've seen right now is incredible interest. I'm really feeling the power of photography to create conversation. I'm also realizing what this whole "viral" thing is about. It's quite overwhelming. I've had to stop and recollect myself. I've also been seeking a lot of guidance in how to best accept all of this attention so that I'm kind of staying true to my art, which is my first goal, but also that I'm being fair to my family and the people around me. Since Sunday night, I've been contacted by literally hundreds of journalists. It's pretty wild how big this has become. When it wasn't as big as it is now, and I wasn't getting as many direct media requests, people were talking about [my project] online, and I would spend a lot of time reading through Facebook posts and conversations about it.

There was a lot of back and forth like, "Oh, well, I'm reading about this on my phone," which I don't think negates the work. [Just because] I'm talking about the platform that distributes something doesn't mean that I can't use it. But I've gotten a lot of personal emails from people saying, "This is something that my family is struggling with. Thank you for illustrating it in such a poetic way." So a lot of fan mail has come in. But I've kind of stayed off the blogs, like watching people go back and forth, because people get really nasty to each other when they're on those forums. I definitely don't feel good about being the catalyst for people to argue, but I am excited about making way for the catalyst for people to have discussions that are respectful and logical.

Eric Pickersgill's photo project, Removed

ATTN: How has this project personally changed your habits? I know you've said in other interviews that an interaction with your wife also inspired you to take this on.

It's gone back and forth. When the project first started, we really were making this honest effort to not use the devices. Instead of having our phones in bed, we got alarm clocks, so that way you don't have the excuse that you need to have your phone in your room. Then we would read together because everyone needs something to kind of turn their brains off at the end of the day. There's research that shows that the light that emits from your device is actually impacting your sleep versus falling asleep with a book.

Right now, I am on my device like crazy trying to handle this media storm. My wife is in medical school, so she came home last night and went to sleep early. I didn't get into bed until she only had like two or three hours left to sleep. We missed out on that time because I'm committed to trying to get this story out.

Friends know now that I'm known for this body of work, so they're shy about having their phone around me or really apologetic about it. I'm like, "hey, I don't take it personally. It's completely up to you." People have this expectation that I really want to change the way people use their devices, but I really just want people to make their own decision about it and be cognizant.

For more information on Pickersgill's project, go to Removed's website.