Contemplating Friday: Do You Want Pics If It Didn’t Happen?

We were visiting my parents last week, and some family friends came over with their young son. All afternoon he and my four-year-old daughter played happily, running through the yard and jabbering about God-knows-what. When it came time for the friends to head home, someone suggested replicating the photo.

That’s how it was referred to – “the photo.” We knew what that meant. Two years ago, a similar playdate had occurred with these two, an artifact of which was a cute smartphone snapshot of them holding hands. There was something about the sweet, vacant looks on their toddler faces; the photo was sent off to Snapfish, a frame was purchased and the moment lived on in my parents’ living room.

If you are a parent, or if you’ve simply seen parents in action, you know we had no choice but to strong-arm the kids into the same pose for an update on that original photo. There was just one thing: That original photo was a lie.

The explosion of digital photography – its total incursion into so many corners of our lives, the sheer inevitability of having a camera in our hip pockets – has diminished the need for recollection in our lives. We’ve outsourced our memory to memory cards. But this one I remembered. On that first playdate two years ago, the two kids hadn’t held hands on their own; someone had suggested they do so for the camera.

I’m hardly puritanical about such things. Posing your kid seems only marginally worse than telling people to smile before hitting the shutter button. But there was something weird about paying homage to a moment that hadn’t been a moment at all. In that tiny little gesture, it felt like a few pixels worth of reality itself were slipping through our fingers.

The so-called digital photo revolution has made it infinitely easier to document the world, of course. But in subtle ways it’s fictionalized the world, too. Stroll through your archive of pictures over the years; if you’ve got even a half-decent supply of vanity, you’ll notice that you’ve deleted a good percentage of the unflattering photos of yourself. Sure, we always did this to an extent. But when photographs became ubiquitous and more or less free, it became no big deal to throw away 99 percent of what you shot. (Add some warm tones to that old sunset and another layer of lovely deceit creeps in.)

Lies of omission, lies of distortion: Do we lose something important when forgetting reality becomes so easy? Or are we better off for our ability to bend the visual record to our liking?

Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. Read his work at www.chriscolin.com.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper and more for the NewYorker.com, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, the Atavist, Pop-Up Magazine, Afar magazine and more. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
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