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3 April 2024

Shutterbug: The Intimacy of Photography

TYRA BUCKLEY

In On Photography, a collection of essays reviewing photography’s “voyeuristic” relationship with the world, Susan Sontag claims that “after an event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would otherwise never have enjoyed.” Essentially, to photograph is to perpetuate a single moment in an ever-changing, dynamic environment. 

 

This is, arguably, what makes photography so intimate. Intimate in that it is a choice to preserve the fragments of someone, or something, before they are lost to the spiral of memory; having immense power over the way that someone is remembered for years to come, fixed in time. Intimate in that there is a semblance of control over the pictures that look right back at you, or that an inflated sense of importance comes from toying with “another person's mortality.” Longevity is in your hands with a lens and flash. 

 

By choosing to encapsulate a particular moment in time we, as humans, confront the innate fear of being forgotten; one that comes with the paradox of memory. One that everyone has, or will have, in time. One so deeply integrated in our biology that a vast majority take to actually cementing an event in the form of a picture, paper, digital or otherwise.  

 

Much like the way that Edie Sedgewick is perpetuated in Andy Warhol’s moving pictures as his silver leading lady or Vivian Maier preserves her own memory in a series of self-portraits, everyone takes measures to extend their lives in one way or another, even if it means that they should only exist in the memory of someone else. Even if they should merely linger as a hollowed-out and vague recollection, a figure with a blurring face, or the owner of a strangely familiar name.

 

I believe that the desire to be unforgettable comes as part of the human experience, simply a fallout of the glamorisation of gods, historical figures, and the gene of storytellers that we all seem to carry. An outcome of the idea that there is something heartwarming about being kept in mind. Something romantic in being observed.

 

Photography is, in some ways, society’s attempt to leave a mark. An amateur artist's way of leaving behind a fragment of themselves (or as Sontag frequently and eloquently dubs it, a “slice of time and space”). A way of leaving behind moments of their lives, their work, their memories. The things that they have seen. The things that have shaped them. Sort of like engraving your initials into a rusty surface, or the classroom table, just to indicate to someone, anyone, that you were there. That you existed, and you did something about it. Much like carving your name into the trunk of a tree, leaving bite marks in anything that allows it, or planting flowers in your garden that leave traces of nectar behind, it says I was here. 


The idea that photography can be so deeply personal was imposed on me a few weeks back, when I was sifting through my nan's seemingly bottomless box of pictures for a college project. A family tree visually and physically branched out before me, depicting the lives of family members I don't nor will I ever know, bridging the chasm between life and death. In my hands was the weight of the hundreds of lives, hundreds of souls and spirits, people who had their own passions and dreams, commemorated on film, restricted only by the limits of this aged, torn, withering paper and the rules of mortality. Like opening a time capsule, I was exposed to the past as documented by those who deemed it important. The pictures span over decades, into the lives of my great grandparents who passed when I was only six; the blossoming romances between several couples that I’m unable to distinguish between family and family friend; to the friendships formed in girlhood, memorialised by a photomaton in Blackpool. 

 

In this, I believe that I came to know my family more intimately. In this, photography becomes a medium through which the future interacts with the past. Memories become tangible. Ghosts come to stay.

 

Not only can photography bring together generations that will never have the chance to interact, like that of my great-great grandparents and I, but I also truly believe that it brings out the artist in all of us. The one that’s festering in our chests, hidden in the darker hallways of our brains, creating the itch in our fingers that longs to preserve our faulty memories. It doesn't matter what you immortalise, only that you choose to immortalise it. It matters that you decide that something is worth remembering, be it a burst of flowers drawn together by strings of sunlight, or the telling rings of a tree trunk. The inside of a sickly sweet pomegranate in the summertime or a painting that reminds you of the school trip from when you were seven. A friend talking animatedly, mismatched jewellery glinting in the light or the crest of a wave that reminds you of a lullaby your father used to sing. 

 

Photographs can be a resurrection, prolonging the existence of people we once knew, people we once were. A mausoleum of identities. A testament to the turbulent nature of time. 

 

Photographs can be beautifully intimate, and equally as violating. 

***

References:

  1. “After an event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would otherwise never have enjoyed.” On Photography, In Plato’s Cave pg. 11

  2. “[...] participate in another person’s (or things) mortality.” On Photography, In Plato’s Cave pg. 15

  3. “Thin slice of space as well as time,” On Photography, In Plato’s Cave pg. 22

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