Sharing, not taking
Those of us of a certain vintage may still remember our family photo albums. Printed photographs were carefully fixed inside an album with small, sticky-backed, paper triangles that gripped the corners of a photograph. Wonderful in theory, fiddly and largely ineffective in practice. No matter how carefully we placed those sticky corners around the prints, they always seemed to work their way loose.
Those printed photographs had an inherent value. Partly, perhaps, because there were relatively few of them. A family holiday might have been reduced to two or three rolls of 36 exposures. The digital era has given us the freedom to photograph all day with few limitations but perhaps the value of each frame has been diluted as a result.
The printed photos told the stories of our lives, they encapsulated our childhood memories and documented the passing of time. We might claim that digital photographs do much the same thing but those printed pictures required an investment of time and money that made them more precious. Gathering together in order to look at the family albums was an event, all attention focussed on the turning pages, pointing out the same, gurning expressions that we'd laughed at many times before.
Now we can make beautiful images with pocket-sized mobile devices and share them globally and instantly.
I'm all for the democratisation of photography. I love the immediacy of digital and the convenience that it provides. I'm not so ancient that I'm yet given to talking about "the good old days" with a shake of the head and a sad sigh. Nearly but not quite.
But I do wonder if the value of a single photograph has diminished in the digital age. Perhaps, to be truly cherished, a photograph has to be tangible. We need to be able to hold it in our hands and pass it to our friends, from one hand to another. Swiping an iPhone screen just doesn't seem to be quite as meaningful. Convenient, yes, but it's one step removed from our physical selves and lacks that tangible quality.
For several years, I've carried a Fujifilm Instax camera on most of my assignments. (Full disclosure: I am not sponsored by Fujifilm and am in no way associated with them - I just like the Instax cameras). I've recently upgraded from a Instax Mini 50S to a Mini 90 but both do pretty much the same job. Each can carry a cartridge containing ten prints. A pack costs about $5, so each print is about 50¢.
Whilst a print costs 50¢ to make, it's fair to say that the value to the recipient often seems to be priceless.
I've recently returned from an assignment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India where I've been photographing in schools and orphanages. The kids are always super excited when we arrive and are eager to gather round to spectate or, better still, to participate.
The kids love to be in the photographs. Taking a photo of just one or two children can be almost impossible because their friends will sneak into the back of the shot, appear from beneath desks or just leap up in front of the camera. Nobody waits for an invitation. Fortunately, I work with wonderful clients who have become expert at crowd control.
Occasionally, when time permits, I'll shoot a quick video and turn the camera around so the children can watch themselves. I guarantee that you won't find a more enthusiastic audience than in the classrooms of a Dhaka school.
If you'd like to see the video they watched, you're in for a treat. You might not think that a small, dark, one-room school in a slum neighbourhood in Bangladesh would be a place where you'd find a lot of joy but you'd be mistaken, as these two girls demonstrate.
I've written before about the strange vocabulary photographers use. We "take" photographs. We "grab" a picture or "capture" a frame. It's language that seems to describe a very one-sided transaction but I wonder if it really has to be like that.
When the work part of the assignment is done, I'll often hand my cameras over to the kids, which produces some fascinating results. They invariably appreciate the trust and confidence they feel has been placed in them and immediately launch into full creative mode, posing for each other and taking turns at directing the action.
The schoolgirl and wonderfully enthusiastic Yasmine Kaddour took this photograph of her schoolfriend below. Not only is it a fine portrait, it may also be one of the first photographs taken of a young lady who seems destined to be a famous photojournalist in the future. What a confident pose.
If it's practical, we'll use the Instax to make some prints to share. I'm not sure if it's me or the kids who get most excited about this exercise but it's fair to say that being able to share the photographs adds a really satisfying dimension to our time together.
The gallery below contains just a handful of hundreds of images that I've taken with recipients holding their instant prints. These photos are as cherished by me as the prints themselves seem to be cherished. When returning to places where I've worked before, sometimes many years later, I frequently meet people who have kept their instant print in a wallet or pinned it to a wall in their home.
I've often said that if I were only allowed to keep one of my cameras, I'd keep the instant camera. It really does provide the means to make photography a shared endeavour.