A shaft of sunlight falls on the girl asleep on my bed. Her father lies next to her and I can’t help smiling as I notice that her arm is wrapped tightly around him. In another few minutes she will wake up, oblivious to what this moment means to me, or even that it happened. In another few days she leaves for college, spreading her wings in a world that belongs to her. When she returns, my daughter who slept on my bed cuddled against her father will be gone, replaced by an older and, hopefully, wiser self.
Right now there is something so ineffably fragile about this moment that I take out my iPhone and photograph it. It’s as if I’m trying to freeze that moment in my head and as if by doing so, somehow, magically I will postpone that inevitable farewell; as if that pixelated image on my phone screen will sustain me after she has left; as if that image is somehow more reliable than what I already know.
A photograph is an experience captured. “All photographs are momento mori,” wrote Susan Sontag when she first published her collection of essays On Photography in 1973, years before digital technology made photographers of us all. Now we click incessantly and instagram constantly everything we deem worthy of record — a restaurant meal, a sleeping dog, laundry drying in the sun.
Inevitably we accumulate a detritus of the merely trivial. “It’s as if the more photos we take, the more eventful our lives will themselves become,” wrote columnist Trisha Gupta recently in the Sunday Guardian. But it’s not as if our lives are fuller or busier. It’s just that we find it easier to record it, for better or worse.
Minus the accoutrements of a previous era — expensive film, developing chemicals, a dark room — the digital age of photography is empowering and democratic. We are all chroniclers now. From the street rage in Egypt to a grandparent’s gnarled hands, we shoot, we collect, we document and we seek to leave our mark.
So a project in Mexico City gets street children to photograph their lives and create awareness. In Lebanon a 10-day workshop with street kids and orphans results in stunning images. Former child soldiers in Mozambique seek salvation behind a lens. And in Kolkata, children and women in prostitution discover their creativity and self-worth through workshops. This is a brave new world, how can you not applaud it?
On a personal level, a photograph empowers us to capture moments that an uncertain memory might find hard to contain. Perhaps we realise that we live in an unpredictable world over which we have little control; and this is as true of an earlier age as of the one we live in. Photographs sustain us: parents long gone, younger and more idealistic selves, the shining hope in a child’s eyes as she sets off for the first day of school, birthday candles being blown out, holiday past. Pictorial evidence of memories that build a life together.
One of my most memorable holidays was a road trip I took years ago with my girlfriends, minus camera. “Photograph this in your head,” my friend shouted as we drove along winding roads, the ocean beating on our side. I did. But what if that which is remembered is not true to life? What if memory is false to reality?
This year I will be going on that road trip again, asking myself: was what I saw and remember as fabulous and magical as what I imprinted on my memory? Or has my memory exaggerated a clearly happy time in my life? No experience is ever the same. This time, 25 years later and older I will be accompanied not by my girlfriends but my daughters, a last trip before we say goodbye.
And, yes, I will probably have more photographs than I can possibly manage to leaf through again and again when they are gone.
The views expressed by the author are personal