Photographic devotions

Today someone kindly sent us some photos in the post from years back. (How nice to get a letter with a handwritten note as well!) This coincided with my backing up of photos from computer onto a spare hard-disk – they take up a crazy amount of space now. These are just the digital ones – let alone older photos (and slides!) in boxes in the attic that one day I’d like to digitise.

This got me thinking about photographs – their purpose and meaning. Why do we so deeply value them? I’d hate to lose them that’s for sure. They would be one of the first things I’d want to rescue if the house was burning down (guess I should have them backed up on the cloud!)

In the not so very distant past, you had to think carefully about camera use – processing film was expensive and slow. You only took pictures of special occasions or places – or hired in experts. Now, with Facebook, Instragram – and videos on YouTube – images have just become another means of self-expression and instant communication; an immediate and convenient way to document our lives in graphic detail.

I don’t do Facebook, but the other day my daughter was showing me photos that she is tagged in by Facebook friends; very useful and fun, but also a public record that a person has little or no control over what goes up there.

A while back Instagram was bought by Facebook for a nifty $1 billion – see here for 10 good reasons why.  If reason 5 is true, or even mostly true (and since I don’t do Facebook can’t really comment) that ‘most people are on Facebook to look at other people’s photos’ this raises the question of why are so obsessed with pictures? 

Like many pieces of technology, I think that photographs are neutral in themselves but can be used in positive or negative ways.

Some negatives (wee pun there 😉 )

famous selfie1. Self at the centre:

From the ubiquitous ‘selfie’, to being at a gig the other night in the Olympia in Dublin and having constantly try to see past the (insert suitable adjective here) people in front with hands raised high holding smart phones videoing the concert, there’s ample evidence that we love a bit of photographic narcissism.

At the receiving end, didn’t the Queen comment the other week about seeing nothing but a sea of smart phones pointing at her when she looks out into a crowd? Or someone who got married recently told me that when she came down the aisle, rather than seeing the smiling eye of friends and family, all she saw was camera lens and phones. Has the screen has become a means of mediating life itself?  Have we become almost unable to experience life without feeling we have to record, and therefore somehow own it?

2. A false source of identity? Does our apparently limitless fascination with images of ourselves and those we love and like, act as a way of self-validation and affirmation? We create a carefully constructed profile on Facebook or LinkedIn or wherever. We project an idealised image of ourselves to the world.  From a Christian perspective, self-worth, identity, purpose and meaning are found outside ourselves; not in a partially real imagined self, but, as Paul would put it, ‘in Christ’. There is no need (or ability) to pretend with God – he knows our true selves, and gives himself in sacrificial love precisely because he knows what we are really like – sinners in need of his grace and forgiveness.

Some Positives: photos and eschatological hope

A photograph freezes time; it captures a moment. Looking at the image later brings back the moment, the person, the experience, the feeling. Getting those photos in the post took us back to a completely different life from our current one. That’s what I love about photos – over time they compile a narrative of your life and the lives of others around you. They record (sometimes painfully) old friendships now gone for one reason or the other, but also sweet moments of joy. And as you get older, they act as a reminder of the brevity and preciousness of life. They remind us, I think, of a deep instinct or desire, that life matters. We desire significance and meaning and relationship for the very reason that God has made us that way.

Macbeth, that cheerful fella, may have said this

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

But Christians cannot agree: for the believer life is going somewhere. This life, which we document so thoroughly these days, is not an end in itself. It is a narrative and journey that Christians can live with hope, not because of something we have done or achieved (whether captured as an image or not), but because of what God has done in Christ.

Put it this way – none of the very best experiences you have captured on camera will be able to match what comes next ….

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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