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.
Washingtonians had their own reasons for feeling it was an unsettled year. When a late-summer earthquake hit Virginia’s Piedmont, the White House and Capitol were evacuated, traffic was snarled and architectural icons, including the Washington Monument and National Cathedral, were damaged. It was minor compared with the devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., in May, killing scores and injuring hundreds. But it made real for people here what many millions experience year after year. Nothing is certain, no place is absolutely untouched by change, history gathers all people in its stream.
And the cameras came out, adding yet more images to the 6 billion and growing, making a brief moment of fear in our backyard the common property of viewers from London to Lima.