There has always been a major obsession in our lives. From prehistoric times to today, we have feared the same demon. We have crafted a lot of fixes and patches but it has only been recently that we have seemingly found a cure.
A sense of definition.
This demon we live with is the constant fear that we might be living useless lives. Lives that start on a birthday that we celebrate year after year until we perish, leaving, seemingly, nothing behind. We have struggled and we are still struggling to find meaning in everything we do, however trivial. Since we are incapable of defining what a meaning would be, we leave it to others to define it. After all, what better way to give depth to something than having it seen by others. The same goes for our lives.
Enters photography: For the last 150 years, it has made many, many lives meaningful. Not only by making lives finally visible by others, but by making the lives of those who photographs them, meaningful. It would have been incredibly hard for Gandhi, for example, to have made his life, and his actions meaningful without photography. His force, his presence was made a lot stronger, and effective, thanks to those photographers that brought us the images of an almost naked frail old man defying the biggest empire of the time. But this is a bad example, as Gandhi’s life and action always had a meaning.
What about the middle management, married, one kid man around the corner from your house. He is living the simple regular life, the one made of 8-hour labour days, busy housekeeping weekends , sometimes interrupted by the common tragedies (death, unemployment, sickness, loss). Where is the meaning of that life?
Nowhere. Until it starts getting more dimensions by being photographed and seen. Photographed by friends, family, passer by, and ending up on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter. If any of these images goes viral, a simple ignored life suddenly becomes highly meaningful. Never mind that the meaning might be puerile, it is still a meaning.
Photography has put an end to the dreadful unobserved life. Probably forever. What started as simple drawings in a cave somewhere in the South of France that said “look, I am here and I did this” has evolved to today’s “Look at me, I learn to jet ski during my vacation”, photograph; I exist.
In between Gandhi and your neighbourhood, there are thousands upon thousands of lives that suddenly spring into meaning because, and only because of photography. That man in front of the tanks in Tiananmen square, the monk that burned himself in Vietnam, that other man holding his bandage as he walked away from the London bus explosion. Or that woman who held her baby after an earthquake. or even Paris Hilton ? What would be the meaning of her life without photography?
Fear no more the darkness of oblivion, photography is here.
In the cacophony of individuals screaming for attention and thus justification, some have even taken photography to yet another level. It is not only who they photograph who’s life become amplified, it is also themselves. It’s not longer “look at me, I exist”, but rather, “Look at me, looking at others, I exist”. This has lead to everything from a variety of extremely brilliant photographers to a pool of highly pretentious narcissists.
Regardless, what we have let quietly slip into our lives has now become the primary form of “existence justification” for all of us, something unthinkable. The question now is, as the cries for meaning increase, how do manage it
About the author
This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians” Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.
Paul Melcher has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog