Sunday, September 03, 2006

Snap

I hate being photographed. I will do almost anything to avoid it. If I'm travelling, I'll only take pictures of the landscape / sights, and leave people out entirely. I'll try and go exploring on my own. In any group setting, I'll always volunteer to wield the camera, not because I like taking photographs but because that way I'm the one behind the camera, not in front of it. If that's not possible, and my presence in the picture is unavoidable (I can't 'accidentally' miss it by being in the loo, for instance) I will find the tallest person in the room and make it a point to stand behind him / her, so that the most you will see of me is a tuft of my unruly hair peeping over someone else's shoulder.

Why do I hate photographs of myself, you ask?

Because they strike me as being too deterministic a form of evidence for my tentative, even circumstantial presence. Records of a permanence I neither feel nor aspire to. That I was in such a place and at such a time means something, the photograph suggests, and this is almost never true. My being there is usually a matter of coincidence and serendipity, sometimes it is the result of casual choice - all other narrative is convenient, but false.

Because I'm tired of the way people are always smiling in them. Or trying to. As though life were inherently happy. As though this were our 'true' face. Or as though the fact of having this role of the lens' object thrust upon us, of being forced to step out of the stream of our life and assume this fake pose, were pleasurable in itself and "cause enough / for calling up that spot of joy". Who exactly do we hope to fooll by this? Personally, I'd rather see pictures of people crying. If you're trying to figure out how beautiful someone is, that's the right way to do it. What was it Emily Dickinson said? "I like a look of agony / Because I know it's true / Men do not sham convulsion / Nor simulate a throe".

Because photographs limit and circumscribe. Because they are an insult to both memory and imagination, as though either needed the help of some piece of printed paper to perform its office.

Because they will insist, like spoilt children, on their own version of things, as though accuracy really mattered in something so trivial as an individual's life.

Because every photograph is a lie. When you see a group photograph you think: the people in it are together, they are having a shared experience. But this is not true, because each person experiences the moment in his own way. Ask the people in the photograph about the day it was taken and each one of them will have a completely different set of memories, and none of their versions will be exactly right. The photograph is simply a brazen attempt to hide this lack of connection, to put a brave face on the irreconcilable differences between us. A desperate attempt to pretend that we have something in common.

Because photographs are two-dimensional. Any real record of the past would have to include so much more. Not that one instant only, but the moments that came before and after. And other things. The smell of the freshly mown grass, the distant noise of the traffic, the feel of the sunlight on your skin. What person A was thinking about, what person B was feeling. The warmth of these bodies - their heartbeat, their breathing.

Because photographs are a claim: one that I have no wish to make. They are flags planted in history, an attempt to claim a certain handsbreadth of the past for our own. As though it was possible for the past to belong to someone. As though such ownership were valuable.

Because photographs are symptoms of the worst nostalgia of all - the nostalgia for memory. Where does it come from, this desire of ours to remember and be remembered? Why do we want to be unforgettable? What good will it do us to think or know that people will remember us even when we are no longer with them? And do we really believe that this picture, this foolish little image, will do the trick for us, grant us immortality?

People are always showing me old photographs of someone I used to know (or someone they claim I used to know) and saying "Remember him?" I usually don't. And the reason I usually don't is because in all likelihood the person either bored me or irritated me, or, at best, I never got to know anything about him except maybe his name and so there's really nothing to 'remember'. It annoys me to know that I'm expected to remember such people, and it frightens me to think that they might still remember me (or rather, that they remember the version of me as I was then; no, actually, the version of me as I was then that they subjectively saw). The few people / places / times I do remember I need no photographs to remind me of. In general I find the 'if you can't remember it, forget it' rule a good one. That way the memories I keep are the ones I truly value. Remembering isn't cheap, and it shouldn't be.

And even if you want to cling to some memories (and which of us doesn't) why make them public? Why create this common vision of the past, instead of keeping your own unique and inaccessible version of yourself? I hate photographs of me because they deprive me of the right to control my own memories. You know how in the old days when a king died they buried him along with his household and all his worldly goods. That's what I'd like done with all my photographs - bury / burn them with me when I die so that afterwards there's no proof left of the fact that I ever existed. [1]

I hate photographs because they assume that the purpose of life is to establish your presence in the world. Personally, I'd rather establish my absence. After all, if people notice you're not there, it means they miss you.

I hate photographs because they make me look involved, and therefore culpable. Because every time I look at a photograph of me I know that some day, in some way or the other, someone will use it against me.

"Preserve your memories / they're all that's left you" Simon & Garfunkel sing. Can you imagine what that would be like? To have got so old, so tired, that you could neither see nor imagine any future, that you no longer cared about the present and couldn't remember the past with any clarity; that you had no inner resources left and had to turn to these tiny coloured bits of paper to keep you going. And even then all you'd have would be a lot of fake images from times you probably regret and certainly can't change. Isn't that a terrible thought?

To hell with bookends. Personally, I'd rather fall off the shelf.

P.S. Of course, the real reason I hate photographs is because they make me look fat. But you don't think I'm going to admit to that, do you?

[1] Besides, if there is an afterlife, I'd like to show them around - just think what fun it would be to meet up in hell with the people who forced you to look at their baby pictures, and spend all of eternity showing them the 1,350 pics of your trip to the Smoky Mountains

Update: Here's Margaret Atwood, from her new collection, Tent:

No more photos. Surely there are enough. No more shadows of myself thrown by light onto pieces of paper, onto squares of plastic. No more of my eyes, mouths, noses, moods, bad angles. No more yawns, teeth, wrinkles. I suffer from my own multiplicity. Two or three images would have been enough, or four, or five. That would had allowed a firm idea: This is she. As it is, I'm watery, I ripple, from moment to moment I dissolve into my other selves. Turn the page: you, looking, are newly confused. You know me too well to know me. Or not too well: too much.

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27 comments:

dazedandconfused said...

Falstaff, don't you have a one-line reason for anything?

This is what I was going to write before I read the post script.

:) said...

i like photographs of people. i like looking at them and trying to figure whats going on in their heads. the eyes give it all away. sometimes they are sparkling with love. sometimes they're hiding the truth, sometimes they look tired, and sometimes defeated.
you look at a picture years later and say, god! she knew she had cancer then...then you look at the eyes and try to see if you can see it too.

Swathi said...

u know what, I almost wished that I agreed with you ....
over the years i have learnt that yes we try to remember all those memories we want to, but some little memory somehow escapes us and when we looks at the photograph it brings back the feeling as well as the memory back (happened with the photo of my best friend n me ,bck from college).

Tabula Rasa said...

so i'm assuming your printouts are all in landscape?

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Is this your way of saying you don't want to do the silly picture tag? Also, what will you do should you ever get married? Do you feel the same way about videos?

Alok said...

Because photographs limit and circumscribe. Because they are an insult to both memory and imagination, as though either needed the help of some piece of printed paper to perform its office.

you underestimate the art of photography my friend... it can be applied to achieving serious artistic goals too. I hope you were jesting :))

On a more serious note, have you read the books by the late German writer W G Sebald? He writes about memory and imagination and about photographs (and not just "artistic" ones, even the very bourgeois,false kind)-- brilliant, profound and very moving.

bewra kekra said...

"I like a look of agony / Because I know it's true / Men do not sham convulsion / Nor simulate a throe".

ED never went out much, innit? Figures ;-P

n said...

one of my favourite rants :)
its a sort if fitting reply to the silly pic flu that seems to have affected everybody. Maybe this can cure it.. dare I hope?

n said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Falstaff said...

d&c: as you can see, I do - but one line reasons are no fun.

:): "you look at a picture years later and say, god! she knew she had cancer then...then you look at the eyes and try to see if you can see it too"

And then people say that I have a morbid imagination

swathi: oh, I'm not suggesting that there aren't things that we forget, even though we plan to remember them. I'm only questioning whether it's worth being reminded of them. Specially when you consider how little ability we have to predict which memories will bring us happiness in the future, and which will cause pain.

tr: :-). No, no, portraits I'm fine with. It's only photographs I don't like

shoe-fiend: it's not my way of getting out of the tag, more like a rant inspired by thinking about the tag. As for the "what will you do when you get married" question - I don't think there's any fear of that happening, so it's a moot point.

Alok: Oh, of course, photography as an art form is an entirely different thing. The difference between that and the kind of photographs I'm talking about is the difference between Keats and Hallmark greeting cards. You can totally love the one while hating the other.

Have read some Sebald, though I suspect not the one you have in mind. Any specific book you'd recommend (though I'm kind of taking a break from prose this month)

bewra kekra: I guess not. Though to hear Billy Collins tell it, she was hot stuff.

n: thanks. I wouldn't bet on it putting an end to the silly pic epidemic though. Nor would I want it to. Frankly, if I could find a silly pic of myself I would post it, but I went through all my online albums and I have all of two pictures of myself, neither of which is particularly silly.

ggop said...

Look what you have done Dhoomketu! :D
gg

Alok said...

My favourite of Sebald's books is The Emigrants. The Rings of Saturn is excellent too but it is concerned more with landscapes than people.

basically the point is to never underestimate the power of oblivion (to quote a phrase from rings of saturn!). you would only delude yourself to believe that you can remember everything. even the most banal photographs can resist that force of time. ah, a very sub-sebaldian comment :)

Szerelem said...

If you think photos make you look fat you must really hate videos. What with the camera adding ten pounds and all.

harry said...

All you've said about photographs could be said about writing. Or painting. Or music. So you're less inspired by photographs than you are by some of these other forms of expression. Too strong a rant for something as simple as that, dontcha think? Or am I totally missing the point here?

drifting leaf said...

Remembering isn't cheap, and it shouldn't be.

thats what stayed with me... its so weird how each of us takes away something that is integral to who we are...
how you?

Jabberwock said...

I love photos, especially the Akhada one I just posted, which makes me look lean and fit!

Anonymous said...

what you wrote partly can't be denied at all [infact a substantisal part again my personal opinion] but on the whole you sounded a bot to harsh on photography. but then its your blog dude and you are entitled to air thy views...take care 2x3x7.

Anonymous said...

errr.

bot=but
substantisal = substantial
my apologies for the typos.

Sriharsha Salagrama said...

As Henry Higgins would have said; "I can't turn on your soul" by looking at your photograph or hearing your voice on a gramophone.
:)

Jabberwock said...

On a (boringly) serious note, have to agree with Harry's comment that much of this applies to writing as well - which is clearly something you love doing, young Falstaff. On the other hand, as an art form your post was great! :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with you. This photo photo game is nonsense. I remember people dying to get clicked single.

vAgue said...

whoa- the post struck me as too cynical, and at times, if I may, too indulgently so. I agree with Harry. Its a matter of perspective (and yes, your blog, your perspective and all that); not all photographs (and I am not talking of the arty kind) are setup, fake, irrelevant pieces of wannabe memory.

Falstaff said...

ggop: Now, now, don't blame DhoomK2 for things he's not really responsible for.

alok: Thanks for the ref. will read.

szerelem: Probably. No one's ever tried to film me (why would anyone want to?) so I can't really say.

harry (and Jai, and vague): Not quite. a) There's a level of effort associated with painting, writing or music, which there isn't with photography. Just think about the patience and skill required to write an account of an event that sounds accurate, or to paint an authentic portrait of someone, vs. the split second it takes to point a camera and take a picture. In order to be a useful form of memory, these other forms require skill and craft, which means there's a high cost to using them to preserve memories, and that makes their use more selective: only people who really feel they have something to say write, and only about things they feel strongly about. On the other hand, everyone who goes on a vacation, gets married, etc. etc. feels the ubiquitous need to take pictures, and most people are completely undiscriminating in what pictures they take (especially now, with digital cameras) b) Perhaps for that reason (or closely linked to it anyway) there's a sense in which we're more evaluative of other forms of expression than we are of photographs. We judge other people's poems, stories, essays, paintings and songs on their artistic merit (at least I do) but photographs have legitimacy completely independent of their inherent quality. Imagine saying to someone who's showing you pictures of them at 18 that their pictures are really badly composed or have poor use of light. For most people, that's besides the point - they like them purely for nostalgia, and they're PROUD of this. By contrast, if someone shows you poems they wrote at 17 and you tell them that they suck (which they're almost sure to, unless you happen to run into Chatterton or Rimbaud or someone) then that's a fair response, and most people will have the grace to feel ashamed of themselves.

I'm not saying that there aren't people who take pictures that are valuable, and not just, as vague puts it - 'fake, irrelevant pieces of wannabe memory'. I'm simply saying that the proportion of photographs that are taken casually and unthinkingly and preserved for no reason other than nostalgic value is much greater than the proportion of books, paintings or songs that are so undiscriminatingly produced.

Finally, what's with the quest for the sane, balanced point of view? With all this stuff about being 'too harsh' and 'too cynical'. It's a rant, people. Since when are rants supposed to be balanced? Or objective? Or even truly reflective of a person's opinion?

jai: ah, see, if you can manage to ignore actual visual evidence to the point where you think those pics make you look lean and fit, then no wonder you don't see pictures as being enemies of the imagination. :-).

anon: Thanks. see last paragraph of my reply to Harry's comment.

sriharsha: True. Though if you were, say, Kiri Te Kanawa, then arguably I could turn on your soul by playing your voice on the gramophone.

harry said...

Falstaff, I did have counterpoints to the earlier points in your reply, but you conclude on such an unmistakable SHUTTHEFUCKUP note that I hesitate to hold forth.

Falstaff said...

harry: no, no, more than happy to entertain counterarguments, just spare me the 'you're not being fair' argument - I know I'm not being fair, I've never said I was going to be. That's why it's a rant, see.

Jabberwock said...

Harry: it's not so much SHUTTHEFUCKUP, it's more that his counterarguments are so long that we meek dissenters grow old and die before we can even read them all the way through.

Falstaff: I think, therefore I thin...

Sriharsha Salagrama said...

arguably..... :)