Last week was my mother-in-law’s 95th birthday, and we had a party at one of her favorite restaurants. It was a fun night. As a photographer, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In looking at the photos the next day, I realized something profound: I’m not in any of the pictures.
Normally, this might be OK. I am comfortable behind the lens. Behind the lens, I can show the world what I see, how I see. Well, that, and I hate the way I look, and I don’t want to look at this version of myself in any photo. But then the realization that when family members (my beautiful daughter and granddaughter, for instance) look at this photo, there is no evidence that I was even there. I am supposed to be in that space between Granny and Aunt Bonnie. But nothing is there. As the kids today say, “if there’s no picture, it didn’t happen.” I wonder: if I’m not in the photo, was I there? Of course, I was, but I can’t prove it. As photographers (as mothers, as women, as teachers, as leaders), we need to be in the pictures, too, and there are several reasons for this:
Photographs connect us with those that came before us. I have closets filled with boxes of photographs that belonged to my mother. I don’t know half the people in the photos, but they were related to her in some way or at least they were important to her. The pictures of my mother as a child or as a young mother help me understand her differently. I have a keener sense of her by looking at her photographs. I am grateful for this glimpse into the past.
And I want those who follow me to have a similar glimpse of me. Photographs connect us with those that come after us. If we aren’t in the photos, we might just fade from the memories of those who love us the most. Of course, they will remember us. They might, though, forget that we were at this or that event or what we looked like when we were such-and-such age.
Photographs can connect us to the future that is outside our immediate families. I love what Michelle Obama said about her portrait in Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, that she hoped that in the future, young girls will look at her portrait and “see an image of someone who looks like them,” she said, and she wants them to see themselves in such a place, achieving great things. I would want my granddaughter (and even complete strangers) to see my photo and recognize that they could have some of the qualities of fearlessness, tenacity, creativity, and hope that I have.
Photographs situate us in a culture and a time. When I look at the old photos of my mother, for example, I see what her life was like 50 years ago or 75 years ago. I’m not just seeing her life; I am seeing what her culture was like, what her world was like. We don’t live in a vacuum, and our photographs are not usually taken that way. We are situated and contextualized. We ARE a part of the landscape, but if we are not in the photo, who’s to know?
Lastly, we need to be in the photos because when we avoid the front of the camera, we are telling those around us that we don’t matter, that we are invisible, that someone has to be the doer. We are teaching those around us– and those who follow us– that women do the work (are the family photographers), invest the cognitive awareness that photos document an event and that we don’t need to be in the photo. We are teaching those that follow us that being self-conscious and ashamed of our body is an acceptable (expected?) behavior. Do I want my granddaughter to hide from a camera because she thinks she’s not a culturally-perfect-acceptable-Barbi doll? Do I want my daughter to avoid the camera because she might appear on someone’s Instagram feed as a less-than-model-perfect version of herself? Of course not! They are each perfect just as they are. And so are you. And so am I.
So, I write this to myself (and maybe to you): get over your bad self. Step out from behind the lens and be in the picture, be in the scene. No one cares that you have gained weight or that you are not wearing the latest fashions from Paris, or that your lipstick doesn’t match your shoes. They love you. They want you. They need you to be in the picture.
Have thoughts? A difference of opinion? Leave comments below.