By Sara Head
There were an estimated trillion photographs made in the year 2015, and the number is growing exponentially. Standing at the base of this staggering mountain of images, it feels trite and inconsequential to duck at the sight of a lens. Will hiding one’s face from the camera really have an effect when there will be 350 million pictures uploaded to Facebook before the day is out? Camera vision has become such a pervasive aspect of modern life that it seems amazing that people are still nervous to be caught on film.
I grew up with the kind of mother who could always be counted upon to be a hands-on participant in school projects, and yet, the day I called home from college to ask her to be my subject for a documentary photography assignment was the day she said no for the first time. She grappled for several tense hours after that phone call with the idea of being captured on film, and that evening I got a reluctant text message saying she would change her mind if I made the pictures nice.
The exchange devastated me. Perhaps a 21 year old in the prime of youth couldn’t possibly empathize with a fear of her own image, but I found myself deeply bothered by the incident. It clarified in my mind the number of times in my lifetime my mother had remained behind the camera, snapping pictures of her family and staying well out of frame. I found myself frightened at the idea of her one day leaving the world so little of herself to be remembered with.
That weekend, I visited home and took ten times as many photographs as I needed to fulfill my assignment. I suddenly couldn’t bear to ever forget the expression on her face while giving the family dog a stern talking-to about laying on the sofa.
It speaks to the nature of photography that, despite its permeation of modern life, we still feel protective over our own image. Tapping the screen of an iPhone may not seem as consequential as the stiff minutes of chemical reactions required of those who sat in Daguerre’s studio over a century ago, yet we are nevertheless conscious of the implications of each click of the shutter. Whether one loves the camera or despises it, there is an understanding that this abstraction of ourselves into two dimensions means something. It is the suspension of a piece of ourselves, entrusted to a cluster of pixels, and a great trial of our own sense of vanity.
I hear time and again that the thing people would try to save first in a fire is their family photo album. There is an intense melancholy to the idea of the loss of a photograph. It is art, it is history, it is memory incarnate.
It is hard to blame someone for avoiding the kind of vulnerability that comes from entrusting a portion of themselves to something as fragile as a piece of paper or as sterile as a tract of land on a hard drive.
Article © Sara Head