If a picture is worth a thousand words what does that suggest about our current obsession with ‘selfies’?
We find ourselves in an interesting place or with a friend, and out come the cameras. A click, an upload to the internet, and voila! the moment is preserved forever.
Yet the picture really cannot capture more than a couple of faces and the self-absorption of the subject. The selfie, generally, has no context beyond the “me waiting for dinner” sort of thing. It’s the modern equivalent to animals urinating to mark their territory.
You have to forgive me. I’m not of the ‘now’ generation. More the ‘once’ generation.
I remember my dad asking strangers on the shore to take pictures of the family. We called them ‘snapshots’ then. There was the formal handing over of the camera, the instructions on its use, and the squashing of everyone together with a cheesy expression on our sunburned faces. Those pictures evoke the smell of candyfloss and Amber Soleil. I still have some of those photographs. My mother’s handwriting on the back, “Southend, 1961”. Memories.
Of course, it’s not pictures or selfies that I want to talk to you about today, but the way we capture the moment.
It’s odd, because we only capture those moments worth keeping, and yet these are the moments we are least likely to forget. Well, that used to be the case. The selfie has rendered all moments indistinguishable from one another. To take a picture of everything is to take a picture of nothing. The selfie is the Mount Rushmore of the bored.
When we are called to account for ourselves at the end of days, perhaps we will learn that the selfie-taker was right and all moments are equally valuable. Or trivial. From my current perspective (ie, living), I have to think that some moments have more heft than others. The moment my daughter was born weighs far more than what I had for lunch on Saturday two weeks ago. Perhaps I’m just not hip.
It’s hard for a writer to admit it, but there are times when a picture can paint a thousand words. I saw a documentary about the holocaust. They said after the liberation of the camps, people used photographs and artwork to capture their experiences. They could not translate the enormity of death and destruction into words. The words came eventually, of course. Writers like Primo Levi and Aharon Appelfeld and many others were able to translate their experiences into literature.
There are famous photographs, too, that capture famous moments. Ali’s knockout punch to Joe Frazier. That picture of the couple kissing in Times Square on VJ Day. I’m sure you can think of others. Yet, for most of us, the picture on its own is worth very little. The picture of my family in Southend means something to me because I recognise the faces. I know some of those people, like my mother, are not around any more. I love looking at that image and seeing her look so happy. My dad with his big ears and his Brylcreem’d hair. But would that picture mean anything to you? Probably not. You have your own pictures that tell their own stories.
And it’s the stories that matter. The picture out of context is just the faces of some strangers. Without the caption, without the story, we forget. I remember how my mother and my grandmother would pour over old picture albums. “When was this taken, Mammy?” “Oh, that’s your daddy’s pal, Jock. They were in the same platoon. Jock was shot in Egypt fighting Rommel…” And the pictures are the springboard for the telling of the stories. Even though we’ve heard them dozens of times before, we cement our memories with the tales.
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes words, if they’re the right words, are worth ten thousand pictures.