Sunday, October 12, 2008

How to (mis)read a photograph

Yesterday, we received a lovely package in the post: A photo album assembled online by Sonny's aunt (presently in exotic Arabia), then printed, packaged and posted to us by the folks at Shutterfly. It features a range of family snaps reproduced in impressive colour and clarity, capturing and memorialising the little fella's first few months.

The magic of digital visuals has made it easier than ever to store and document the lives of even us ordinary folks. But that's not to say we can really trust photographs, since they don't necessarily tell us the truth. Even in the days of the Soviet Union, photographic 'evidence' or 'documentation' was pretty much what the regime wanted it to be. Kodak-moment snaps of groups of national leaders would be touched up and airbrushed until individuals that had fallen from favour magically disappeared from history. This sometimes happened successively, so that a portrait of five people would become one of four, then three, and so on.

So too, when we leaf through someone's photo album, what the owner has chosen to leave out is at least as interesting as what's kept in. In Agatha Christie novels, in what is surely one of the least implausible elements of many whodunit plots, there are always photos on mantelpieces or in drawers that show the killer in a telling pose with the victim. This will seed the realisation that - gasp! - they were actually former lovers, or an illegitimate mother-and-daughter pair, or suchlike. Less dramatically, just imagine you were going through your Uncle Ed's holiday snaps. Who was he hanging out with most? Which places did the posse visit? Which spots impressed them the most? Chances are, perusal of the photos will reveal some clues - and posing such questions can sure make holiday albums more fun to get through.

Yet wouldn't you be interested in knowing which places repelled the holidaymakers the most? Which persons were so weird they were roundly shunned and left to their own devices? What subtle bit of enchantment eluded everyone's coarsened eye? These are the photos that were not taken, or torn up and tossed away, or consigned to the drawer that's never opened. And as it is with our holiday example, so is it with every photo album, from someone's birth to when he is pottering about in his adult diapers. The missing photos are the ones that fill in the blanks in someone's character - and without them, the truth is forever elusive and justice not done.