17 December 2006

Photography, Shmotography (Part Two)

In a previous post, I lamented what I see as the loss of stories and storytelling. Their surrogate, I argued, is fast becoming the image, specifically the photograph. I would like to state that I am not advocating a complete disregard of the photograph, as I have a collection of my own that I cherish very deeply. Some might say that if we did not have photographs, there is much of the past that would be forgotten. Photo-journalists talk of “documenting” the atrocities of war and hardship the world over. Those, among others, are valuable uses of photography.

Nor do I think that the story is on a short rope.

It is when we expect to be able to tell a whole story just by looking at a picture that I believe we lose something of the past. The cliché, “a picture tells a thousand words,” is a crock if we take it to mean that it can tell the whole story. I fear that if we use pictures and images as the only means of telling our stories (through things like flickr and YouTube), the real depth of the world may slip away from us.

In the CBC interview I mentioned in my past post, Jennifer Baichwal discussed some issues surrounding photography that resonate with a discussion we had in one of our Public History classes regarding memory. She says that photography is artificial in some senses, especially in the way that it is a suspension of reality representing a specific moment. She equates still and moving images with laziness in memory. Her fear is that people are not living in the moment, not focusing on what it is they are doing. Instead, we worry about documenting the moment for future reference and use.

I agree with her. I think that in some ways we are too caught up in things like documentation to be able to stop and enjoy the moment, or even reflect on the moment.

But for historians, including public historians, this documentation is often seen as a goldmine, a real wealth of information. The problem with this view, however, is that rather than being able to tell our stories about the past, and relating events and moments to ourselves and others, we rely on the picture to tell those thousand words. Are we losing our ability to tell stories?

Now, some may argue that it is better to at least have a glimpse – a window, if you will – into a moment in the past, than nothing at all. And I think I agree. But I waver. And this is why.

A number of years ago, I did a tour of Australia with the band in I was in. On one particular night, my closest friend (and bandmate) and I sat outside Flinders University in Adelaide on a clear, sparkling night. The university is on a high elevation, so we could see for kilometres. We could even see the footy pitch where we had spent the previous day soaked to the skin watching the most amazing spectacle of sport I have ever witnessed. We sat out on that hill and talked for quite a while. It was a glorious, dazzling evening. We were young. We were about to play a gig. We were full of vim and vigour. I turned to Darryl (my bandmate), and said, “Man. This is beautiful. I wish we had a camera.”

He responded with something that has stuck with me ever since. He told me that that moment, that glorious view, could not be captured in a picture. It was better encapsulated in our minds. There was no way that a picture would ever relate how the two of us felt at that moment. This was a new idea to me, and it struck me with such profundity that I think it burned itself onto the rear interior of my skull.

Still, I remember just as clearly how he screamed like a girl and jumped into the front seat of our car when he saw a spider.

But Darryl’s point was that some things are better left to the imagination, to our memory. It was a memory for Darryl and I – and only Darryl and I – to share. Taking a picture of it and sharing it would have taken us, and any viewer of that picture, out of the moment. Sure, Darryl or I could look at the picture and recall that moment, but it would never capture the entire story.

Good public history ought to tell a story. To be honest, I just wanted to include "public history" in this blog somewhere so it shows up in a Google Blog Search under that topic. Cheeky of me, ain't it? Not really, though. I truly believe that history is storytelling, and that for the public to be interested in history (hence, "public history"), we public historians need to find ways of communicating meaningful, interesting stories about the past.

That’s long enough for one post. Stay tuned for Photography, Shmotography, Part Three.

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