In the home I grew up in, there were no photographs to be found. My parents decorated our walls with framed art prints and bookshelves with murder mystery novels and antiques. In our house, photographs reminded us of places we would never return to or loved ones that passed away. The albums we did keep were stored in the basement closet. One black-and-white album for each side of the family, and one album for family road trips to Jasper Park Lodge where my mom attended conferences. Childhood pictures of my brother and I were taken with a disposable camera, and we regularly found ourselves cross-eyed or crying hysterically during birthday parties or in the back seat of our family minivan. Smiling wasn’t something that came naturally to us.
It’s no surprise to me that the women in my family hate photographs. Even as a dead woman, my grandmother is still the queen of photo-ghosting. Whenever a camera pointed at her, she theatrically waved her hands in the air with a cigarette burning in one hand and a drink in the other as if a shotgun were pointed at her. To this day, I only have one photo of my grandmother, dressed in an Indian costume at the local Bingo club where she drank scotch, smoked cigarettes and won gambling cash for daytrips to Blackpool. In the evenings, I imagined her throwing photographs into the fireplace while chewing on Werther’s Originals. She was a criminal at heart: untraceable and always suspicious of things that could be used as evidence in the court of law (photographs being one of them).
My mom didn’t like photographs either. Whenever someone pulled the camera out, she’d offer to take the photograph as if she had been paid to do so under the table. In front of the camera, she turned into a self-conscious little girl none of us recognized. And she wasn’t alone either. The truth is, none of us wanted to be in the photograph, like ever. I was a goofy-looking tomboy. My brother had an ugly bowl cut and my dad wore weird pink shorts 24/7. Photogenic was not a word we regularly threw around in our family.
It wasn’t until I visited my friend Jessie’s house that I felt confused about photographs. Along her staircases and hallways, framed photographs covered the wall like a museum. None of the frames matched, which bothered me, and I was curious why her family hung photographs instead of art prints by Willem De Kooning (like my parents did). Near the bathroom, the entire family smiled in a photograph wearing off-white uniforms. They looked contrived and commercial, like a stock photo. It occurred to me later that Jessie’s family had paid someone to take a photo of them. Creepy. And now, in a gallery of miss-matched frames, Jessie’s parents proudly displayed photographs like they didn’t have anything to hide. I didn’t know if Jessie’s family were strange or if mine were: photographs belonged in the basement closet, not on the wall.
Years later, self-awareness hit everyone in the face with the arrival of Facebook. Cell phones had terrible cameras, so we pleaded with our parents to buy sparkly pink digital cameras with good battery power and stick-on diamonds. Suddenly, photographs went online and were taken during class, recess, weekends and every other period. What began as a family ritual turned into a documentation of the ordinary, everyday teenage life. We idolized photographs like never before and used them to understand ourselves. Photographs also built the early profiles of our MSN, MySpace and Facebook. It was the only way to prove that we were real people behind our keyboards.
That’s when sex appeal changed the way we looked at photographs during puberty. Braces blinded with the flash while pink lip gloss and bright blue eye shadow looked mature in the right lighting. First relationships looked more official in albums with sunsets and beaches. I crafted the beginning of my digital identity with tags and pictures of my sneakers and paintings of Jimi Hendrix. Albums were uploaded every weekend with carefully chosen group shots taken with ten-second self-timers and multiple angles. It was in this photographic group identity that we discovered ourselves. Facebook became an interactive photo album of preservation, ego stroking and self-awareness. Five years later, I deleted Facebook. Ashamed of my old photos, I untagged myself then temporarily deleted my account to return to the real world.
Then came mobile technology, with advanced editing and the launch of photo apps. I downloaded Instagram the week after I deleted Facebook. Photographs were now valued by engagements. Throwback Thursday photographs scored more likes, with thoughtful commentary to add sentimental value and context to strangers who saw them. Instagram accounts connected family members, friends and colleagues in the captions we posted and hashtagged. Contrast, brightness, colour saturation and filters enhanced photographs in a new and exciting way. White borders added an aesthetically pleasing theme to photographs of tabletops, selfies, cats and brunch. We used photographs to advertise the types of people we curated ourselves to be: sophisticated, witty, fashionable, feminists with a tight circle of friends.
Now in 2015, photographs are the currency. Brands use other people’s photographs to secure eyeballs, clicks and time spent on websites. We sell our photographs in the social media marketplace to influence ordinary people to buy things we were paid to advertise. Ordinary people with thousands of followers walk among us. We hashtag, comment and post our photographs like the corporate accounts we hate but love, but hate, but love. I don’t know if the cupcake Annie just posted was sponsored. I also don’t know if she was paid money to post a photograph of that dessert or if the bakery in Kensington gave her a free cupcake to post that photograph on her account. The lines are blurred, and like my grandmother, I feel suspicious about it.
Now in the zenith of native advertisements, sponsored posts and influencers, photographs aren’t real to me anymore. I am a woman. I’ve got flaws and bad hair days and weird angles and clothes that don’t fit right. I’m overweight one week and underweight the next. I don’t want to smile or pose or pretend like I’m having fun, because if I’m having a good time I doubt you’ll find me in any photographs. I don’t want to waste my time editing the best version of myself for strangers to stare at because that’s not real either.
So please, do me a favour and don’t take my photograph. Let me exist for however long my life lasts, and when it’s over – remember me by one photograph: me in my twenties, wearning a baseball hat with a blunt cut and half-smile. Unchanging and stuck somewhere in time.