This might be overstating it a bit, but one of the worst things to happen to my self esteem was the invention of the camera phone. Anyone who has ever tried to take a picture of someone else with their phone, only to realize the camera is reversed and facing back at you, knows what I’m talking about. Never before has a generation been so documented and photographed — and not always from the most pleasant angle. When everyone has a camera in their back pocket, everyone can take a picture when you’re not aware.
And if you’re not a size 2, you need to be aware when people are taking your picture.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I think one of the swiftest and strangest cultural shifts since I graduated high school has been with digital photography. My grandmother may have seen the rise of the television and how telephones went from mostly cumbersome party lines to ubiquitous devices carried in a pocket. But in a general way, my use of the telephone — the actual telephone part of my smartphone — and television has not changed drastically since I was a child. In fact, I use these technologies less now than I ever did before. Perhaps that’s “change” all by itself.
But for most of the ’80s and ’90s, I knew when someone was taking my picture. That was something. There was this whole ritual — “Everyone gather together on the front porch so grandpa can take a picture” — with lots of waiting for the camera to focus and needing to change the film now and then. We were prepared for it. And by the time the printed photos were developed, we had a bit of emotional distance: “Maybe I looked bad on the day when this photo was taken, but I bet I look better now.”
Back then, taking a “selfie,” a word that had not yet been coined, meant turning your point-and-shoot camera around and blindly pressing the button. Then you crossed your fingers and hoped you caught an image of you and your friend. More likely, you ended up with a blurred image of the trees beside you or some random clouds in the sky. And that was devastating because the failed shot took up one of the only 24 images you had on that roll. Today, with an iPhone, someone can take 24 shots in under 3 minutes at a baseball game, and by the time the play at home plate is over, they’ve already deleted 21 of the least interesting images.
But here’s the bad part: In the background of those other 3 images are dozens of people who didn’t know they’d end up in a photo that would be on someone else’s Facebook page. These are the photos many of us dislike — the ones for which we weren’t prepared. And with all the new technology, it’s becoming a much more frequent thing.
My photographer friend, Andrea, sees it differently. New technology allows her to capture moments of interaction and expression. Where once people were unaccustomed to being in front of the lens and became stiff and posed, today they hardly notice cameras, not even her big, professional ones.
We recently had Andrea over to take pictures of the extended family. There were the usual, posed family portraits but also Andrea’s favorite: candids of family members interacting. I went with my mother-in-law to see the images on Andrea’s large computer screen. (Q: What’s worse than seeing a “bad” photo of yourself tagged on Facebook? A: Seeing a “bad” photo of yourself on a photographer’s oversized computer screen.)
A picture of me with my two oldest boys, one I didn’t know had been taken, popped up, and I shrieked. “Ew, my arm! My hair! My belly! Delete it,” I said.
Andrea, who has known me ever since she photographed “Dinner with the Smileys,” turned to me. Her face was serious. “Why are you looking at your arm?” she asked. “Why are you looking at anything except the way your teenage sons are smiling at you in this photo?” She drew a line with her finger on the computer screen from the boys’ faces to mine in the picture.
I looked again more closely. Yes, I wish I was skinnier. Yes, I wish I had combed my hair. Yes, I wish I was sitting up straighter. But in that candid, unfiltered moment, Andrea had caught something I’ll always want to remember: my teenage sons (teenagers!) delighting in something I had to say.
“Print that one,” I said.
Printing a photograph today means you’re serious. You’ve seen it on a screen and you approve. Now you’re ready to have it on paper. For all the ways photography has evolved, we still long for it to make a memory permanent. And to do that, we have to get old school and print it.