On Aug. 4, the photography and video hosting site Flickr announced that with an image of a bright orange Montbretia flower, its uploads had passed the 6 billion mark, almost as many photographs as there were people on the planet. Even in a world riven by war and politics, scourged by manmade and natural disasters, there was at least one collective human project: To document ourselves for ourselves, to make and exchange simulacra of the world.
When an earthquake, tsunami and radiological disaster hit Japan, the terror and loss were made immediate to an international audience of unprecedented scale, eliciting not only horror and sympathy, but new concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants around the world. Images of protest and revolution that emerged from Tunisia late in 2010 helped make 2011 a year of epic change in North Africa and the Middle East. Tahrir Square, an arid and crowded roundabout in central Cairo, became for a time the crossroads of civilization, a symbol for dreams of reform that resonated from Damascus to Burma to the makeshift tents and grunge of the Occupy movement.