As a child, I delighted in hauling out the old leather-bound album and seeking myself. Is this me? This is me. This is me, a naked baby in a sink full of water, laughing. This is me, standing beside a bicycle amid fallen autumn leaves, holding a boy's hand. This is me in a school photograph, with a cold sore on my lip and a purple ribbon in my hair.
We used to take photographs for ourselves, to remind ourselves of people and of moments. We would say cheese and hope that our eyes were open. (And if they weren't, we put those photographs into albums anyway, because they were all we had to remember those moments by.)
We did not take a photograph with the knowledge that it would be shared with anyone other than the other people in the photograph, and sometimes not even with them. Photographs were private, pasted with care into albums to remind us of our own stories with the turning of a page: the birthday parties and graduations and weddings, the family vacations, the laughable fashions and dated hairstyles, the prints on the wallpaper and the patterns on the furniture. Sometimes we would frame them, the really good ones, tack them to a mirror, stick them on the front of the fridge with a magnet, to remind ourselves of those moments.
We did not take a photograph and then immediately inspect it for flaws, discard it like an inferior fish because the angle or the expression was not quite right, take another. And another, and another, until all parties are satisfied and that ephemeral moment, which was lost immediately after we threw back that first fish, is caught.
Now we take photographs not for ourselves but to create ourselves for others.
We take photographs to share. We take photographs and then upload them to any number of websites so that family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, can peek into our lives and express approval. Everything is beautiful and fun, or deliberately ugly. There is purpose to the things we share, purpose beyond the preservation of a moment. Today we are all artists (albeit often without training or a creative eye), and our artistic goal is to create images that reflect who we are or who we want to be or who we want others to think we are.
We no longer take photographs to preserve memories, but to make them. The moment only exists for the photograph rather than the other way around. The albums are not tucked away on a shelf, dusty and largely overlooked, but public domain, open to approbation or censure. When we look back at our lives in photographs, will we be looking at our lives as they were, or as we made them? Is there even a difference?
They are overwhelming, all these photographs of people who are not ourselves, of moments that we were not part of. Why share the trivialities of our lives? The coffee cups, the clothing choices, the sandwich you made for lunch, the bottle of beer you drank, the record you bought, the book you read? Photographs on the internet are the equivalent of a stranger showing you the pictures of their kids that they have tucked into their wallets. Beautiful, you say, nodding. But you don't really care, because these are not your kids. This is not your life.
We no longer want to remember so much as we want to be remembered. This is me, we say. This is the way I look and these are the people I know and the things I do. I want to feel like I have some control over a world that is increasingly out of my control. I want to feel like the things I do are valuable and valued. I want to feel like I am valuable and valued. I want you to like me. Look at me. Look at me.
Is this me?