PHOTOGRAPHER ONCE REMOVED: In recent months, millions have taken a close look at Eric Pickersgill’s “Removed” series of photographs, which illustrate how attached we are to personal devices and how that may affect personal relationships. Now the artist is gearing up for his first TED talk on Saturday in Bend, Ore., where a good number of technology executives have RSVP’d, including several from Google.
With an exhibition on view at Rick Wester Fine Art in Manhattan through May 21, Pickersgill has another talk scheduled for Paris and is increasingly being approached by brands about various projects.
While attending an artists’ residency in Troy, N.Y., in 2014, the then recently married photographer was feeling uncharacteristically homesick writing in a café. After a family sat down at a nearby table, he said he noticed how each of them was focused on their smartphones except for the mother, who was staring out the window looking “super sad.” Pickersgill said he wrote about the experience and became obsessed with how tethered we are to our smartphones. But it wasn’t until weeks later when his smartphone dropped to the floor after he fell asleep with it in bed that the idea for “Removed” became more concrete.
With 70 percent of Americans having smartphones and an estimated 6.1 billion of the world’s population expected to have them by 2020, Pickersgill said he only wants people to consider their habits and decide for themselves if their device use needs to change. “The reason the work went viral was because there’s no cultural, geographical or racial boundaries within the use of devices,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a work with a message but it’s a work that allows people to see themselves. They can decide what they want to do next or how it will affect what they’re doing. When you take a device and turn it off, it actually is a mirror. When the device is on, it still operates as a mirror.”
Health-care companies have approached Pickersgill about how device usage affects depression, suicide and online bullying. And “a surprising number” of app developers have come calling about how to help people curb their device use by tracking the amount of time they spend on it. “I don’t fully get behind those because it seems weird to use the device to reward yourself for not using the device,” he said.
The footwear company Standfor is sending him a pair of shoes in the fall as an offshoot of its upcoming antifubbing campaign. “They e-mailed and said, ‘Your work embodies some of our views. Would you like a pair of shoes?’ It’s like an endorsement, but not even. It’s like flow. I guess at some point they hoped this kind of mention would happen,” he said. “People are trying every means they can I guess to get their product out.”
Pickersgill’s favorite connection has been with MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle. “In 1996, she was featured on the cover of Wired magazine for her research on artificial intelligence, and for her work as a psychologist studying the effects of this new technology, which she was really excited by. Fast-forward 20 years — she’s written books like ‘Alone Together’ and ‘Reclaiming Conversation,'” Pickersgill said. “I e-mailed her about a month ago to say we should meet or talk. Within three minutes, she emailed me back to say, ‘You’re my hero. Call me now.’”
The two are talking about working together. He said,”Scientists and artists can collaborate to maybe make more impactful social change by illustrating things in better ways than just by numbers. Numbers are convincing to people who like numbers but a lot of people don’t like numbers.”
Until then, Pickersgill is finessing his TED presentation, which will map out what he calls “behavior lag.” Just as people had to learn that 8mm film was for movement, not for mugging for the camera, he said, “It takes time for us to see this trickle down effect or shift. This is changing the way I interact with people, the way that I’m using my body and my body language is actually having an emotional impact on the people around me and I don’t realize it.”