‘Put the phone down and live in the moment!’ – hasn’t that been the refrain for some time now? I get it, and mostly I try to do it. However, from time to time, I do love to excuse myself from the present and become so absorbed in capturing the moment that I’m removed from the here and now. And yes, it is often my phone that drags me away, imploring me to step outside of life in order to document it. Mostly you’ll find me taking photographs, but sometimes I’ll be speaking into my mobile to record notes as I walk, or one-finger typing a name, place, recommendation, something I have heard said. If I don’t deal with the notes quickly, they grow mould, putrefy like a forgotten tangerine at the bottom of the fruit bowl, and there is nothing to do but to throw them out, the idea is lost, the thread has unravelled. Photographs, though, never go off, a picture stays as fresh as the second it was snapped. Nonetheless, my phone use, cloaked as it may be in the lofty guise of archiving, record-keeping, and chronicling for the sake of posterity, has a tendency to steal me away from the very moment I am seeking to bathe in.
There is an old phrase claiming that, ‘writers live twice’. The first time being when they live in real time, and the second when they sit at their desk to write it all down – interpret, analyse, de-construct, maybe even improve upon what they’ve lived. (Given the number of redrafts I sometimes do, I think I’ve had more lives than a cat.) This begs the question: is a writer, by virtue of his or her craft, a mindfulness refusenik? Does being so fixated on chronicling the detail of an instant contribute to absenting you from the very instant you seek to place under the microscope? Despite this hunger to journal, and no matter how prolific, there is only so much one can write down in words. One thing I noticed about myself over Christmas (it’s not new – I have been doing it for some time) was my propensity to halt the flow of the moment in order to capture it on camera. ‘Hold that pose, bunch in, sit closer together’ – I’ll bark orders like Field Marshall Montgomery commanding his frontline infantry. Not surprisingly, people hate it, not least as it takes them away from the essence of the present, interrupts conversations, and flies in the face of all things mindful. G. shields his face with his arms, C. scowls impatiently, K. smiles beatifically (the camera loves her), S. looks befuddled and I end up with an assortment of imperfect photos: eyes shut, heads down, bodies moving. Then, when I put time between myself my archive, and revisit them months or years later, the less imperfect they seem and the more light they shed, in wordless detail, upon a forgotten moment. When I take time to look back over them, I often see something new: a person in the background, the jewellery someone is wearing, a hint of tiredness in the eye, an unfinished plate of food.
Edinburgh writer, Alexander McCall Smith, has published a collection of short stories called ‘Chance Development’ inspired by five old black-and-white photographs – the type you might stumble across in an old Rover biscuit tin at the back of a charity shop, ‘orphan photographs’ they call them. Not knowing anything about these images, he said he found them ‘eloquent and moving,’ and they elicited in him imagined stories of what he described as, ‘love and friendship, joy and melancholy’. These photographs really did live twice. I cling to McCall Smith as my vicarious justification for taking hundreds of photographs on the basis of having endowed that moment with the possibility of immortality – after all, if not me, someone else might find that orphan image and someday write a story about it. This excuse is problematic on many levels, one of which is that I have 13,647 photographs stored on my phone and 49,230 on my computer. No matter what angle I come at it, there is not enough life left in me to go back and revisit all of those moments and, unquestionably, I have created too many potential orphans.
I had a revelation on New Year’s Eve when H. came to visit complete with polaroid camera. The huge block of plastic reminded me of the era of the soda stream and clock radio, the teasmade and ZX Spectrum, long days and slow living. H. took her time, for once she pressed that button, costly film would be used. There was light and shadow, composition and backdrop, framing and distance all to be considered. No mindless click, click, click – this was one careful record of a single moment that we then waited for – patiently, mindfully – and fifteen minutes later a timeless image was pulled from the film like the breaking of a new day. One unique image capturing the last hours of a fading decade, it has not been admitted to the orphanage of my phone or computer, rather it’s slotted into the mirror of my dresser, ten eyes, five bright smiles and countless stories.
2 thoughts on “Orphan Photographs”
Nice read. That one photo slotted on the mirror…is it because you want to be having a glimpse of the last decade more often…i mean separation anxiety? Ok. My question might not even make sense. But i loved to read this.
Happy new year.
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Thank you, Happy New Year to you too. Re: photo in mirror – no, it’s not separation anxiety, it’s just somewhere to put it and remember my friends!