There she was, in a sea of people holding their mobiles aloft, one old lady sans smartphone, leaning on a barrier as actors arrived at a premiere, watching them with her own eyes. She stood out not just because she was behaving differently but also because she looked the most damn sensible. I mean if Martians had landed, they’d have assumed all humans, except for this special lady, were only able to view their surroundings via a screen in front of their faces. Incredible to think that in only a few of our Earth years, taking photos has, for many, become a compulsion. An addiction. A fetish.
According to photutorial.com, it’s estimated worldwide, 54,400 photos are taken every second. That’s 4.7 billion a day and 1.72 trillion a year, a large percentage of them, people’s lunches. I rarely take food pics even though in some situations, it’s almost a snub if you don’t. If you’re getting stuck into salmon en croute rather than snapping it, the waiter is liable to think something about your supper’s amiss.
However, I’m guilty of taking way too many pictures of other stuff: my dog whenever she looks cute (which is all the time); flowers in different stages of unfurling; studies of the mundanity of life that I kid myself have a Martin Parr-esque irony. Worse, I rarely delete any, so they sit on ‘The Cloud’. Although it’s not a cloud is it? The world’s multitudinous stash of pouts, pooches, pancakes and people’s privates reside in thwacking great server farms.
I also have a passion for using a proper camera with lenses of the type you see on the baseline at Wimbledon. These are for capturing magnificent spectacles on magical trips: elephants at dusk; monolithic icebergs; mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But here’s the thing - if these moments are so significant, have I made them less so by viewing them entirely through a lens? I’ve been to Antarctica twice and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a whale flip its fluke without simultaneously pressing the shutter button. I now have to ask myself whether simply watching its magnificence would have made a better memory than digitally documenting it.
Maybe it was easier to maintain a sensible balance when we had to eke out 24 or 36 frames of film over a fortnight. You had to be very sure you wanted that picture of dad in the stocks at Blackgang Chine because once taken, there was no going back. You had to wind the film on. What’s more, you certainly didn’t repeat that pose the following year. No, come the next Isle of Wight holiday, we nixed the stocks and instead, Dad got me to point at a lighthouse. Scintillating? No. But then again, had anyone suggested we take a photo of half a grapefruit at breakfast, we’d have thought them stark staring bonkers.
Gratification was also delayed. Not only did film have to be developed, we used to post ours off and await its return. Results were hit and miss. Once, we received a sorry envelope where every frame had a wide orange streak down one side. Light leaks, apparently. Lol, I cut the affected bits off with scissors and put them in the album anyway.
Now that was another serious affair. Our albums had pages that were covered in multiple thin lines of a tacky substance and when you peeled back the transparent overlay to position your photos, it made a deeply satisfying sucking sound. The only trouble was, once some years had elapsed and you fetched the album from the sideboard, the horizontal gluey lines had gone brown, as had the photographs themselves. The 70s may have been an explosion of disco-licious colour but all my archive material is in Edwardian sepia.
So back to the future. I’ve decided now is the time to change my rules of photographic engagement. Firstly, I hereby vow to delete thousands of shots on my phone that are of no creative or documentary value. And before I whip out my phone to, say, take another picture of an interesting tree, I shall ask myself, ‘Would I put it in a sticky album?’. If the answer is ‘no’, move on.
On the other hand, if I’m at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or witnessing herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains, the camera will be on burst mode. But I will take a breath too. To truly watch the scene. To actually live it. And I will honour the pictures I do take. Rather than simply let them gather digital dust, I’ve already started ordering printed photo books, to have and to hold. Because I still think there’s something special about images you can touch. Like the dogeared one of my dad at Blackgang Chine. A stock shot that’s irreplaceable.