Sunday, October 02, 2011

Broken Cameras and Self-Surveillance

As a general rule, even though I've nearly six years of blog posts to draw from, I don't like to extensively revisit previous entries. I would prefer not to fall into the habit of recycling old ideas. It would be too easy to consistently go back to what I said in 2007, drop in a few updated ruminations, and call it a day. It's more challenging, and I would argue more rewarding, to create something from the ground up. But because of events that occurred yesterday, I'm going to make an exception.

Our small town dedicated a new fire station with a community open house. Being the father of a 19-month-old, I saw this as a great opportunity to let my little boy marvel up close at fire trucks. Actually, he already already visited the station earlier in the week as part of "library storytime," and had acquired a little plastic fire helmet to wear around. But trips to a firehouse never get old for a toddler, so we had him don the fire helmet yesterday morning and we made our way to the station. At one point during the dedication ceremony, I held my helmeted little guy aloft. An older woman next to me said "That would make a great picture!" I smiled and nodded, not sure if she was asking to take my picture. She didn't say anything further and neither did I. But I was a little disturbed. Must I think of every moment with my son as a photo op?

Later, while my son and my wife had climbed aboard a fire truck and were seated inside, I asked my wife to hand me the camera. Despite my earlier reservations, I figured that photo ops like that didn't come around everyday. But I don't have a ton of experience taking pictures. I had a Diet Pepsi in one hand that I didn't want to set down, and I figured that only one hand would be required to snap the picture. You can probably tell where this is going. In the effort to press the button, I lost my grip on the camera itself, allowing gravity to drive it to the concrete below. Over 24 hours later, the screen is still displaying "System Error."

So how should I feel about this? Aside from the guilt of ruining what is essentially my wife's one and only camera, I became reflective about the importance of pictures. I vaguely remembered once writing a contrarian blog post in which I all but advocated the ban of photos. I managed to locate it: November 2007. What follows is some of the original post in italics followed by my updated commentary.

I have a general dislike for personal photographs. I believe I took some Polaroid snapshots as a kid, but I think it has been about twenty years since I have taken a photograph without coercion or irony.

Okay, as admitted above, this streak has ended. Unsurprisingly, having a kid is what triggered this change. I certainly still don't attempt to assiduously document everything the way that I think some parents might, but at times I actually have a desire to have a photographic record taken (again, see above, though at times with disastrous consequences).

I am particularly unenthused about the idea of photographs as mementos. I've never carried a photograph of a loved one with me (come to think of it, I've never carried a wallet, either, which is another odd aesthetic preference I'd have to admit to holding). My students find it odd that I don't have a picture of my wife on my desk. Now, I'm not a total cad. I don't prohibit my wife from displaying various photographs of us around our home, though if were up to me I'd rather look at pictures of chewpacabras.

The last line might seem random, but I actually had a picture of a chewpacabra (or a purported picture anyway) on my dorm wall as a college freshman. And I still never have of my own volition hung a personal picture to look at, even of my wife or son. I know what they look like. But especially since the birth of my son, my home walls have continued to flourish with evidence that my family has existed.

When one holds to such an unpopular aesthetic preference, it can be incredibly validating to discover any kind of support. Such came to me when I ran across a folk-pop singer named Richard Julian, who has a song called "Photograph" (not to be confused with the Ringo song.) He sings "I prefer a memory to a photograph" and notes that the latter is two-dimensional, while the former is three-dimensional. I would actually go one step further and assert that the memory is four-dimensional, since it can include the element of time.

I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of this artist or this song. I question whether I ever heard the song or if I ran across the lyrics somewhere. (I do still understand my Ringo reference though). I suppose it's pretty ironic to have completely forgotten a quote about the power of memory. I wish there was a control group somewhere that had looked at a picture of Richard Julian four years ago.

Some may argue that memory is notoriously fallible, and that photographs offer an objective record. I would certainly agree that memory is fallible, but I would assert that when discussing sentimentality, objectivity is hardly necessary. I'm glad photographic technology exists as a way to document certain things (such as mug shots or items up for eBay auctions), but I'll never agree that family vacations need an objective record.

I still can't think of better uses for photographs than mug shots or eBay auctions. In other news, you can find my vacation photos on Facebook.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I question the true historical objectivity of even "candid" photographs. Given that many photographs are staged in some way, they could be seen to be simulacra--a copy of something artificial to begin with. And even if a photograph captures a perfect fidelity of the physical nature of a scene, there is always a litany of contexts that it can never capture. The viewer of the photo will map that meaning onto every subsequent viewing of the photo. The problem is, if the purpose of the photo is to arouse a remembrance of the original event, its very artifice can overdetermine how the event is remembered. Rather than becoming an aid to recall, a mere tool, it becomes the vehicle. It forces the gaze of the viewer, it communicates to the viewer what should be considered, it replaces the nearly limitless power of the imaginative faculty with a narrowed imperative.

You can tell that I was only months removed from grad school at this time with my use of the terms "simulacra" and "overdetermine." But despite the pretentiousness of the prose, I can't argue with myself. If photos were just a trigger mechanism they would be great, but by circumscribing memory, they can limit as much or more than they enable. And furthermore, I now find it additionally problematic if our experiences simply become anticipations of documentation. We hold as conventional wisdom that happiness comes from "living in the moment." How can we truly do that if we are always looking to lock down any given moment simply so that it can exist in the future?

Additionally, I am now concerned about the proliferation of photographic images and what that means for their future value. In the past, because of limitations on resources and storage space, the origin and then the preservation of a picture required a certain degree of conscious control. I wrote just recently about the decline in relevance of media photos from overexposure (pun intended?), and I think that some of the same principles apply to personal collections. How significant can any one photo become if you are averaging 17 per day?

I'm honestly not sure what kind of a historical researcher would have an easier job--a contemporary researcher attempting to use 19th century photographic archives to understand what life was like in that era, or a 22nd century researcher attempting to use contemporary Facebook mobile uploads. The one has limitations in data, the other such an overabundance of both candid and fabricated images that discerning true representations may become a huge challenge.

My 2007 self would be happy to know I'm still quoting Bob Dylan. In an interview earlier this year, he was asked about films that influenced him when he was growing up. He responded: "I grew up in a small town hidden from the outside world, and the films from the '40s and '50s were like a window into the future, like classic literature, and had great meaning. It's hard to explain that, especially in this age of narcissism and self-surveillance. A lot of people wouldn't know they are alive unless they have photos of themselves to prove it—from the cradle to the grave, actually."

This cuts to the core of my suspicions of the practice of accumulating photos. Dylan is not the first to accuse the millennial generation in particular of being narcissistic. But the term "self-surveillance" is one that I hadn't heard before. It certainly raises interesting considerations about the motivations that one may have for an obsessive documentation of existence. But then again, it's not exactly easy to take pictures of oneself. (And as I found out, it's not a simple thing to take a picture with one hand). Are we really attempting to document our own existence, or are we attempting to document existence itself? And who is to say that the jambled, jumbled mess of images that we end up with is not an accurate representation of the jambled, jumbled mess that our lives entail?

And furthermore, to once again revisit a previous blog post, I wrote about a year ago upon the occasion of the fifth anniversary of this blog, that "by forcing myself to write something every week, I have embedded in amber small artifacts of not only my thoughts, but my very consciousness. I have left evidence for myself and others that not only have I lived from 2005 to 2010 in the physical sense, but I have lived in the intellectual sense. My mind has been active, alert, and aware, responding to both the world around me and the world inside of me." In some ways, I guess the impulse that makes me write is not too far removed from the impulse that makes others take pictures.

I guess we'll have to replace that camera.


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