By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.
I’m thinking today about Facebook and unflattering pictures. Yes, someone I know from high school posted one this morning. Actually, the photo isn’t unflattering, it’s just old, and I look young and innocent and earnest and rather different than how I typically imagine my younger self. That’s the problem with pictures, they combat truth. But they don’t offer a new truth, either. Pictures are just one moment’s truth, which can alter perception and memory.
The picture posted was taken in the age before wide-spread digital camera use, a different era altogether. Honestly, I clung to my non-digital camera much longer than other people did. I am not the sort of person who rushes to buy the next new gadget, what is known in technological circles as an “early adopter,” quite the opposite. I like cameras with actual film because it is impossible to predict what might come out the other side. Sure, some pictures look terrible, but others are incredible and surprising and magnificent.
Now that most people take a lot (a lot) of pictures, they are better at looking good, and only saving and posting the best. Within my friend group there is a code known as the “be a pal” rule. If a person looks bad in a photo, don’t post it. Some friends are better at following this rule than others (I’m talking to you, Sarah Frink). Why does it matter how good we do or don’t look in one photograph? Alas, it seems to matter a great deal.
A good photo can change the interpretation of an event just as powerfully as a bad one. Take, for example, a picture of me that is quite flattering. I look damn near gorgeous in it, but it was taken on a day that I thought rather irksome. I hadn’t slept at all (my friends and I were on an over-night road trip). Although I enjoyed the day, I recall feeling tired and grimy. However, here’s this artifact that offers an alternate view.
Is a good photo enough to supplant memory? Certainly not. It is only a moment, like the one I spent inexplicably lined up with other high school girls, many of whom I knew only vaguely, attempting to strike an adorable pose and failing miserably. This photograph has little evocative power since it does not contain a memory. What is remembered, even if not wholly accurate, is a better memento of the past. Most of the fun I have (we all have) isn’t documented because it can’t be captured—good times are too complex, too nuanced, too enmeshed with not just the way we look but what we smell, taste, touch, feel, hear, and see. My best memories are of conversations, laughter, my friends and I talking long into the night. There are few pictures of these good times, and if pictures did exist, they would be poor imitations of the real thing.