Sunday, January 30, 2005

Taking Pictures

I'm not sure if it's Muslims, or Indians, but there's some ethnic group, though Muslim is more of a religious than ethnic group, irregardless, there's some group that has the idea that letting smeone take a picture of you takes part of your soul away. Something like that, that taking the picture captures a piece of you, and makes the original you lesser somehow. Now, the obvious response to this is to ridicule it, because clearly these people are afraid of technology, the unknown and the future, and they should just get with it. This is a valid response. Something that always bothers me is the idea that groups should try to hold on to old traditions, and in doing so, inherently have to reject new things. Just because you're a Native American Indian doesn't mean you have to live on a reservation, you could rock a house, with a computer and the internet. This doesn't destroy the old identity, it helps it evolve. To think that things can only be one way is incredibly stubborn and reactionary, and saying it's "your culture" shouldn't excuse that. Culture should always be transient, looking forward not backward. If aliens came down and gave us some new way of doing things, I wouldn't object. There might be some things that were lost from our current culture, but if it gave us a new and exciting world, it'd be worth it.

Anyway, back to my point about the pictures, they don't steal a piece of your soul, but they do take some of your memory. With the proliferation of digital cameras, there's now a boom in taking pointless pictures, and using this as a substitute for actually creating something. Of all the media, I'd consider photography to be the least artistic, because it's just about capturing something that already exists, not creating something new. Here's a question: where is the line between an amazing picture and an amazing thing that exists?

Now, you could say the same thing about film. But, what film has is a narrative context that gives the pure images added meaning. Wong Kar-Wai's movies are beautifully photographed, and would be great pictures on their own, but in the context of the story, they take on so much more meaning.

Pictures are frequently taken to commemorate events in one's life. But, they don't provide a really accurate picture, they just capture a 2D image of a moment. It's very easy to fake a smile, or to capture someone in a down moment, between smiles. You don't know what's beyond the confines of the image, except in your memory. What pictures do is gradually replace your real memory of the event with just a memory of the picture. From my childhood, I don't know if I really remember anything from when I was very young, or if I just remember pictures and extrapolate a story out of them. Now, maybe if I didn't have the pictures I wouldn't remember anything at all, but it's possible that I would remember much more, only those subtle memories have been replaced by the obvious pictures.

I'm reminded of a quote from Lost Highway, the David Lynch film:

Ed: Do you own a video camera?
Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.
Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: What do you mean by that?
Fred Madison: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

What Fred is talking about here is the fact that memories get overwritten by the eye of the video camera. I wouldn't say that video captures reality, which he implies, because by the very fact of observation you change things (witness Schrodinger's Cat). Except on a hidden camera, you can never gague how someone really acts, without the knowledge that they're being taped, and unless you're really sneaky, you can never find out how someone acts when they're alone, because no matter who's around you, you'll always act slightly different than if you're by yourself.

So, what's the point? I think it's that pictures can be a substitute for really doing something, because if you take pictures, it's evidence that something happened, when in fact all that happened was you took pictures. When I see parents at a graduation rushing up to the stage to get a closeup picture of their son/daughter getting a diploma, I wonder why they chose to take a picture of the moment, rather than make their own memory of it. They won't ever experience the real moment, they'll just have the picture. I'd rather the memory of the real event happening than a picture. I'm not saying that it's pointless to take pictures, some really do reveal elements of people. But, be careful to never let the taking of the picture overwhelm the reality of living the moment.

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