A Decade of ‘Removed’

A Decade of ‘Removed’
A photograph from ‘Removed,’ 2014.

In a conversation with Compiler, Eric Pickersgill talks about how his photo series observes the way devices have fused themselves into our lives.


We do it all the time when we should be focusing on something, anything else: partners, kids, coworkers, the world around us. We steal just a quick glance at the endless TikToks and Instagram posts that entertain and enrage. On the day I write this, I’ve already picked up my iPhone 67 times, and it’s not even noon. It’s embarrassing.

The smartphone, and our collective addiction to it, has transformed culture since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. Photographer Eric Pickersgill has been considering the place screens have in our lives since 2014 when he began work on Removed, a project that has spanned nearly a decade of increasing smartphone use. For the series, he photographs people absorbed in their devices, and then asks his subjects to hold their poses as he slides the devices out of their hands and then photographs them again. I recently spoke with Pickersgill about his work, what he hopes to achieve through his art, and how his subjects’ relationship with technology continues to evolve.

I’m curious about the first time you approached somebody with your big portrait camera and asked them if you could take their photograph holding their device and then without the device.

Eric Pickersgill: One of the first sittings was in 2014 with a family friend, Tanya, and her daughter, Addison. I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea for a project. I want to come over and observe what your afternoon looks like.” Tanya must have been in her early 30s at the time, and Addison was probably 5. They snuggled up on the couch. Addison had her tablet, and she was watching a cartoon; Tanya was on her phone, texting a friend.

Before I even asked to take the devices away, I watched how they were able to ignore me pretty quickly. It’s like their mindset shifted into the zone where we just start to scroll. I set up the camera, and they thought it would end right there, that I would take the picture. But I asked them to hold still like a statue and said, “I’m going to gently slide your device out of your hand, and I want to make sure you don’t look up at me.” I started with Tanya, so her daughter could see what the gesture was like. I remember sliding the phone out, and Tanya smirked a bit. It was as if she could kind of see herself from my perspective. I saw Addison looking out of the side of her eye to see her mom’s reaction.

I got behind the camera and didn’t say anything. I watched their stares go back to where they had been—it was like they could turn that part of their brain back on as if they imagined the device was still there.

At the time, smartphones had only been out for about seven years. I saw Tanya have this revelation that, wow, we are getting so sucked into this thing, and we’re not questioning it much. It’s taking hold.

These photos bring up issues about our connection with devices. But it also strikes me that the photographs are performative. Was that intentional, or something that evolved?

I was never interested in making beautiful pictures. I always wanted some sort of result from the photograph or from the making of the photograph. When I was photographing in Chicago as an undergrad, I worked on a project called House Sitters during the 2008 housing crash. I was photographing these guys who were really down and out. Some of them had criminal convictions, and they couldn’t get normal jobs. Instead, they had these side jobs running security for property managers – essentially living for free in foreclosed brownstones – so that people wouldn’t loot the buildings. During the critique in undergrad, people were like, What are you going to do with these pictures? I thought maybe I could sell prints and give money to the families of these men who were living in the houses. But is it going to make a bigger impact? I feel like that project fell short in that way.

This informed my work going forward—a need to make art that creates experiences for the participants and for the viewer, which causes some sort of mindset shift.

Which camera are you using, and why do you use that particular one?

It’s a 4x5 view camera, and it’s just got this really beautiful wood finish and brass hardware on it. It has bellows and kind of looks like an accordion. It’s a type of film camera that traditional portrait artists have used for ages, but it has an impact on strangers when I approach them—it elevates the interaction a little bit because most people have never seen a camera like that in person. Afterward, I let the subjects put their head under the cloth to see what I see on the glass at the back of the camera. The ground glass on the back of the camera shows an inverted, upside-down image of what’s in front of the lens. I’ve switched my brain to where I can see what the image will be like without actually having to invert it and flip it. That’s taken a long time. But it’s always fun to let people go behind the camera to see the world upside down and backward.

You’re 10 years into this project. How have your subjects’ relationships with their devices evolved over the past decade?

I was talking to my wife about how the pandemic has almost created this perfect storm for the infiltration of smartphones into our lives. People came home, the screens turned on, and the line between work, home, and family got very blurry.

I think we’re still grappling with that. You used to at least get a side eye if you pulled out a phone in front of somebody at a restaurant. Now, we’re deeper than I ever even thought we were going to be because it’s expected that we’re reachable at all times. There’s no boundary.

Now, it’s unusual to see someone without a phone. However, there does seem to be a growing reaction against phone usage, upside-down and more recognition of mental health issues that may be exacerbated by them. How has your work affected your smartphone use?

No phones at bedtime. We have an analog clock in our room, and that’s how we get up in the morning. It makes a difference in your ability to sleep. We don’t do TV in our house on weekdays. I don’t post images of my kids online – it seems irresponsible. It also seems like they don’t understand enough to give us consent, so we’re not going to do it. And I plan on keeping it that way until my kids are old enough to consent to their representation being online.

I’m sure you sometimes hear that your work is anti-technology. Is it?

I don’t think it is. If it hits you that way, then maybe you’ve got to ask yourself some bigger questions. Are you defending this thing that you’re kind of grappling with? Or maybe you haven’t asked yourself whether or not you are happy with how this technology has impacted your life.

There’s a lot of good that comes from technology, but we’ve got to be better about crafting a society that knows when to pump the brakes. Let’s work on that collectively. Every new technology that humans have brought into the world has to find its limits.

It’s hard to know exactly where we’ll go with our relationship with technology. Are we going to go all in? Will augmented reality soon become the norm? Will all of our friends exist only in the virtual world? Or is this a moment where we begin to pull back and think more about human connections?

I think it would be naive to say that 2024 is the year we’ll start pulling back. I think it’s going to take a long time. There will be a catalyst for some global repulsion. It will have to be catastrophic and of a great magnitude before people really put their devices down. I think we just have to keep reminding people about what makes us human.

Mike Farrell is the founder and CEO of Compiler Media, Inc. He's an award-winning journalist who has worked at numerous publications such as Politico, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor and CyberScoop.

Eric Pickersgill is an artist working in North Carolina. He received his MFA from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill He has exhibited and presented his work internationally at institutions, galleries, and art fairs.