I call my daughter, ‘The Selfie Queen’. She can click her own photo in a jiffy without seeming self-conscious and without appearing to be looking somewhere else – a trick I have not been able to master.
She has a selfie-stick and a phone stand and knows all the features of her phone camera, from the timer to high density to wide angle to panorama, and also can add enhancements to the photo before and after clicking it.
Not long ago, a person using a device smaller than a palm to take pictures was the stuff of James Bond movies. The mobile camera has now turned all of us into photographers. The results of our endeavours though, aren’t always something to smile about, but that’s a human failing, not of the technology, because most users, including me, are not as smart as their smart phones!
In my childhood, ordinary people couldn’t afford cameras and were photographed only on very special occasions or on annual pilgrimages to the local photo studio.
Professional photographers were few and expensive. They would make you stand interminably while they adjusted their equipment, and only the younger and politer ones said ‘Smile please’ or ‘Cheese’. The real pros would order you around like Drill Sergeants. ‘Don’t move’, ‘Get closer’, ‘Why are you grinning?’ and ‘Look at me Sir, don’t stare at the ceiling!’ were the commands often heard. We, the subjects, had no choice but to obey the powerful and dictatorial photographers, because unlike now, there was neither a second click, nor a second chance.
During weddings, to keep us children happy, the photographers also had a trick up their tripod. They would make us pose and only use the flash to make us feel photographed. By the time the black & white prints were delivered a month later, we would have forgotten about posing for the photo and if we did remember, it was too late to do anything about it.
Not all the people agreed with the ‘too late to do anything about it’ part though. I know of a case where the photographer delivered foggy prints a few weeks after the wedding. The new son-in-law and his family were so upset at the absence of a pictorial record of such an important day, that another reception had to be arranged and paid for by the bride’s father – with real food and real guests – for the photographer, a different one this time, to capture the moments. The original gent had offered to redo the job for free and was there too, silently taking photos, redeeming his lost pride and looking more stressed than the father of the bride!
Only because the photographs were so few, did they seem so precious and had loads of memories attached to them. That is why, the pleasure of thumbing through dog-eared prints in ancient albums is simply sublime! At least in one case, it proved to be profitable too. During a nostalgic review of old family photographs, one man and his mother discovered grandma’s magnificent jewellery which they had overlooked during the division of family heirlooms. After a mini Mahabharata, they won their share, which turned out to be quite a fortune.
As the years passed, personal cameras became available, but were still not for everyone, because they were expensive, as was the process of developing and printing the films.
In early 1970s, my brother was a Civil Engineer doing land surveys for government projects in remote areas. As such, he was a known figure in the nearby villages. That he carried a camera and occasionally photographed interesting sights was not well known, or so he thought.
Once, well past midnight, there was a loud knock on his door. Robberies were not uncommon in those days, so he opened the door with apprehension. Three large men stood outside, looking very agitated. Thinking that they were worried about losing their land to some government project, he told them, with bravado he didn’t feel, “There’s nothing we can do in the middle of the night. Meet me tomorrow in the office.”
“Saheb, please,” the largest and most ferocious of them pleaded, “Our mother is dying, and we have no photograph of hers. Please come just now and take a photo before it is too late.”
So he went with them to their house on a remote farm, where an old lady lay in bed in a dimly lit room. As the camera had no flash, they lifted the entire bed, moved it out of the house, placed it near the cattle shed and set fire to bales of fodder to provide enough light. Since the lady was too frail to sit up, they placed her mattress on the ground and my brother stood over her, to make it look like she was sitting upright for the photo.
Then they gently nudged her awake, so that her eyes would be open for the photograph. The lady woke up and saw the stars above, fire all around, dancing shadows, dark figures and a man bending above her face, a black object in his hands.
Probably mistaking him for Yama, the Lord of Death, she started wailing loudly and pleading tearfully that she be allowed to die in peace!
After a lot of commotion, they managed to convince her to stop shrieking and start smiling, while the cattle mooed and booed in protest against the loss of their sleep and their fodder.
My brother took twelve photos, the entire roll, to make sure at least one was good enough. The lady died next morning and he spent sleepless nights till the prints were received from the nearby town, showing her alive. With great relief he enlarged and gifted the best of them to the bereaved sons. It wasn’t exactly a photo she would have been proud to post as her profile picture on Facebook, but was quite adequate to put a garland on!
I’m often reminded of that photo clicked just before dying, in stark contrast, when I read in the newspapers about people dying while clicking selfies in odd places.
Much later, in 2005, I spent a month in England and bought myself a digital camera, which was still a novelty. My colleague, a young unmarried man, also bought one. When not busy training, we enjoyed going sightseeing and clicking each other, he using my camera and I using his, till I realised that he was obsessed about being present in every photo.
He stood in front of the Buckingham Palace – proud and majestic as if he owned it – and asked me to take his photo, which I dutifully did. Then he checked the screen and disapproved of the picture, where he was seen clearly but only a portion of the palace was visible in the background. He insisted that the palace must be fully visible, so I stepped back, zoomed out and clicked the entire palace, with him in the foreground as an unrecognisable tiny dot.
To my surprise, he liked that photo. I couldn’t understand why, till an older colleague hailing from the same area and community, informed me that as a ‘foreign returned’ prospective groom, he could command more dowry.
I still feel guilty about being an unsuspecting accomplice in fleecing some rich old man, but at least my colleague had genuinely been abroad, unlike a couple that climbed Mount Everest, or so they said, and claimed official accolades. Actually, they had simply pasted their mug-shots over a photograph of some real summiteers. The government ordered an inquiry, during the course of which the couple ran away and went into hiding. Quite a journey from the Himalayas into the oblivion.
With mobile cameras so ubiquitous, we now see everyone taking pictures and videos of everything. Who actually watches them? I haven’t had the time to watch my own, let alone view anyone else’s. So I am beginning to wonder if we are just clicking away instead of experiencing, enjoying and even living!
Not long ago, I saw a cartoon, where a family – Mom, Dad, Daughter and Son – are sitting around the dining table, about to start a meal.
Mom asks, “What should we do before we eat?”
“Pray?” Ask the children.
“No!” Says the Mom authoritatively. “Take a picture of the food and share it on Instagram.”
Just how far can this go?
I know a doting mother who regularly uploads pictures of her cute baby on the friends’ group, with appropriate comments. We, the group members, do enjoy and appreciate them, within reasonable limits. But what exactly are the limits?
She recently posted a picture showing the boy walking, labelled, ‘My first steps!’
Before the others had a chance to applaud, she posted another, titled, ‘My first standing pee pee!’
Closer inspection revealed a puddle around the tiny feet, although thankfully, the waterfall wasn’t visible.
I’m leaving the group before potty training starts.
© Avinash Chikte