There have been plenty of photographs that have changed the world over the years. Some may have been taken decades before we were even born, but we know the story behind them. There are photos that can evoke such strong emotions and others that make us want to take action. There are positive photos, such as the kiss with the sailor on V-J Day in Times Square and the Empire State Building construction workers having lunch high in the sky. Then you have the photos that hold a bit more of a darker meaning, such as capturing the famine in Somalia or the war in Europe. In more modern times, photos can quickly spread across the internet, going viral for one reason or another – we all remember the Oscar selfie. Photos can tell us so much about a moment, but sometimes they can give us more insight than we ever expected. There’s a reason there are so many photographic competitions and awards every year, and there’s a reason so many photographers are living to capture that perfect shot. To be able to tell a story, evoke an emotion, or capture a piece of history, is something that every photographer hopes to achieve.
When this one photographer went out to take photos of the majestic humpback whales, he never expected to capture something entirely different on his camera. What he found led to a huge conversation around the world; a sort of social commentary. A picture is worth a thousand words, but what kind of words was this picture saying about humanity? From the moment it went viral there were a million questions. Who? Why? And what does this say about us?
Meet the photographer
Before we take a look at the photo that caused a real stir, it’s important we meet the man behind the camera. Eric J. Smith attended the Hartford Art School before graduating with the highest distinction from the Rhode Island School of Design. On top of his educational accolades, he is a member of some of the biggest and most prestigious photographic societies in the world, including the Royal Photographic Society and Directors Guild of America.
Always in the press
Eric Smith is no stranger to having his photos featured in the press, although perhaps not quite as much as recently. Many of his stunning shots have been featured in the National Geographic, and he has been interviewed for publications such as the Huffington Post. While Eric may have been no stranger to his photos gaining worldwide recognition, nothing could have prepared him for what would happen when he took one unusual photo in 2015.
A quick look at the portfolio of Eric Smith will explain why he has managed to gather so much press attention over the years. With photos exhibited at the UN Climate Change Conference and several National Geographic ‘Photo of the Day’ and ‘Your Shot’ features, Eric Smith is a renowned photographer. He is known for some utterly breathtaking shots, particularly of the natural world. However, one of these photos of the natural meeting the unnatural is easily his most famous.
Boating in Cali
Our story starts in January 2015, when Eric Smith decided to go boating just off Redondo Beach in California. As one of the three beach cities in Eric’s home state of Los Angeles, Redondo Beach attracts plenty of tourists from around the country. It isn’t unusual to see people out on boats, keeping their eyes peeled for some of the incredible wildlife that can be found in this part of the world. Or, just chilling on boats, soaking up the sun…
Eric Smith said in an interview that he had originally been snapping photos of a mother humpback whale and her calf. He said that the mom and calf were “flapping, breaching, jumping, mouths eating fish.” And that it was a fantastic sight to see. However, when he got back and started to look through his photos, he noticed something quite out of the ordinary in the background of some of them. What could have caught his attention?
A rare sight
Humpback whales were once considered an endangered species, although their numbers have started to increase since they became protected in 1996. While their numbers are on the rise, it is estimated that there are only around 30,000 to 40,000 in existence today. That is about 30-35% of their population in 1940. So, seeing a humpback whale is not generally something that happens every day. Especially as very few of this number can actually be found in the North Pacific, which is where Eric Smith spotted this mom and her calf.
Humpback whales are truly majestic creatures. Weighing up to 36,000 kg (around 79,000 lb) and ranging in length from 12-16 m (around 39-52 ft), they are some of the biggest creatures of the sea. So, you’d definitely notice one if it were swimming around you. Luckily, these stunning whales were classed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) back in 2008. Whale watching is now a popular adventure for tourists around the world, especially as humpback whales are curious and approachable.
Missing the show
With everything we now know about humpback whales, it would seem almost impossible to miss one if it came up to your boat, right? Well, apparently not. When Eric Smith scrolled through the hundreds of photos he had taken of the humpback whale mother and her calf, he noticed something rather peculiar. There was a young man in the background of some of his photos, who apparently hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary was happening. He was simply staring at his phone, while the whales swam beside his boat.
As soon as Eric Smith noticed the photo, he decided to put it up on his Instagram account with the caption “A sign of the times.” He also commented another caption saying, “Hey dude! Stop texting. There’s an enormous humpback whale two feet from your boat!” The photo was posted on February 3, 2015, and it instantly started to spread around the internet like wildfire. While the photographer may have already had quite a few followers thanks to his stunning photos, his numbers climbed to over 12,000 followers and the picture was liked nearly 4,000 times on Instagram alone.
All of a sudden, Eric’s phone was ringing off the hook with offers from news stations to cover his photo. They wanted to know the story of the young man, staring at his phone while a humpback whale swam next to his boat. Eric Smith was featured on Good Morning America, CBS News, Huffington Post, and plenty more. When asked about his photo, he went on to explain that it was like a social commentary. Or, as he said in the caption, “A sign of the times.”
A world addicted
He went on to explain that the social commentary was not necessarily about the person in the photograph, but of us as a whole. Eric Smith discussed the world and its fascination with technology, something which has become almost like an addiction. In fact, there have been plenty of studies as to whether we are addicted to our smartphones and having technology at our fingertips.
A sign of the times
Eric Smith continued to promote his message on various news channels and in the interviews he did after the picture went viral. He said that his message and the message of the photo was simple, “It is amazing to have the world at your fingertips, but let’s not miss the extraordinary world right in front of us.” Could the whale have been a message to our generation? It definitely seems as though this photo sparked a global conversation about technology.
In all of this, what about the person featured in the photo? What did they have to say about it all? Well, it seems as though they’re happy to stay as anonymous as possible. No one has come forward to admit that it was them scrolling through their phone while a majestic humpback whale swam past. In fact, Eric Smith said that he purposefully didn’t disclose any details about the boat or any of the other people on board. After all, as he said, this social commentary was about us in general, not the actions of one man.
What the world had to say
Plenty of comments came flooding in once the story went viral, with everyone having their own opinion on why the young man may have been looking down at his phone. Some said that maybe he had received an urgent phone call or message, although cell phone signal in the middle of the ocean tends to be lacking somewhat. Others said that perhaps he had already taken photos of the whales and was scrolling through, to see what he had captured. Then there were many who believed Eric Smith was right – it was a sign of the times.
What’s the truth?
So, what is the truth? Could this young man have been texting his grandmother or scrolling through photos on his phone? Eric Smith doesn’t know and it seems he doesn’t want the world to know, either. What we should do is look at this photo for its social commentary and not try to delve too far into it. What he did say, however, is that he did take several shots of the young man who didn’t look up once, even as the rest of the people on the boat were excitedly pointing out the whales themselves.
It seems as though this photo isn’t the first time the world has been told to ‘look up’ from their phones. Back in 2014, a spoken word poet named Gary Turk released a video aptly named Look Up. According to the poet, it is a love story that encourages us to find better ways of communicating. While he says this isn’t about stopping the use of smartphones or social media, he wants people to be able to find a balance instead.
Another viral sensation
Gary Turk’s video was another instant viral sensation. People shared it through their social media channels – perhaps a little ironically – and all of a sudden it was racking up thousands and then millions of views. At the time of writing, the Look Up video has nearly 61 million views, and it continues to grow almost daily. It seems as though everyone likes the sentiment of spending less time in a digital world, but is it something we’ll ever change?
Why we can’t look up
There have been plenty of studies conducted on our obsession with phones, tablets, and the digital world. According to Sharon Begley, the author of Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions, there is a real reason as to why people are becoming addicted to their phones. It is all to do with the rush of dopamine that we get when we receive that Facebook like or Instagram follow. If that notification doesn’t quite live up to expectations, we end up in a “dopamine loop” which sees us constantly seeking that pleasure from our cell phones.
A real problem
Unfortunately, this phone addiction has become a real problem. Studies have shown that many young people experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t have their phones or even anxiety when their battery is running low. While spending time on social media may feel like social interaction, it is actually seeing young people become more and more disconnected from real social interaction. This rise in phone addiction has also led to a worrying rise in mental health conditions, which some psychologists believe could be linked.
What are we missing?
As Eric Smith said, it’s an amazing time to have the whole world at our fingertips. We could be talking to an aunt who lives on the other side of the world or watching a live stream of a satellite in space. However, we also need to make sure we’re experiencing all of the wonders that are happening right in front of our eyes. While it may just be one photo, the man and the whale just goes to prove that society needs to spend a bit more time ‘looking up.’