When a series of new photos first went up at a gallery, visitors often missed the main point: In each photo, hands that look like they're cradling devices are actually holding air.
We're so used to seeing phones everywhere—at dinner, at a party, in bed—that we don't notice whether they're there or not. "We're kind of desensitized now," says photographer Eric Pickersgill. "We don't look closely."
His series, Removed, takes a new approach to pointing out how much of our lives we spend staring at tiny screens.
Sitting at a café one day, Pickersgill noticed a family engrossed in their phones and ignoring each other, and the image stayed with him. Inspiration struck a few nights later, in the middle of the night. He'd drifted to sleep with his phone in his hand, and then the phone slipped off the side of the bed and hit the floor, waking him up.
"I looked over at my hand, and it was still shaped as if I was holding the device," he says. "I thought, that's really wild. And it all just hit me that there was a visual way to describe this huge social experience."
It's a way to show tech addiction—and its effects on our social lives—that goes farther than simple documentary. "I wasn't going to go out and make photographs of people while they're on their phones with other people," Pickersgill says. "I've seen those projects done. It's not enough. People see people on phones all the time—that doesn't give an impact for them to question things."
As he worked on the project, his friends started to feel guilty about using their phones around him. But Pickersgill says the work isn't about passing judgment, just raising a problem that most people don't spend much time thinking about.
"A lot of people have asked me why I think this is so common," he says. "It's because people are okay with it. When people are okay with something like using a device around other people, it becomes normal. I wanted to bring attention to this shift."
Ironically, you are very likely reading this on your phone now—something that Pickersgill originally tried to avoid.
"When the project first started, I actually was not going to allow this work to exist online," he says. "But eventually people said if this work is actually going to have an impact, you're not going to get people to show up at exhibitions unless you give them a taste of what it is you're doing. I finally broke down. ... I've come to terms with it. At this point, as an artist, I want to make things that resonate with people and that cause people to think about things a little differently."