Photographs provides a sense of permanency - the feeling that the objects in the picture never change, just our perspective on them over time. Pictures are a cultural and historical reference point for us. They are a way of validating our experience and ourselves. But sadly, pictures are also an illusion.
Recently, while working on a new book about photography and spirituality I wrote a personal anecdote about being left out of a family picture. Here's an excerpt from a chapter, "Forever Fixed in Time."
I raised my father’s Konica rangefinder up to my eye. The camera’s smooth brushed chrome finish was cool to the touch. I was 10 years old.
“Hurry up,” an anxious sister hissed.
My grandmother stood in the middle of the group with the other adults in the back. The kids filled in the gaps like concrete. My grandparents and mother are dead now, but more than 40 years ago, when everyone had their eyes open, when they put aside the petty bickering, I was master of the moment – a big cheese telling others to say, “cheeeeze.” I never realized until later there was something missing from the family picture – an undeniable and essential truth – me.
Photography is a process of subtraction –– it’s a process where the things you leave out of an image can be as important as what is left in. On that steamy morning after breakfast in the summer of 1966, my family became in aternum – forever fixed in time –– and I became the kid behind the camera.
The notion of permanency in having a photographic reference point seems to be mostly about identity. Since I was absent from the image, it is easy to feel somewhat alienated, especially after so many decades have past. But is a picture really who we are?
One day, many years ago, while I was meeting an aide worker in California, we waited for a priest in the parking lot of a church. The parish was making a donation to pastoral work in Mexico, and the volunteer had come to pick up the donation.
After some time, a long sleak limousene pulled up to the curb. The priest came out to greet the aide worker and led her into the church. I waited for a few minutes and then, to my surprise, out of the car came Martin Sheen, the actor. I remembered him for his amazing acting in Acalopyse Now and Da, but couldn't understand why he was here or why he would want to meet me. The point of the stroy that after we talked for a minute he motioned to the chaffuer to take a picture of us. It was an awkward moment for me. The driver took the picture and handed Mr. Sheen a tiny polaroid. I was presented with a souvenir of the strange encounter in a church parking lot and still cherish the memory whenever I dig out my scrap book.
At the same time, pictures can be a way of reminder ourselves how short life is. We can look into our past and see how we once were, groan or chuckle, and get back into the present.