03/09/2015 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The GIF That Keeps on Giving

I escaped the Fashion Week craze to join a group of the brightest and most innovative minds in technology and advertising.

We met at the Social Media Week NYC, an annual event hosting talks by companies like WIRED, Buzzfeed, Vine, Vimeo and The New York Times. This year speakers focused on the existential question of our era -- how do we deal with the overwhelming amount of visual content? And how do we turn it into our best life-hack tool?

My panel held a heated discussion about the sweeping phenomenon of GIFs. Born 28 years ago, GIFs have exploded in the past year thanks to Instagram and Vine and got us all hooked.

Why do we love them so? They are like magic that we can't put our finger on. My theory is that our brains run on GIFs. We remember and dream in GIFs. Think of a special moment in your past, like your first kiss. How do you visualize it? I bet it's not a static image like a perfect photo in a frame. Most likely it's a movement on a loop. Same with our dreams -- we don't watch uninterrupted feature films in our sleep -- they are fragmented videos that focus on an emotion and movement.

But why are GIFs in the spotlight right now more than even? Our answer was surprising and revolutionary -- GIFs channel raw human emotion better than words or images. Often they are even more effective than face-to-face communication.

Because we are ceaselessly bombarded with images and words we are becoming immune to the messages they are meant to deliver. Photographs are becoming homogenized and interchangeable. The written and spoken words are just white noise.

GIFs, however, capture the essence of the moments we had all experienced in the past and evoke feelings we can't put into words.

Toby Daniels, the founder of SMW, uses his favorite GIF as an example of an ultimate embarrassing moment; it's a GIF of Homer Simpson backing up and disappearing into the hedges. The repeating motion makes the embarrassing moment feel so much more agonizing.


Katy Alonzo, a director at the creative agency Droga5, believes GIFs are the yet untapped future of advertising: "we don't sell our clients' product -- we sell an emotion. For example, when working with a soda client, we can evoke the youthful free spirit so much better with an unexpected GIF than with a video of a soda bottle with its cap popping off."

GIFs easily overcome linguistic, cultural and even age barriers. Adam Leibhson, the founder of Giphy, the #1 source for GIFs on the Internet, shared a story about his 2-year-old niece. Whenever she asks "what is.....?" (like an exotic animal) and is not satisfied with the answer because of her limited vocabulary, her parents use Search on GIPHY which pulls up hundreds of results bringing the animal to life. What a great way to teach children about the world!

GIFs are the greatest tool in my work as a fashion photographer and film director. First and foremost, I'm a story teller.

I am also a Generation Z junkie, fascinated with our short attention span and need for instant satisfaction. However, when I work on grandiose projects with stars like Beyonce or Lady Gaga, it takes many months to complete them.

I wanted to find a more immediate way to communicate with my audience. I set on a mission to tell my stories (with the beginning, middle and a climactic ending) in just 2-5 seconds! Making it short and complete is the biggest challenge. But in our ADD society it's a must. It's a challenge and an art. As Mark Twain said, "I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time."
GIFs became the answer!

Some of my GIFs tell the whole story in just 2 seconds. For example in my Models Go-Sees I feature Malaika Firth, the first black model in 20 years to appear in a Prada campaign. Malaika has an infectious "you-can-do-it" personality, her Instagram is an empowering self-help diary for young girls. I wanted to capture her spirit and her modern-day Cinderella story. I realized that the first black Disney Princess was Frog Princess. My final GIF combines all these elements and depicts Malaika kissing a giant Frog who magically turns into... not a Prince, but into a paper cutout of Malaika herself -- wearing a Fairy-Tale like dress from her fashion campaign!


In my latest series I captured the powerful role makeup plays in our lives. I created fun transformations where models turn into dramatic characters like Marie Antoinette and Barbie.





I'm very excited about the future where GIFs are a powerful universal language helping us communicate through emotions, cutting through the overwhelming onslaught of digital content.