Photographs are like pirate maps to the past

A million years ago, I had a bit of a thing with taking photographs. One of the photographers in the local paper I worked in showed me how to print pictures and after a bit of saving I bought a very bog-standard Olympus OM10. In a rush of enthusiasm, I also got some darkroom equipment which I never used. Because I didn’t have a darkroom. Didn’t think that bit through.

Nonetheless, for some years I was the Guy With The Camera; making me both useful and annoying. I documented my life and those of the people around me: doing things both humdrum and, arguably, that today they could be blackmailed for. Most of the pictures ended up in a box, but I would also fill photo albums. Whenever old friends would call around, they’d ask to have a look.

The camera was still in use when Son Number One arrived, making him (at the time) the most photographed child in human history. A new t-shirt or toy or hat, first steps, even his first proper poo in a toilet were all snapped.

But it’s a scientific fact that the more kids you have, the less time you have to take photographs of them: something that may come up in therapy for Daughters 1-4 in later life. First poos went unrecorded. The OM10 developed mould.

Anyway, by then it was the start of the mobile phone era. Every three weeks (or so it seemed), a new one came out that had an even better camera. The clunky thing I used to have kept reappearing in ever slimmer iterations. You’d be a luddite to resist such a development.

Yet from that point on, I took fewer photographs, and virtually none of them ended up in a photo album.  

Oddly, we all have a camera in our pocket, yet it’s changed our relationship to the photograph. It’s become a transitory thing: to be posted on Instagram or Facebook and earn likes for a day or so. They are a snapshot both in the way they are taken and viewed. Quantitively, Son Number One was barely noticed compared with how much young people now photograph themselves and each other. Yet they probably won’t have any photographs to show for it. The idea of a photo as a visual representation of a moment in time seems to be all but gone. There’s a blizzard of statistics detailing how many snaps and selfies are taken every day, but one estimate reckons that out of every 100,000 pictures, only one is printed out.

I’ve just had a look through the pictures on my phone. Some of them are of Herself and various children, but just as many are there as an aide memoire: a tin of paint I need to buy, the gas meter reading. There’s a picture of a bag of frozen brussels sprouts. I have no idea why.

Yes: old man rants that things were different in his day. Herself was telling me recently that she was reading a Reddit thread about how parents described their younger life to their children. In one, a man told his kids that before satnavs or google you would need a physical map to find your way around. To which they replied: what, like pirates?

The digital version of a map is probably more useful than the physical one. But when it comes to photographs, the reverse may well be the case. You’d never ask to look through the pictures on someone’s phone. But you would with a photo album, which, if properly arranged, tells the story of how lives are connected to each other; something that invariably will prompt reminiscences or explanations of who is related to who and what happened to them. For the person flicking through them it is, in small or large part, the story of where they came from. It is a map of the past. The sort pirates would use.

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