Much has been written about how we spend our lives online. Phone addiction. E-commerce. Screen time. Blue light filters and screen rehab. Logically, our online-dependance has led to a digital marketplace: Instagram influencers are now the face of brands and you can buy products without ever leaving an app. But what we often fail to consider is the physical manifestation of our screen time, the act of picking up a phone, ignoring the world around us and thumbing through pages in an endless scroll. Simply put, we’re always on our phones.

Street style photography proves this phenomenon, repeatedly catching stylish fashion week attendees mid-call or text. If you’ve browsed through any street style editorial lately, you’ve most likely noticed that more images than ever feature their subjects using their phones, as opposed to looking at the camera, emulating a manicured quality of spontaneity. 

While we use our phones more than ever before — it’s not abnormal to walk down the street and see someone focussing on their phone instead of traffic — there’s something deeper, more insidious, happening in these street style photographs that can, in turn, tell us about our dependence on technology—not only as an addiction but as a metaphor. 

Street style photography has the ability to capture a zeitgeist, tracking style trends in real-time. These photographs create a meta-commentary: influencers, whose battlegrounds are online, are photographed in real life on their phones. The photographs resemble a closed-circuit loop that suggests that even in real life, influencers are online. A woman clad in overalls looking down at her phone surrounded by cameras was shot by the photographer Phil Oh in Milan last year. In another photograph from the same series, a woman in a long denim skirt and camel leather jacket talks on the phone—her neat bob creating a barrier between the phone and her ear. 

Inconsistencies start to repeat the closer you look at these photographs. For example, almost consistently, the subjects’ mouths are clamped shut, indicating they’re never speaking into the phone. Instead, their faces are molded into focussed, businesslike expressions, hinting at the mimicked nature of the call or text. Street style photographs on Getty Images support my theory that most of these shots are staged: even when the same subject is shot consecutively, their expressions remain the same, suggesting the phone calls and texts are performative. It’s no secret that street style photographs are often posed, but the fake-phonecall technique tries to conceal the fabricated elements of street style photography and appear as if they’re authentic.

In the academic journal Communication, Culture and Critique, Rosie Findlay writes on authenticity as a marketing tactic in fashion branding, delving into the history of the street style photograph. “[T]he street connotes the real, the gesture of the camera framing an encounter between photographer and subject that has been staged to seem unmediated. As a trope, it suggests that fashion is part of the everyday lives of the people photographed,” writes Findlay. The urge for authenticity in street style photographs, for the “every day,” previously manifested in subjects looking away from the camera, laughing with a friend, or hailing a taxi (now: requesting an uber). The act of doing something in a photograph, rather than posing, hints at a rich inner life, that you look good only second to being interesting and busy.  

A sense of authenticity is sought after in street style photography. In the 1980s, photographer Steve Johnston began shooting ‘anthropological-style’ photographs for i-D: “His subjects were often shot standing against a wall or in the middle of the sidewalk, presumably where Johnston stopped them. These images had an unstudied quality and also endorsed the subject’s outfit as worthy of documenting, the inference being that they had literally stood out from the crowd due to their look,” writes Findlay.  Findlay goes on to explains that the “street initially functioned as a visual counterpoint to the elegance of the couture-clad bourgeois woman.” The newfound prevalence of the phone call in these photographs represents a new shift, once again away from the bourgeois, and towards a neoliberal ideal of always working that phones facilitate. The phone in street style photographs represents productivity, a highly valued trait in today’s society, and the subject gains credibility as an “in-demand person.”

The semiotics of being captured mid-call changes the subject from a passive object to be looked at to someone who happens to have a great outfit but has more important things to do than stop and pose for a picture — an attempt at authenticity within the highly fabricated realm of fashion. But of course, just like Instagram influencers’ posts, it’s only the illusion of authenticity. In the street style context, dependence on your phones doesn’t read as an addiction, but as a value-signifier: that you’re a very important person who doesn’t have time to stop and pose for a picture. Continuing to talk on the phone, or answer emails, amongst the chaos of fashion week echoes your online influence and value. The loop is tied in a neat bow when the same influencers post street style photographs of themselves, talking on their phones.