Photo cameras help us to visually capture all of our memories. They can freeze our most happy, vulnerable, emotional and impactful moments in life and allow us to look back at those times forever.They help us to reflect on what stories we want to tell without using any sounds or words. Yet, everyone in the world will be able to understand what you want to communicate because, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”– Irving Penn
Whilst standing in the middle of my attic, I look around me. I’m surrounded by an enormous quantity of old objects that have been stored here. My eyes are scanning the room, trying to process all of the different items. Suddenly, my eyes fall upon a brown, leather bag. My curiosity leads me to pick it up and open it. As I carefully open the zip of the bag, I feel a thrill of excitement spreading through my body. I see a camera, a very old photo camera. It’s beautiful! Looking at the design of it, I start to guess from which year it could be… probably the 1960s or 1970s. The materials, colours and physicality of the camera perfectly reveal the tone and mood of those times: it looks mechanical, rough and retro. The body is made out of two different materials with contrasting colours. The majority of the camera is made of metal, but the middle of the body — which has a matte black colour — seems to be made of something else. I carefully touch the black material with my fingers. It feels textured and a bit bumpy…it must be leather. I turn around the camera, looking at it from different angles. I start pushing and pulling all sorts of buttons, levers, gears and springs and the camera responds with all sorts of metallic-like sounds. I put my right eye in front of the viewfinder and whilst turning around the focusing ring of the lens with my fingers, I see a blurry version of my attic gradually becoming clearer and sharper. Slowly, my right thumb pulls the lever… Rrrrrrrrrrt… and my right index finger pushes down the shutter button…click! This camera must have once belonged to my grandmother. I start envisioning her as a young woman, taking photos of her life. She loved creating photo albums and had crafted many of them to tell her stories. It must have been this very camera that I have in my hand which had helped her visualising her life narrative. Perhaps now, in the midst of a pandemic — a period which had proven how vulnerable life could be — I should try to capture as many memories as I can, creating my own visual stories, like my grandmother used to do.
“The Evolution of Cameras” by Thinking Tech (2017)
Documenting the World
Although the act of recording historical, social and cultural moments in time has always been exercised by human beings, the invention of photographic technology has enabled people to “document the present” in an entirely new way (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 1). Before the development of photography and film, people had to explain or specify their present-day by writing down words or creating visuals such as sketches, drawings and paintings, which could often be a time-consuming exercise. However, with the invention of the daguerreotype camera, i.e. the first publicly and commercially available photographic camera, people could exactly capture a frame of their world within only several minutes and — for the first time ever — people could create optic evidence of a specific time in their life with just one click on a button (Brittanica, 2019) Consequently, the photo camera became a very popular device that provided people with an urge to look through the viewfinder and take photos of their surroundings (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 8). The prove of this can be found in the immense quantities of photographs that have been produced and accumulated since the 19th century — many of which can now be found in cultural institutes such as museums, universities and archives (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 8). The main reason why people have taken so many photographs during the past couple of centuries seems to be to “capture the moment” of a given point in time (Van House, 2011, p. 130).
Interestingly, ever since the photo camera became available to the public in the early 19th century, the many pictures that were shot were not merely limited to special occasions or “patrimonies on display” (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 8). Instead, people seemed to have undeniable “impulses” to take photographs of everyone, everywhere around the world (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 8). Consequently, many photographs were also taken of people without any power or high social status, “whose lives were often hidden” (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 8). An example of this can be seen in the pictures taken by photographer Dorothea Lange, a successful portrait photographer during the early and mid–20th century, who tried to induce public awareness and social change by taking portrait photographs of “the rural poor” (Museum of Modern Art, n.d.).
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”– Dorothea Lange
Photo Camera vs. Photographer: Who has the Agency?
The invention and commercialisation of the photo camera, thus, created the possibility for people to capture “powerful cultural narratives and counter-narratives that have histories and consequences”, enabling everyone to visually document a variety of different social and cultural lives, including those of minorities (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 5). It could be argued, then, that a camera can provide people with a certain agency that allows them to decide what specific frame of the world or society they want to capture. The person handling the camera gets to decide what perspective will be displayed on the photograph and, therefore, what type of visual narrative will be told. In this case, the camera could be considered an extension of the photographer’s eyes. However, a question that arises here is whether it is truly the photographer that obtains the agency, or whether it is actually the camera that has the power of intervention.
According to Hoskins (2006), all objects are made to act upon people, and thereby mediating “social agency” (p. 75). Indeed, when considering the physicality of a photo camera and the way that it has been engineered, it seems to invite people to use it — to look through the viewfinder and to click on its buttons. Moreover, a camera encourages people to think about the scenery around them, to reflect on how their environment could be framed and captured in order to tell a specific story with their photograph. Thus, although people can act on a photo camera, a photo camera also seems to act on people. Perhaps, then, the ideas of being able to “document the present” and “capture the world” are a rather simplified belief of what a camera really does, because the specific frame that someone captures when taking photos is not necessarily a representative picture of an objective reality. Instead, it is an extension of someone’s personal viewpoint. As an object, a camera could then be considered a powerful agent of “memory, relationship, self-representation and self-expression across space and time,” because it seems to take part in a social and cultural network that is not neutral in the slightest (Van House, 2011, p. 132).
Photography in a World of Covid-19
Throughout history, photography has provided people with the possibility to capture records of historical evidence of human life (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 1). Photo cameras have, therefore, enabled an extension of the durability of human memories. They allowed people to capture visible evidence of life events extending over multiple generations, enabling them to literally look back at their past in future days (Mitman & Wilder, 2016, p. 1). This is something that has also been happening during the recent pandemic which started in late 2019 as a result of the dissemination of a dangerous virus. As the whole world was suddenly experiencing a mutual disaster, everyone seemed to become more aware of the vulnerability of life. Moreover, due to the worldwide lockdowns and quarantines, many people were spending an increasing amount of their time in isolation, resulting in a significant increase in depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness (Schraer, 2020). Many photographers from around the world tried to capture and document this worldwide calamity with their own photo cameras. Some photographers ventured out onto the empty streets, capturing different locations but similar stories: isolation and desolation increasing as quickly as the virus was spreading (Kimmelman, 2020). An example of this can be seen in a project called “Covid Photo Diaries,” initiated by eight Spanish photographers who live in different parts of Spain and who decided to document the pandemic in their surroundings. With their photos, they want to show various different perspectives of the pandemic, such as how hospitals are affected, how people try to cope with being in quarantine and how life in Spain is during lock-down (Morales, 2020). There were also many people who decided to take photos of themselves, sharing their life during the pandemic. In fact, when the first lockdowns started, isolation portraits were appearing all over social media (BBC News, 2020). Photographer Viktoria Sorochinski, for example, is one of those people who decided to take self-portraits — all shot in her apartment — to capture her “feelings of confinement and uncertainty during the pandemic” (Zhang, 2020).
All of these photographs, created during lock-down, show how a photo camera can been an essential and important object for people across different countries, cultures and societies, allowing them to create a memoir of this highly impactful period and to produce their own visual biographies. When taken together, these photos construct a historical record filled with different narratives, perspectives and experiences of the worldwide pandemic that will forever be part of human history.
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”― Susan Sontag
BBC News. (2020). Coronavirus: Isolation portraits over the internet. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-52284371
Britannica, T. (2019). Daguerreotype. In Encyclopedia Britannica. (Eds. of Encyclopaedia) Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/technology/daguerreotype.
Hoskins, J. (2006). Agency, Biography and Objects. In handbook of Material Culture, pp. 74-84.
House, van Nancy (2011). Personal photography, digital technologies and the uses of the visual, Visual Studies, 26(2), 125-134.
Kimmelman, M. (2020). The Great Empty. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/23/world/coronavirus-great-empty.html
Mitman, G., & Wilder, K. (2016). Documenting the World: Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago). Retrieved from: https://books.google.nl/books?hl=nl&lr=&id=9H4RDQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP6&dq=documenting+photography&ots=QUX-orLCTj&sig=5nc90stqceHqRT9HT1o3w5uQRD4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Morales, A. (2020). Covid Photo Diaries. Retrieved from https://www.covidphotodiaries.org/contacto-covid-photo-diaries/
Museum Of Modern Art. (n.d.) Dorothea Lange, American 1895-1965. Retrieved from: https://www.moma.org/artists/3373
Schraer, R. (2020). Depression doubles during coronavirus pandemic. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-53820425.
Zhang, I. (2020). Viktoria Sorochinski’s dream-like lockdown project reconnects with the inner-self. British Journal of Photography. Retrieved from: https://www.1854.photography/2020/05/viktoria-sorochinskis-inside-outside/