There’s something bewitching about family albums. To look back at those days when one was a small child and the ageing parents, uncles and aunts were strapping youngsters. And then there’s also the thing where the photos were shot at odd, unguarded moments. There you have the uncle, just out of his teens maybe, polishing his shoes. There is Thatha sitting in the pooja room with Ammummai and two cousins standing behind him. Amma listening to the radio. A light moment in the family kitchen with Ammummai and three of her daughters-in-law. Cousins lined up on a sofa. Two cousins holding each other’s shoulders and gazing into the camera, squinting in the Sun that’s directly on their faces.
Random moments. Normal expressions. Sometimes a smile in a light moment, sometimes a frown of concentration, sometimes deep in conversation, making a point, laughing at someone’s joke, just oblivious to the camera. Temple visits. Kids getting their first mottais. I look at the albums, trace them all the way from the late ’70s, just before am born. They continue on to the time am born, and as I grow up the photos become more nuclear. Less huge groups, more at houses of relatives, or visits to Lalbagh etc for flower shows. They trace not just time, but also space. Different houses you lived in. The cracks in the walls that you traced with so much concentration as a child, now lost to memory and builders. The trees, and holes in the terraces to let light and air into windowless houses. Stairs where many stories were told, power-cuts endured, with banter and gossip. Houses that were newly built and don’t resemble the old one anymore. The great-grandparent visited and a photo with the youngest kid in the family (at the moment of the photo). Different furniture that you remember and wonder where they are now. Sometimes sitting right by you as you write this post.
And then as the 90s happen, they start diminishing. There are less and less photos. Events like a 25th Wedding Anniversary, visiting relatives in different towns. They are there, but a few albums get you to the end of the Millenium. People are more self-conscious, more dressed up. There’s more posing, less furniture. The camera is a device people now recognize and react to, and it is not something you carry around anymore. Even otherwise, there are less relatives visiting and staying over for days – there are exams and tuitions for fast-growing up children.
There are very few in the 2000s. A few albums with friends, one or two on a visit. A trip the parents undertook with aunts. But the family album as I am used to is no longer there. There are wedding pics, pics from functions at different halls. People in their fineries, people posing for the camera in groups. The camera is now always reacted to.
Digital cameras are brought everywhere, photos are taken, but they aren’t spoken for after that. There are some that get exchanged, but no one pulls them out. People seem more wary of the camera. They want to smile. There are less of those moments of candour, of catching people just going about their lives, kids just monkeying about. It is as if the more we brought the camera into our lives, the more we shun it and hide behind masks that we are quick to don.
Maybe I am reading too much into it. Maybe it is the whole point of the photographer not getting the shot at the candid moments. Or something simpler, that people are now able to see the photo and delete, unlike before where they didn’t know what went into the camera until the roll finished and the photos got ‘developed’. How much of a difference is that? We never used to run to look at the back of the camera. Take a pic of any little kid now, he/she’ll make a beeline to the camera to see the photo.
I wonder how much role a roll played in keeping photos in check(See what I did there?). All you had to do was point and shoot. At the end of 36 photos, your camera made a noise. You went to the photo shop, got them developed and you had 36 photos and a free album thrown in. Insert pics there and you’re done for posterity. There was also the excitement of seeing how the photos that you waited for turned out. With a digital camera, you shoot, see them then and there, maybe compare with a few others, transfer them to your computer, maybe upload a few to Facebook or Picasa. And forget them. The lack of physical records that you run into when cleaning something or when bored might be a significant factor here. It is something that me and my cousins often talk about (hat tip: Anush and Indhukka): what do you do with so many photos? I know my cousin doesn’t even own a camera for that. He says he doesn’t know what to do with the pics!
Even otherwise, the nature of the photos being shot are also changing. The memories we are saving up for later are becoming different. There are more photos from trips, even then mostly what we see and some with us posing. Also, what proportion of pics of yours are you happy with? 🙂 With the older camera, they were set in stone, not anymore. There’s the ability to wish away not-so-flattering pictures of oneself.
Changing family structures too? When was the last time a lot of the family got together. For a wedding or some function in a hall. Go back to my older point of dressed up posings. When people visit, it is usually a surprise (and also a matter of stress if the timing is bad) and taking pics is the last thing on your mind. More importantly, who does that anyway?!
I do romanticise the past, the way photos were taken then and why we should continue to do it now. At the moment it does seem pointless, I mean you barely notice much difference over 5-6 years. But then family albums are for posterity. To be viewed after more than 10 years, to see how you were and how you changed to what you are now; to mark space, to remember old places that you inhabited. After all, memories live in places too and it is worth saving them to look back on.