‘She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk… What point is there of existing off-camera?’ ―Warren Beatty on Madonna, in Truth or Dare
I majored in Photography in college. I studied it in practice, in theory and from its masters. After university I worked in darkrooms and a camera and photo shop. I taught photography. For my first film job as an assistant to the director, I also worked as a stills photographer on set. I have looked at photography every which way, yet I am confounded by how it’s commonly used today.
In its noblest form, a moment frozen in a photograph allows us to contemplate how it reflects our lives.
Photography can be communication: ‘this is what’s happening in North Korea’. We visualise and virtually experience another reality.
Photography can be art. By putting four corners on a split second, we can examine the artist’s intent.
Photography can be evidence. For archaeologists, crime scene investigators and photographers hired for divorce cases to catch unsuspecting spouses in flagrante: everyone loves proof.
Photography can even be about revelation, as director Michelangelo Antonioni showed us in his film, Blow Up, when a photographer printing an image discovers a murdered body in the background.
The moment is now
For most of us, photography is about personal documentation: That’s me on my birthday. That’s us on our way to the Sundarbans.
This is different from keeping a diary. Writing in a journal is almost always done after the event. Whether to document or analyse, the moment is first lived and then examined – an important distinction. As Anaïs Nin said, ‘We write to taste life twice.’
Photography, by its nature, demands immediate attention. Snap it now or lose it forever. The act of taking photographs, however, can buy us time to catch up with and digest the reality in front of us. This is why I think parents photograph first-borns excessively and the younger children less so. Or why visiting a new place makes us snap image after image but we rarely do the same once we get used to our environment. Another rickshaw with amusing fantastical art? Ho hum.
While we may believe that taking a photo puts us in the moment, it’s the opposite. By holding up the camera we are removing ourselves from the situation. If we are ever truly consumed by something, it would never occur to us to photograph it; the spell would be broken.
As a photographer, my camera was my armour. When I felt awkward at a party or there was a lull in the conversation I could raise my camera to my face, take a step back and view everyone else through a viewfinder. Pictures were my alibi; I could understand people better when they were framed the way I needed to frame them.
Photography appears to bring us close but can just as easily put distance between us.
Are you there?
We take photographs to record our lives. To say that our lives mattered in some way. We lived. We counted. But there’s a big difference between going to a rock concert and spending the evening dancing to music that moves our hearts while perhaps taking a photo or two for posterity, and spending the whole time recording it on our smartphones because we fret we may miss it. We are missing it.
Photographing an event doesn’t add to it; it takes something away. It makes observers instead of participants of us all.
And it’s contagious. At the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London, many athletes came out holding up their cameras. More and more joined them. Did they think one of the biggest events of the year wouldn’t be adequately photographed? Did they want their memory to be what they felt and experienced, or about fretting how it would look later?
I don’t think that, say, Isaac Newton worried that his life was half lived because every moment of it was not documented for posterity.
We may want to believe photographs convey the truth: ‘This is me’. But it hides more than it reveals. We rarely photograph the difficult and daunting life events that actually shape us; capturing tragedy or sorrow on camera feels intrusive. Instead, photographs give us an opportunity to edit our lives, as if by magic removing all that’s displeasing and showing only our happy, confident side to the world.
I am not at all against documenting our lives through photography. They can be a moving record of our history and times. I am hugely grateful to my parents and their friends for taking photographs of my sister when she was young that I so often use in my blog posts. The square format, the careful composition and the retro feel all evoke only happy things in me. The high cost of film as well as the unwieldy cameras of the 1960s forced my family to be selective, to savour each frame and honour each moment. And it prevented the current compulsion to take a hundred photos, when so often one will do.
Just as having a hundred cable channels doesn’t mean there’s anything good to watch, so it is with taking a hundred photos of one evening and thinking it was well noted.
If images are powerful – and they absolutely can be – then their potency is reduced by the sheer volume and ubiquity of them. This is not of a life edited. Most photographs don’t warrant a second look, let alone scrutiny. They are vomited out and consumed without discernment. The actually precious moments worth regarding or celebrating get lost in the shuffle.
Seeing is believing
I used to say that being photographed took away a bit of my soul. I didn’t remotely believe this, but it was a convenient way to get out of having my photo taken. People would simply think I was odd, but they thought that anyway.
Now I’m less obstinate about it, though I always have to issue a warning: ‘Don’t post this on Facebook.’ This often brings forth mystified looks: well, why else are we taking a photo then?
If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? We may now ask: if we experience something and don’t take photos of it and share it on Facebook, did it really happen?
At a time when we’re outraged by the US government’s National Security Agency spying on the world, we continue to record and upload the minutiae of our own lives under the guise of ‘sharing’. What feels like an unedited purging (Like me! Like me! Like me!) is just as carefully self-selected to show up the way we want to be viewed. We are raising a generation of narcissists, people.
We appear to exist between the incessant chronicling of our lives – ‘I was here, I did that’ – and the constant stream of sharing. Are we really that interesting or do we just want others to validate us? Is it a valiant effort to elevate our mostly humdrum lives (trust me, those enjoying truly exciting lives are far too occupied to constantly document the process)? Are we preoccupied by the (ir)relevance of our days? Is it our fear of looking inwards when it’s much easier to settle on the surface?
There can also be an element of competitiveness in wholesale sharing. Like the round-robin holiday card in the West that distributes annual family updates, they’ve become a mode of faux-modest boasting. Ah yes, here I am sitting on a beach in the Bahamas. This is what drives capitalism: a desire for one-upmanship. And a fear that nothing is ever enough.
The bigger picture
In a culture where celebrities are papped coming out of the supermarket, and television shows purport to reveal the uncensored ‘reality’ of various lives, this over-documentation of our days has become the norm. But it’s not normal.
We have gone from seeing life through a lens to living life in a lens. The end goal so often now is how it looks, not what it means; see how a wedding is often directed by the person holding the video camera. We may fondly believe that a picture ‘lasts forever’ but to ruin the actual moment for the sake of a memento surely signifies warped priorities.
Are we photographing our lives or are we living for photographs?
We may imagine we’re capturing memories for later, when we’ll want to look back and say, ‘I was there, I did that.’ In effect, we’re trying to curate a past for our future instead of being in the present. I hope when I’m old I’m busy filling my heart and mind with new adventures, instead of living in a Miss Havishamesque frozen yesterday.
I’m not against photographing our lives or sharing it, but I am dismayed by how a mindless spewing of this stops us from living fully. If we don’t record a moment, does it matter less or even cease to count? Of course not. We lived it and savoured it without the distraction of a camera. Life, therefore, is often better experienced without the viewfinder. Let’s record less and live more.
‘There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.’ ― Ansel Adams
What do we try to prove by taking photographs? Watch Proof, a story about a blind photographer played with beautiful restraint by a young Hugo Weaving. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, this is one of my favouritest films.
Self-referential irony and piercing commentary mixed with the best of British wit, there is nothing photographer Martin Parr does that I don’t admire. Amongst his many projects and books, he’s taken photographs of tourists taking photographs in Small World. He also did a sequence (and book) of self-portraits taken in various countries; I especially love one done in Bangladesh where he’s in a photo studio with a painted backdrop and plastic plants, holding a phone; this will make perfect sense to anyone from here. A retrospective of his work in Martin Parr by Val Williams is brilliant.
Nothing conveys the power of photography like images from conflict and war. If ever pictures spoke more than the written word, it would be of Vietnamese children running screaming from a napalm attack, the lone protestor standing in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, or prisoners bound and humiliated in Abu Ghraib. There’s a reason totalitarian governments attempt to control the media; the horrors rendered visible in one graphic photograph can shake the world.