You see a tree that has bloomed and looks beautiful. Plenty of picture ideas hit you right then. You start capturing photographs with the phone that’s always in your hand. Pictures of the tree; in original, sepia, monochrome. Pictures of you standing – by the tree, in front of the tree. Solo shots, couple shots, group shots. Combinations, taking turns so that everyone gets a picture with everyone else. Profile picture candidates – dreamy-side-eye shot, smile-facing-camera shot, mid-walk shot, wind-in-my-hair shot, head-bent-looking-at-the-floor shot, deep-in-thought shot. Then you get adventurous. Climb up the tree. Or hug it. Put a fallen flower behind the ear.
One trip to the park and you return with a phone full of images next to a single tree without having seen the tree at all.
My sister owns an Instax mini camera. It has limited prints that are not inexpensive. With every photo that we shot, we were careful about the angle, the lighting, and the camera setting. We read the documentation for the camera. There was no room for mindless capture. There was no delete, no retries. Every bad picture was a print wasted. A few decades ago, when only film cameras were available, special occasions such as a wedding, a newborn, a birthday, an outing, or a Sunday would call for photography at home. Each roll had limited negatives – thirty, maybe forty prints per roll.
Now, I have over a thousand pictures from a recent visit to India and over five hundred pictures from our road trip last weekend. I have pictures of food, people, sights, sceneries, books, objects, my face and my feet. I have selfies of me smiling, pouting, frowning, and winking.
It’s only when my phone complains that it’s running low on storage space, that I scroll through the pictures and back them using a photo storage service. I take a cursory glance at the pictures or sometimes, none at all. I don’t bother deleting the unwanted photos – the mysterious, blurry picture of the pavement, or the picture of some foreign object that’s most likely my thumb. The photo storage service provides unlimited storage. Like a garbage dump, every day I add a little to the growing pile. When storage app sends me a “this day, last year” or similar nostalgia-inducing notification, I scroll through the photos again. Only to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of pictures. Repetitions mostly. I can hardly tell the difference of one from the next. When it’s too bright and I can’t see the screen or if I am in a moving vehicle and I don’t have time to focus and find the perfect frame or angle before I click the picture, I point the camera in random directions and click multiple photos. I don’t want to miss something obvious. So I shoot blindly at every possible angle. And accumulate images in my phone first, then on the cloud where it remains. Forever.
Before companies like Google, Amazon, Apple began providing unlimited storage for photos, I used a hard disk to back up data from my phone. The total amount of space available for storage was quantifiable. 500 GB, 1 TB. Limited. I would look through my phone media, delete unwanted pictures, create folders for easy searching and back it up on the hard disk. I had to connect my phone and the hard disk to my laptop/PC to transfer data. There was an inertia to set it all up, a discouragement to hoarding photographs. But now, backing up is smooth, effortless. One-click. No wires, no additional devices. I can hoard as many photos as possible. I have unlimited storage space on distant data centers, out of sight.
With a camera in every pocket, what is the significance of photographs today? Are they for our consumption, a way to remember? Or are they for shallow display of fun and good times? As we mindlessly click the round white button on our phones in an attempt to capture it all, are we forgetting to enjoy the moment? Are we so focused on ensuring that we have pictures to look back at, that we forget to create the moment itself? Or is this the new normal? This trend of seeing our surroundings through our camera lenses. Heads down, staring at our screens, comparing filters and camera shots. Interacting with likes and comments, views and double-taps. Are we creating memories or are we hoarding data? Like ticket stubs collected to remember a special trip. They remain until the print on them has disappeared. Until they are plain, white scraps of paper. Garbage at the bottom of our bags with no evidence of the trip.
I click pictures for safekeeping. Snapshots in time. Little pieces of my life. Little pieces of the world around me. The world through my eyes. A stimulus for poems, articles, and introspection. A collection of what inspires and what amazes. Something beautiful amidst the ordinary. Fodder for my writing.
It is great to have these photographs, to share with family, with friends. In the future, it is something to look back at. To recollect and relive. But it is also easy to be consumed by the need to capture every tiny detail, every scene, every moment. To forget to see, and to experience. It then becomes necessary to make a conscious effort. To keep the camera aside. To pause. And to see the world through my own eyes.