“You backpacked across France and didn’t take a single photo?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes,” he replied, amused at my reaction.
“I was enjoying the experience,” he shrugged.
I thought for a minute if I would (or could) do the same. Nah. I didn’t have the guts to. If I didn’t take a picture, I would probably always regret that I didn’t have something to come back to when the memory faded. I would’ve had to suppress the irresistible urge to whip out my phone and freeze every memorable experience of the trip into something I could physically (digitally?) have with me. It would have been a Difficult Lesson in the Art of Letting Go.
When I was growing up, photographs were something extraordinary. Bringing out the camera meant that something really special was happening. The old Yashica, subjected for a large part of its life to the darkness of a Godrej almirah safe, would suddenly spring to life, taking pictures of a child cutting her 4th birthday cake. And then again, you could only take the best shots. We had a limit back then, and this limit taught us to conserve. The concept of ‘burst mode’ was alien (to us, at least). It was also an age that taught us patience – the photographs would be given to the developer only when the roll was full, which meant your 5th birthday photos were probably included too. When the finished product arrived, the whole family would congregate and pass around the glossy cards – under-exposed, over-exposed, often with random hands getting in the way.
But today is different. We have innumerable options – not only in the process of capturing the moment itself, but also in tailoring them them to satisfactorily meet our expectations. I travel frequently with a friend who hates taking pictures, and I periodically (and somewhat guiltily) interrupt our travels with, “Wait, let me take a picture of this.” The first time, she is patient. But when I say, “Oh, this is not good, let me try again”, she starts to frown. I squint at the sunset, tilting my phone this way and that, trying to get that perfect shot. Wait, that pole is getting in the way… oh no worries, I’ll crop it before posting it to Instagram. Meanwhile, the friend has wandered over to a tree, watched a few ants scurrying up its bark, and listened to the birds returning home.
Back then, you always needed someone to take a photo of you. You asked your mom or your friend or a kind passer-by (One aunty, who travelled solo, didn’t have a single photo of herself because she didn’t trust strangers – “What if they just take my camera and make a run for it?”). If it was a group of five, there would be five shots, each with a different group member missing (“I’ll take it”, “No, I’ll take it”, “Wait, you’re not there in the last shot ya”, and so on). Selfies weren’t a thing back then, at least to my knowing. You’d look quite daft if you pointed the camera back at you and grinned into it (something that’s considered perfectly normal and acceptable now). And even if you did go through the trouble, you’d have to wait a few eons to see it developed and be prepared that it might just be a close up of your right eye and part of your nose.
Photography is powerful – it is evocative, many times, for the right reasons. Used in the right context and on the right platform, it helps us learn, it makes us think, it prompts action.
But this photo-obsession is unhealthy. A couple of years ago, I was at the Angkor Wat, huddled together with hundreds of others in the morning chill. Cell phones lit up the 4 am darkness. As the first light dawned, everyone started clicking frantically, trying to get that iconic reflection into the frame (I was among them). I took a moment to look around me and was horrified – we’d turned into some kind of maniacs. I recall a sunset at Tiger Hill, Darjeeling, some fifteen years ago, an experience very unlike this one. As we waited, we chatted with fellow travellers and exchanged stories, eating Maggi and drinking chai. As the golden rays hit Kanchenjunga, we were stunned into silence. Those of us who took pictures, stopped at maybe two. I still gets goosebumps from the memory.
I’ve realised that what helps is to consciously get out of the frame, every once in a while (and it’s possibly even better to stay out of it). It helps to crop yourself out and watch from the outside.
And when you do that, it hits you that even reality is just another frame.