Picture a memory
None of us wanted to be the one to tell her.
As an undergraduate, I paid for my studies by working summers as a lifeguard and, in the winters, I worked at a camera store. I suppose in these digital days some people still work with film but back then it was the only option. Mostly people shot color prints, a few individuals with artistic intentions shot black and white, and the rest took slides.
Slides were the precursor of Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest and other online photo sharing services. Although one could sit a victim down in plain daylight and force them to slowly flip through an album of one’s glossy holiday photos or photos of drooling babies, total submission was only possible through the dreaded slide show, held in a darkened room where the pace of the show was governed by whoever controlled the advance button on the slide show projector–almost inevitably a technology-obsessed man if one was present. A slide of a sunset would appear–sometimes upside down or sideways–followed by an excruciating description of the particular time and place riddled with anecdotes of what the photographer was doing before, during, and after.
As likely as not, this would provoke a minor domestic spat. “You can’t actually see it but in the distance is a bridge in Granada and when we walked across it, we saw a man riding a donkey.”
“Are you sure dear? I think that was Seville, not Granada and it was a boy riding a goat, not a man, but at noon, not at sunset.”
“I think I would remember a thing like that,” the button controller would say.
“I think I would remember,” the wife would counter offering up definitive proof. “You can’t see it, of course, but I was wearing my yellow dress, the one with the print of lemons that I bought in Granada. Or was it Seville?”
And so on until the room lights flicked on and woke everyone in the audience woke up.
Was the dreaded customer planning such an event for her family and friends?
She came in a few days later and, mercifully, it was my colleague Ellie who had to give the explanation.
It did not go well.
“Ah, Miss,” Ellie began. “I’m afraid there’s been a problem with your photo processing.”
“It seemed there was a mis-calibration with the film cutting machine.”
“What do you mean?” the woman asked warily. The joyful anticipation of seeing her twelve rolls of slides from her one-week trip to Hawaii was being dampened under a persistent shower of Ellie’s frown and lack of eye contact.
“When a roll of slides are fed into the machine for developing,” Ellie explained, “they come out the end and each slide is cut and inserted into the cardboard frame.”
“Uh huh.” The woman was trying to work out what this had to do with her.
“Sometimes–very rarely, in fact–the machine is not calibrated.” Ellie spoke with the patience and authority of a kindergarten teacher and resisted the temptation to explain the human element: a bored technician–perhaps a malicious individual who held a personal vendetta against sunsets and all other things Hawaiian–had failed to check that the machine was chopping the slides in the correct place. In fact, the machine was exactly half a frame out of sync and had sliced each slide neatly in half.
Today it would qualify as a post-modern art statement but the woman still didn’t understand what Ellie was going on about. “Show me,” she said.
The slides came out and the woman exploded.
Not literally exploded. There wasn’t a red-tinged circumference of tears, spittle, blood, bone fragments and bits of internal organs spread about in of the store, but there might as well have been. It would have been less dramatic and far quicker.
As it was, the woman cried and shouted and pounded on the desk and the assistant store manager and then the manager were each called in turn, which necessitated repeated and drawn-out explanations of the mis-calibration incident.
The woman threatened a lawsuit, which seemed to include expectations of an all-expenses paid return trip to Hawaii followed by photo processing at a more professional store than ours. But the disclaimer on the photo-processing envelope was clear: Liability was limited to a replacement roll of film for each roll damaged. Twelve rolls of film were slipped in a bag with the mangled slides and the woman was coaxed from the store.
Everyone shook their heads and went back to their business. Everyone but me.
I had never been to Hawaii and to me such travel was an exotic and unreachable dream that I might be lucky to undertake when I retired in 50 years. Surely the woman still had her memories.
Or did she?
I reflected on the nature of photography and whether it made people focus more on what they saw or whether photography was nothing more than a sad substitute for seeing. Rather than sitting on a beach and watching the sun go down, do we increasingly resort to snapping a quick photo to digest later?
The woman, I concluded, had not actually been to Hawaii. Only her camera had. The experience was a mediated one, with the camera held up as a kind of defensive barrier against her inability to process, to internalize, and to embrace the beauty she was seeing.
“If I ever get to go to Hawaii,” I lied to myself, “I’m not going to take a camera at all. I’ll just try to see and appreciate what’s around me.”
I wonder now if the woman’s friends and family, after the appropriate consolations, were secretly relieved at not having to sit through 12 rolls of sunsets and stories.