Several months ago, I attended the final performance of a musical produced by my younger son’s high school. We arrived about half an hour before the curtain and took our seats. We spent the time looking through the program and quietly chatting, occasionally acknowledging someone we recognized. Curtain time was postponed to allow for the number of people still purchasing tickets, so we sat back and observed the goings on around us. There were cameras flashing everywhere and the show had not even started. It took me a minute to realize what was happening. People were taking pictures of themselves and each other as they sat waiting in the audience. I think this is what you call mesies, or yousies, or is it ussies? No, selfies. That’s it! Whatever it’s called, it was fascinating to behold. I never realized being a member of the audience was picture worthy. Anyway, it was rather amusing.
Since then I have become more aware of the current picture-taking phenomenon. Everywhere I go people are taking pictures – pictures of the things they are about to buy, the food they are eating, who they are with, where they are, and what they are doing minute by minute. And there is not just one camera for the group. Everyone in the group has a camera taking pictures at the same time. Pictures of each other taking pictures. I can’t help but wonder if these pictures will ever be viewed again? Are the pictures an attempt to document life or validate it? Are the pictures meant to record the significance of the event or give significance to the lives of those in them as well as those taking them? Are the pictures capturing a moment in time or is the moment being missed because the people are too busy taking the picture? If a picture is worth a thousand words, are thousands of pictures really worth that much more?
When I was a little girl, we had one camera. My father sent a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye to my mother when he was in the Navy during the Korean War. He asked her to have someone take pictures of her to include in the letters she mailed to him – a ‘selfie’ of sorts. The Brownie facilitated their courtship, documented their marriage, and recorded the arrival of each of their three daughters. For years, it faithfully chronicled significant milestones, noteworthy events, and occasionally, everyday life. I say occasionally because the expense associated with the cost of film, flash bulbs, and developing made having pictures a luxury that we treasured. Mom might take our picture because she had made us a new dress, or Dad had built us a swing set, or we did something funny she wanted to remember. The significance of these occasions was highlighted by the removal of the Brownie Hawkeye from its lofty perch on the shelf in my parent’s closet.
One of my favorite childhood pastimes was looking through our box of photos and listening to Mom and Dad reminisce. Thanks to their carefully maintained picture collection, I was introduced to people who died before I was born. I caught a glimpse of the lives my parents led before they had children. I came to know myself through a series of photo-inspired memories of things I did before I even realized I was a person. Mom’s Brownie provided illustrations for the stories of our lives. It also allowed her to keep my grandparents, who lived a thousand miles away, apprised of our growth and accomplishments. Otherwise, very few people saw our pictures. While they were priceless to us, we figured everybody had their own pictures to look at – their own stories to tell.
If you have never seen a Brownie Hawkeye, it was a nifty, black, Bakelite, 4-inch cube (I always wondered why it was called a Brownie when it was black) with a lens centered in the front and a view finder on top along with a thin, plastic, strap handle across the middle. Next to the view finder was a gray button. Holding the camera level at waist height with the light behind you, your subjects remaining perfectly still and centered in the view finder, you pressed the gray button until it clicked while holding the camera steady. Then you had to remember the gray knob near the bottom that you turned after taking the picture to advance the film. For indoor pictures there was a flash attachment that looked a bit like a miniature, silver, satellite dish with an arm. You fastened the arm to the camera, screwed the bulb in, and you were ready to make your subjects see stars. With a Brownie, you had to be the one that was “smart” because the camera wasn’t.
Since the Brownie did not lend itself to taking selfies, my parents are largely absent from the pictures of my sisters and me. Actually, I doubt my parents ever considered inserting themselves in the pictures they took. They knew they were there, albeit behind the camera, but more importantly, we knew they were there. The closest thing to a selfie my mother ever took was a picture of my first day of middle school. There I stand in our front yard, anxious, excited, uncertain, wearing a new dress Mom made, and on the ground beside me is her shadow. It reminds me of the description of a character I read once, “She preferred to see herself reflected in the expressions on the faces of others rather than in a mirror,” (from The Painted Cave by Jean Aeul).
In spite of it’s lack of technological savvy, the Brownie supported many of the life lessons my parents valued. Holding perfectly still and waiting while being brought into focus and centered helped develop patience and self control. Since the Brownie made rare appearances it was possible to discern what constituted a special occasion. Waiting to reach the end of a roll of film, delivering it to the pharmacist to be sent off for processing, waiting weeks for the pictures to be developed, checking every few days on whether they had arrived, and finally taking them home unopened until we could look at them together required the ability to delay gratification. Blurry, dark, or double exposed results provided practice in dealing with disappointment. Sharing pictures with a limited audience made it clear what was private and what was public. Earning the privilege of fetching the Brownie and anticipating getting old enough to actually use it created rites of passage. Learning when and how to use the Brownie, as well as how to properly maintain and store it encouraged responsibility and self discipline. Whether intentionally or accidentally, that dandy, little camera certainly facilitated the process of developing my character.
Now throwing out my smart phone and pledging to never take another picture or selfie would be downright foolish. Declaring that modern technology makes it impossible to teach patience, self control, responsibility, self discipline, how to be discerning, how to delay gratification, how to deal with disappointment, how to distinguish between what is private and public, and how to complete rites of passage successfully would be equally absurd. However, I would submit that instilling these traits is more challenging in a cultural climate characterized by immediate results. When the prevailing message is that whatever you want should be instantaneous, it is hard to counter with the notion that most things worth having are not.
The advent of “smart” technology has prompted me to become a “smarter” parent. Anticipating the repercussions from regularly released new products and upgrades requires mindful, intentional, proactive, vigilant parenting practices. When modern cultural trappings fail to affirm desirable personal qualities, it becomes necessary to actively seek and sometimes create opportunities for them to be experienced, practiced, and hopefully embraced, in addition to modeling them. I am surrounded by accouterments promising to reduce the amount of work, thinking, even remembering that I have to do. Although I cannot control the presence of these items in the world, I can certainly control the role they are allowed to play in my life. Ultimately, I am in command of the power button, not vice versa.
These days, the Brownie sits on a shelf in my parents’ house, empty and long retired. Unlike its successors, it has no memory. But it sure did enhance mine. Now it serves as a reminder that it is impossible to capture a moment in time for storage on a cloud with the hopes of actually living it later. The Brownie was merely a tool used to commemorate the moments of our lives. It was up to us to live them to their fullest.