Photographic Memory

With the app CCamera, you can take pictures that already exist.

Marco Land had his own work copied first. A couple years ago, as he kept a “visual diary” on Instagram, one of his pictures became an unexpected viral sensation. “Somebody had taken a screenshot of one of my posts,” he remembers. His work was shared and reposted by complete strangers. It took on a life of its own—naturally without any credit to the photographer. “When it happened a second time, I became curious about the strange culture of using photos on the internet.”

A designer in training, Marco ended up writing his Bachelor’s thesis about photography on the web. He studied the staggering numbers of photos taken and shared on social media each day and put them into categories. They were incredibly similar. “Looking at those figures, I began to wonder if it has remained possible to create something truly new.”

Photography, unlike painting, relies on whatever the photographer puts before the lens. There are, in theory, only a finite number of subjects—and with millions of pictures shared every day, it’s more than likely that most of the world has already been photographically catalogued.

Pictures much like yours, but not actually yours

Marco decided to reverse course: “Instead of trying to take more innovative, faster, or better photos, wouldn’t it be fun to go the other way?” Just like his work had been appropriated, he wanted to use what was already there. “I wanted to build a camera that takes pictures, which already exist.”

The app CCamera is the result of his quest. Built two years after Marco had the idea, the goal of the app is extremely simple: Point your camera at something, click the button and you’re shown a photographic approximation. The app produces a picture similar to the one you took, but taken from the internet.

Technologically, it isn’t too complicated either: Once you take a photo, the app feeds it into a Google API to perform a reverse search and produces a match. The original image isn’t retained since all you’re shown is the result: A picture much like yours, but not actually yours.

The results vary between scarily accurate and comically wrong. A picture of a friend might produce a lookalike—just as snapping a broccoli might result in a picture of a tree.

At their best, the results are uncanny: Taking an existing photos is a powerful reminder of how many parallels there are between your life and those of complete strangers—or how many motifs have become a trope. Not all lives are the same, but the way we picture them through photography often is: Recurring images of smiling faces, holiday destination, and coffee cups. Think you’re taking unique photos? There’s probably someone else out there, thinking the same.

Never quite accurate, but never really wrong either

Because of that, CCamera unmasks everyday situations as more ordinary than they seem—simply by showing that the constellation of objects or people before the lens has appeared somewhere else before, if slightly differently.

Meanwhile, all errors show the limitation of even the most sophisticated image recognition technology. When you take a picture of a sheet of paper and the phone interprets it as a pillow, the app displays a childlike sense of discovery about the world. CCamera sees things like a child might, and makes similarly well-intentioned but misguided misinterpretations.

“I wanted the app to be a critical commentary on the way we look at and use photos,” Marco says. Yet it accomplishes much more. It seems to ask “What is a photograph?”

Is it an accurate depiction of whatever happens in front of the lens? Or can it just as well be an interpretation, like a painter’s flattering sketch of a person? CCamera suggests that photography is a mere act of approximation. Never quite accurate, but never really wrong either.

Check out the app and read more about the project at ccamera.org.