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Bafic, The Warning Book (2023)
Courtesy of Warning!

‘WARNING! SMILE, WE’RE ON CAMERA’: The story of Bafic’s viral artwork

We speak to the artist about his ubiquitous yellow stickers, and his new book gathering together the images that proliferated social media

In late 2019, little, bright yellow stickers that read ‘WARNING! SMILE, WE’RE ON CAMERA’ began appearing on the backs of phones and laptops, on walls, objects, and even people. Bella Hadid flashed one on her iPhone, as did the late, great Virgil Abloh. Most recently, one turned up on the set of a production for US politician Bernie Sanders. “That was definitely one of my tick boxes,” laughs photographer and director Bafic, the creator of Warning – or, as you might simply know them, those little yellow stickers.

Today, Bafic estimates more than 10,000 stickers are in circulation globally. Keeping tabs on as many of these stickers as possible is the omnipresent, an Instagram account run by Bafic that reposts Warning sightings, often so quickly that it feels automated. 

Most images reposted on the account are banal: selfies taken in assorted mirrors, clothing and ephemera cluttering backgrounds. Occasionally snaps of a table, half-eaten plates and phones scattered atop, the yellow stickers glinting back at the lens. Digital twins of the fleeting moments we share as images for little more than 24 hours as an Instagram Story or before they disappear into the deluge of our feeds. We tend to perceive these ‘social photos’ (a term coined by social media theorist and author Nathan Jurgensen) as low value, excluded from the photographic canon. But the ubiquity of phone cameras capturing not just the mundane but the major moments of our lives has overtaken the humble point-and-shoot. There are whole Hollywood films and photographs hung in galleries and museums shot entirely on phones. But what of these social photos? The ones that don’t win awards or awe global audiences but are the fabric of our daily lives. 

Earlier this month, Bafic released Warning’s compendium, a limited edition book of images downloaded from and printed across 700 pages. Warning makes the case that these social photos are a portrait of a collective experience, that that little yellow sticker is a literal sign of the times. Just as Robert Frank did with The Americans or Ryan McGinley with The Kids Are Alright, Warning captures the zeitgeist of the strange epoch that is the past three years. In the wake of Warning‘s book release, I jumped on a video call with Bafic to discuss the birth of the stickers, the influence of Kim Kardashian’s Selfish, the parallels with Richard Prince’s Instagram portrait series, and to wonder if the 9:16 ratio will become the next photography norm.

How did the sticker come to life?

Bafic: When I look back at projects I’ve done, they’ve come about in different ways. I was obsessed with advertising slogans and phrasings, which is quite a documentary photography trope. Then it was, what I would call, messages from the system, like traffic or motorway signage. And when I travelled through Europe, I started taking photos of the street signs and surveillance signage. I also did a book of CCTV bus images.

More and more, I became less and less interested in traditional documentary photography because I felt like I’d exhausted it. I’m excited about the world, life, the everyday things, and curious about it all, but documentary photography, captured on film, like Henri Carter-Bresson, “the decisive moment”, felt like a meme of itself. Like, if I search this photographer and I know what camera he uses or what lens then I can get an image like that, and it felt like the world was too exciting to replicate that. I’m more interested in memes, screenshots, selfies… I always say that if aliens landed and I had to give them 100 items to explain [the world], [one would be] the Kim Kardashian Selfish book.

How come?

Bafic: It’s such a mad idea for a book, but it makes a lot of sense. I think it explains contemporary culture, and if the aliens were to do some digging, they would realise it wasn’t a new phenomenon. Humans have done that for hundreds of years – made or commissioned images of themselves. I think it touches on a lot of things: our collective need to be understood, grappling with our mortality as a species, wanting to make images that last longer than us, trying to freeze a moment in time, [like] everything is fleeting, ‘this soon shall pass’. ‘I need to freeze it in time’.

It also makes a comment on itself, and I’m super interested in that. I think the process of making something is chiselling away and trying to get to the core of it, and when something’s super refined, it becomes a mirror, a product of the culture it was born from. I think that’s how you make stuff that lasts beyond the times because then it speaks to that specific moment in time.

“It’s about the printing of fleeting moments, moments so fleeting that some only exist for 24 hours, and what does that look like? What does it say when you print them and bind them into a book?” – Bafic

Back to the sticker. I’ve always been fascinated with it as a relatively innocuous item but with quite a threatening message.

Bafic: I’m really interested in power dynamics. Changing the word ‘you’re’ on camera to ‘we’re’ [on camera] was a really big thing [in the sticker’s design]. It’s such a simple thing, but I think that changes everything. I didn’t want to make something saying ‘you’re’ on camera because then it suddenly becomes a thing from Warning or me as a top-down thing. Instantly, by changing it to ‘we’re’, it’s everyone, it’s everything.

If it was ‘you’ and ‘smile’, then it’s a system being like ‘got you – watch what you’re doing’. But when it’s ‘we’re’ and ‘smile’, it’s like, chill out, smile! That nuance is baked in there. People don’t realise it’s a mirror. 

In what way?

Bafic: Like, if no one emoted to it or did anything with it, then it doesn’t actually say [anything]. 

Tell me more about the power dynamics here.

Bafic: It’s about the printing of fleeting moments, moments so fleeting that some only exist for 24 hours, and what does that look like? What does it say when you print them and bind them into a book? What does it say a year, five years, ten years, 20 years from now? 

Why do you think the sticker took off?

Bafic: I think it speaks to the times we’re in, and not many things get made that really speak to the specifics of the times. So within the idea are also semiotics and iconography. I want it to be like the green fire exit man [points to the sign behind him], because you never notice those. 

Why did you want to make an actual book of the images?

Bafic: I’ve always wanted to make more books. I studied graphic design, and I made a series of books for my final project – one was the bus CCTV project. Years ago, when people started sending me [Warning] photos, I thought it would be a good book, so it was always in my head. Virgil always said to me, ‘we have to make books, books, books!’ and recently Samuel [Ross] has been repeating this to me. 

A few layers above Warning’s core, the book is about fleeting moments, so it is actually close to documentary photography. If we think of decade by decade or year by year, there’s a consistent composition of imagery and aesthetics that were at the height of the time – a zeitgeist, so to speak. Like selfies, Instagram stories, or 9:16 ratio imagery, those are at their height now.

We think we’ve seen all [types of] images, but literally a selfie with an emoji on top of the face or a caption, or an Instagram story question, with that specific type of typeface, these are all the things I’ve never seen printed before. I hadn’t realised that until we got the first sample. I was looking at [the sample] like ‘this is so weird’ [laughs].

“Art’s place is to shake up the system…. to intricately move between being a mirror with room for the viewer to project and also being a symbol with room to speak and take your brain places it never knew it could go” – Bafic 

What we determine to be or value as a photograph is interesting. Because I was like, is this a photography book? An art book? A cultural critique? What would you say it is?

Bafic: I’d say it straddles all three. When I look at myself and the things that interest me and where I’ve come from, it’s partly photography, partly an art book, and an artwork itself. But then it’s also got the side of my brain that’s into Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation or Marshall McLuhan’s Medium is the Message – that all exists there.

I wonder if that type of frame, format, the Instagram story, will proliferate outside social media in five or ten years.

Bafic: I’m obsessed with system and framework versus culture slash art. So, the album artwork is square, but we don’t have square screens. It comes from vinyl, and vinyl sales have gone up recently, but they don’t match streaming, which is 9:16 [imagery]. We had CDs, a circle at the tail end of vinyl. I guess we did tapes. Basically so the artwork was designed to fit the vessel. That has always happened. I say this because as the devices change and they either become longer, taller, thinner, or they begin to fold, or they become bendy, that will inform the art and the imagery that gets made. 

It feels like Warning has taken on different meanings because people take it and do what they want with it. And then they’ve been active in making the book, really, like, they took the photos.

Bafic: 100 per cent. It doesn’t really exist without people having it, asking for it, or even making their own!

I think it’s important to go toward things that are unknowns or I’m worried about, and one of the elements of the project is if someone doesn’t like their photo, but that is in the idea of the project, and I’m not going to shy away from that, because it mirrors and touches on how images are distributed today. Different people will have different points of view, which I think is really really important. ‘Nuance makes the world go round’.

Do you remember the Richard Prince controversy? One of the images from that series is hanging in a hotel I stayed at in New York, which is interesting. It represents such a moment in time.

Bafic: OK. So two things for that. Yes, it’s a moment in time, and a big element of that aesthetically is the user interface. Technology is Moore’s Law, where it has to advance constantly, and I think art is in a similar vein to luxury, which as time goes on, then its value, not even monetarily but its cultural importance, goes up because it speaks to a specific time. When content is of something that advances quickly, it ages the artwork quickly too. So, when you said that it’s in a hotel, in my head I’m imagining a 2015 Instagram user interface, which is miles different from what it is now. [It was] so gross and crass and aged and textured in weird places. But it was a moment in time and eight years in the context of technology feels so long ago. It looks vintage.

“Art’s place is to shake up the system…. to intricately move between being a mirror with room for the viewer to project and also being a symbol with room to speak and take your brain places it never knew it could go” – Bafic

That series really signified a cultural moment, a key conversation about ownership and copyright. I remember debating the ethics of it, and we kind of still are. Like, can you just take images from Instagram…

Bafic: What’s also great is it opened up a new window legally. Everything is an art form, and the system has to update to the culture, and law is one of those things that is always behind the culture. Whether it’s like NFTs or, in the future, our great-grandchildren are born with thumb defects because we’ve all been doing that [he pretends to text]. Do they then sue the tech companies? Art’s place is to shake up the system…. to intricately move between being a mirror with room for the viewer to project and also being a symbol with room to speak and take your brain places it never knew it could go.  

What conversation do you want your book to start?

Bafic: I don’t really think of things like that. I know there will be different opinions, and I’d love to hear those and the conversations because more questions come out of those conversations and more artwork and more ideas. That’s what’s important. If you can make something that people have contrasting opinions on, then that’s really good.

Rather than just agreeable.

Bafic: Yeah. And something reflective of the time, that’s really the most important thing. More and more, I want to make stuff that reflects the times or myself. This does that, but not on purpose. The project is a byproduct of everything I’m thinking about, and everything is a byproduct of being alive in this current moment. So I’m just leaning into those curiosities.

Who knew we could have such a long conversation about a sticker.

Bafic: I knowwwww. It’s quite crazy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Warning Book by Bafic is published by Warning! and is available here

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