It occurred to me as I wading through the sea of thumbnails of countless images, spanning more than 5 page downs on my computer, from a recently concluded tourist trip - where is the narrative in this all? The plethora of pictures made for a good visual feast, but where is the fodder for the mind? Where are all those hidden images and missing links that the mind conjures up to fill in the blanks, in the process of making the album a noteworthy memory. No, I am not ruing about the missing photographs, rather I am craving for them. I am desperately searching for the blank spots that the camera might have missed, or the unworthy images that it might have rolled its eyes over and passed up. In front of me was my entire itinerary graphically illustrated, with each waking second laid out neatly in a square inch thumbnail space. Landmarks - check, roadways - check, hotel - check, restaurants - check, novelties - check, routines - check and everything between all the above - check. If, at any point of time in the distant future, I get bogged down by a simple question as to what I was doing on the 10th hour 18th minute and the 53rd second of the 2nd day of my trip, I don't have to rack my brains or curse Alzheimer's anymore. I just go to the idiot box, boot it up, bring up the image cataloging software and punch in the date and time on the specific album, and lo and behold, there I would be picking sitting on a park bench, wondering what I would be doing at that exact time in the future - an image, somebody thought was click-worthy, as they went trigger-happy with the little contraption, they call, the Digital Camera.

Back in the day, the bottling companies in India came up with an innovative way of pushing their product to a cricket starved nation. Collect enough bottle caps (meaning, drink up enough colas) and win a flicker of your favorite cricketer in action. Flicker - a little book that would fit nicely inside the palm, that employed the famous technique invented by Mr. Edison of moving static images at a rapid rate to create the illusion of motion, like a bowler running up and bowling full pace or a batsman opening his blade and sending the cherry on goose hunt. Somehow the current digital repositories remind me of those Flickers. Grab a bunch of these thumbnails and move them at 24 frames per second, and there is the past, right in the present, without a single second lost. Sadly, in the flickering seconds, all the moments seem to have been permanently lost. Technology has certainly given a new lease of life to our dreams, but it has certainly taken the soul out of it all.

Till not so long ago, when photographic equipment was still at more than an arm's distance away from the reach of the common man, photos meant something. They had a life, they had a voice, they had a story to tell. And the narrative covered the before, during and the aftermath of the click. Each one necessarily carried a commentary, because photos were snapped only when there was a moment to commemorate. When a camera was handed down to someone, it came with a great sense of responsibility in which the handler implicitly took an oath, a pledge to honor and respect the gravity of the moment. Consequently, though the pictures were few and far between, the little many of them told a whole lot about it. Added to the fact that since everything about the camera - the rolls, the batteries, the processing fees and the camera itself, came at a such dear price, economics greatly drove the aesthetics, and the latter was greatly motivated by the former, or the lack of it. If you look back at the old albums, particularly the black and white kind, it is not just because of the longing sentimental feeling, a yearning for the forgotten past or because of the ever endearing nostalgia, that those pictures seems to cast a greater effect on you. Particularly when you view a series of those pictures, there is a lot of hidden space left among those, waiting to be infused with the emotions that well up during that particular moment. Each picture would spawn a series of its own, only because it had enough room on either side, giving it the much needed berth and breath to exist on its own.

The eagerness to capture a moment - the prime motivation behind the invention - has taken an ugly turn in the recent times, only because the technology has made it cheap, real cheap - the process and the effect. Nowadays, the key moments are viewed through the view finders, missing the real fun right in front in its raw form, only to have them re-lived, cleaned up, polished, and projected on a bigger artificial medium. Moments are not measured in terms of the memory cells they usually occupy, but in terms of square pixels that are casually expended.

We humans are moving through our lives like tourists with cameras hanging around the necks, greedily looking for the next wonderful moment to capture, ignoring the simplicity that is passing us by. Instead of trusting the natural recorder equipped with perfect shutters (the brain and the eyes), we instead choose to rely and repose our faith in our own clunky creations, that could only capture the picture, but never the moment. Be it a for a great one or just for an ordinary occasion, the digital camera, and its partner in crime, the video camera arrive in time, sizing up the sight and taking hostage of the situation. As we carefully draw the camera to our eye, or pull the viewfinder closer to the face, the action that happens on the fringes, on the borders of the camera, goes wholly un-noticed. What is this blinding urge, if you can pardon the irony, of us to record every moment of our life, capture every frame of every event, that we voluntarily give up the chance of experiencing the happening live, so that we could catch it later on the rebound, and try to recreate our familiarity and affection for it. As an exercise of observing our own insanity from close quarters, go to a school auditorium, take the farthest seat away from the stage and wait till the curtains are drawn up. Like the presenting of arms during an army march past, all the camera are drawn out in unison at just about the same time the lights come up, and keep pointed to the stage for the remainder of the night. If you hear carefully enough, you can even hear the loud whispers of a poor parent stage directing his kid, afraid that the performance will reflect badly in the recording and therefore taking all the pains to rectify the situation. Almost every member in there would be engrossed on the action on a 2X2 panel as life goes by on a bigger stage just a few feet yonder. And the less said about the birthday parties, the better.

Have we come to the end of line this soon? Barely has the digital revolution even begun, we have successfully managed to drain out all the excitement and the enthusiasm that should accompany such a technological marvel. So where to from here? As the innumerable video tapes and the countless DVD discs, not to mention the tera bytes of photographs lie waste in digital dumpsters and plastic waste bags, is it time to take a step back and re-evaluate our photographic needs a little? Is there really a need to recreate the past and re-live it during every waking moment of our present? All the enthusiasm that we exhibit while capturing, what we think is the most important thing at that stage of our lives, wanes away over a period of time, as we hardly even glance in the general direction of those tapes and albums, forget, dusting them up and popping them in digital players. The perverse pervasive consumerism that has taken over all facets of our lives seeped into this most important attribute of human existence - memory - and degraded it to its lowest form, by demaning more, more and more. Go to any marriage hall and you can witness all the gluttony at its worst manifestation. The still photographer running around in all directions just to get the right angle, only to be crossing swords and paths with the videographer equipped with heavier and more sophisticated equipment, only to be outwitted by the swarms of amateurs, snapping away their tiny cameras pointed at the hapless blissfull couple on stage. This redundancy of the information would put mighty data centers of top computer firms, fail safe mechanisms of the Federal Bureaus, and the recovery techniques of the Treasury Department collectively to great shame.

In this digital age, usage barely matches wastage. The worthiness of the picture is determined right on the spot, the next moment it has been snapped. Even a little deviation from the expectation causes it to be relegated to the never ever land of the recycle bins, barely before it has even taken its first breath. A picture spoke thousand words, said someone ignorantly who had no idea even in his wildest imagination, than in this day and age, a picture, in fact, chokes a thousand words. The avarice and the apathy of the current bit and byte world completely usurped the thoughts and the actions behind each picture, reducing them to dummy lifeless cardboard cutouts.

As I remained motionless in front of the legion of thumbnails that lay in front of me, I vowed that the next time someone gets in front of me with a digital contraption and cries out "Say Cheese", I am going to get out of the frame, politely excusing myself with a "No, please". I'd rather have the memory of the picture snapped by the camera that never runs out of anything till I take my last breath, than wonder and worry how much more memory the stick stuck in the camera has. I am pretty sure that picture, the one in the mind, can speak a lot more than a thousand words.


CreativeShocker said...

pictures may fade but memories will stay would be apt for the days of the vintage kodak reel cameras not for the present day cybershots. yes i am guilty of clicking a large number of pictures of life's each passing moment so that someday when i am old and retired i will flip through all these pictures and turn nostalgic. The end result being a hard drive full of pictures.

Your article has shown me some new facets to the art of photography that i never saw before. The next time i'm doing some clicking i'll sure keep your pointers in mind.

Have been an ardent follower of you ramblings on IB; your blog is a nice extension for the non filmy stuff :D

Praveen said...

Its really refresing to have read this article. A very deep and observational view, I must say.

Probably a coincidence, that I was about to buy a digital cameria this week, but I guess you article just costed Fuji my purchase.

Rohit said...

OMG! What are you,man?!! I just can't believe how I've missed these articles before. This one is truly a revelation to me. THE best ever article I've read. This one is going into my archives! ;)