Why I Take Photographs

This blog was supposed to be about my photographs. I had, for the first time since having children, found a hobby that didn’t involve Netflix and eating chocolate (for the most part – though uploading a million photos can always be improved by a spot of Vampire Diaries and a Wispa). I wanted to get better. I got a proper camera, and after we moved to Dublin and I became a stay-at-home parent, I finally had the time to use it. It was supposed to be a photojournal of sorts, until the writing took over.

So this post is about photographs. And for your delectation, here are lots of them.

 

My husband always used to say that our memories are camera enough. That it’s nicer to try to remember things rather than to capture them –  that having the camera out takes you out of the pleasure of the moment and makes you a spectator, rather than a participant. It’s creating an objective view of your own subjective experiences. (When I reminded him of this just now, he remains animated upon the subject and said, “I’m keen on the experience of total immersion. Ideally I’d live in some kind of Matrix-like experience machine, wherein my brain was constantly stimulated to feel pleasure 24 hours a day. I wouldn’t care at all that my body was a disgusting, bloated, piece of meat lying in a vat of nutrients, with wires coming out of it”. Reader, I married him).

He may be a bloated sack of meat, but he’s my bloated sack of meat.

Of course, he is right. Of course, it’s disruptive to watch everything through the sheen of layers of glass, and to have days marked down by the tick tick tick of the shutter. But taking shots of people with a proper camera is a bit like having a shield. There’s a foreignness to it, people understand that it’s supposed to encroach on them. They don’t seem to mind so much, having their image snatched at and squirrelled away. It’s different pointing a phone at people – that’s so intrinsic a part of the everyday. With a camera, you get that extra bit of performance -of self-consciousness -that brings a bit of weight; it makes the moment juicy, meaty, to be savoured in the now, and slavered over later.

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And how I wish that the moments I hold in my heart were also on my screen. So many of my memories are incomplete.The day my dear friend introduced me to her new son and daughter. I remember my first beautiful sight of their faces and the feeling of being whisked away by their openness, their willingness to be loved. I remember, vividly, the shocking joy at hearing these children who I had just met, calling me “Auntie Aoife”. But I don’t remember exactly what they wore, the games they played, how the slow flowering of friendship began between my child and hers. The day is fuzzy, a whirl of emotions, and I wish that I had a proper record of it. Surely such a momentous day deserves to be preserved outside of memory?

Or what about the first days I spent with the best friends I ever bought (at an antenatal class) – luckily, I have lots of photos of our everyday moments due to the constant presence of our three precious firstborns, photos I can hardly bear to look at now because it reminds me of how badly I miss them (though it would be unbearable not to have those photos too). But we only started snapping photos after we became friends, after we began to be comfortable with each other (after all, the only reason we had met was through an accident of timing, and luck – the act of all having babies within a week of each other). If only I had managed to photograph them at the start, before I realised that I love them, before their faces became familiar to me. I can’t recall any sense of strangeness about them now, but I know it was there – and it’s lost to me now.

When thinking about someone they have lost, people often talk about the empty seat at the table. It’s a bit of a shabby image, a bit mawkish – a glib and malicious tug on the heartstrings – but it resonates so strongly because of how effectively it conveys the loss. It’s remarkable how profoundly that empty space can echo your loss back to you.I’ve been thinking about that sense of loss recently; nudging at it, like probing the tender, spongy pit of gum when a tooth has gone. There’s a space in my photos recently, and looking over the shots I took recently, I can feel the lack so keenly.

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So from now on I’m always going to be the one who’s annoying everyone at the party by clicking at them. I’m going to take the photos that show the wrinkles and bedhair and grimaces and tears and bad outfits and double chins and sneezes. I’ll delete them after, if it makes you feel better. I won’t put them up on Instagram if you hate them. But if I don’t take those photos, then I’ll miss the rest of it, the small details of the everyday that are the ties that bind the memories and keep them from slipping away. Hysterical laughter over a small absurdity. A hat on sideways. A standoff over the same doll. Cheesy shots with Christmas lights and birthday candles and first steps, first shoes, first smiles. A head nodding behind a newspaper. Strong hands.

I don’t want to miss anyone.

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7 Comments

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  1. that’s a beautiful reflection – and your photos are amazing -they capture the emotion of the moment so well!

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  2. You have identified that you can either have
    a) incomplete visual memories accompanied by memories of a set of emotional responses which you experienced at the time, and a little context
    or
    b) complete visual memories, but a less rich emotional aspect to the scene both at the time and then, necessarily, in memory of it.
    So does photographing merely change which aspects of the experience you are selecting for preservation, at the expense of other aspects?

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    • Thanks for such a considered comment, Jennifer, and so sorry for the late response – I’ve been offline quite a bit.That’s a really interesting way of characterising the disagreement that I have with my husband about this. If i’m reading you right, what you’re saying is that my husband favours (a) over (b), but there’s a kind of symmetry between the two: in the first case, the visual memories are incomplete but the emotional response at the time is rich, whereas in the second case the emotional response at the time is diluted at the expense of complete visual memories. So he needs some additional reason to favour (a) over (b) – why does having a stronger emotional response at the time matter more? I think the answer is basically that he’s a hedonist – he wants to maximise the good feels. So for him, it’s not worth sacrificing some good feels for better memories. Maybe what he doesn’t realise is that I get good feels from the visual record of the events, and from knowing at the time that I’m creating that record. He just doesn’t respond to photographs of past events and people in the way that I do. So, while he could try to appeal to some sort of hedonistic principle in order to break the symmetry, I think I’d have a response even on those grounds.

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  3. I love this post, I’m addicted to taking pictures of my family. My sister is always giving out to me but when we’re all old and I’m the only with pics of her kids she’s not going to complain then! 🙂

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