Thursday, October 20, 2005

Photo Small Talk

I don’t carry photos in my wallet.

A large photograph of my son at five hangs in my office, but it’s unusual. It’s matted, cropped, and framed. What catches attention is the art of the lines and look on his face. He’s swinging on a playscape unaware of the camera. The smile is genuine straight through to his eyes. Designers passing by have stopped to discuss it as a work of art. It’s not unusual for a person to say that they didn’t realize that the child in the photo and I have a relationship, despite the fact that we look remarkably alike.

That works fine for me. I suspect my son likes it that way too. We’re not good at small talk.

Conversation about the weather stymies me. I have no place to put that information. My mouth can say the words, but my mind is screaming, “What’s the point?” I search for the right response and at best, it comes to me about three days later. I never know about the latest movie, or how the team is doing. I don’t listen to the radio or watch television. Add photos of my family into the lot and the confusion rises exponentially. I get self-conscious while I’m wondering why folks want to see pictures of people they will never meet.

When people show me pictures of their lives, I don’t know what to do. I want to run away, but I don’t want to be rude. I don’t know the right response. I don’t know how long to look. Nothing about the situation feels natural to me. Common sense on such occasions is an alien to me.

I’m trying to learn. Or maybe I’m just trying. Maybe I’m one of the most trying people folks ever will meet.

I watch people look at each other’s photos. They take in the whole picture. Then the conversation becomes some sort of photo small talk. The viewer and the photo owner discuss the people and the event depicted. They Q and A the details—who was there, how it came to be, how everyone is, was, and will be. They find out what Uncle Joe is doing now and whatever happened to Aunt Mary’s cat. This happens even though the people talking and those talked about have usually never met.

It scares me to do any of at that—even looking at the whole picture. When I do I see a picture of someone I don’t know. It’s the same as looking at a wallet photo. An eerie feeling comes over me as if I’m meant to make up questions about the people in the picture frames at the local pharmacy.

So I’ve developed coping mechanisms. I focus on the details, and that seems to work. No one seems to know I’m “passing” as a person who can small talk about photos.

If I don’t know the subject or I’ve just met the photo’s owner, I get involved in the potential of the photo—I talk about how it might be cropped, what steals my attention, or what sort of story I might tell about the photo. If I know the subject or the owner, I go to the eyes of the person in the photo. The eyes always talk to me. No matter the occasion or the skill of the photographer, it’s rare the photo that masks the meaning that is shared by human eyes.

I’ve seen intelligence, fear, shyness, sadness, joy, love, gentleness, and sheer exhaustion. More often than you might expect, I’ve seen the way a person feels about being the subject of a photo. Once in a while, the eyes show emptiness, a blank tight-fisted stare. Now that’s a person that I’m sure I wouldn’t want to know.

I’m not suggesting that I say exactly what I see.

By looking at the eyes, I’ve found an honest way to look at other people’s photos. The proud owners are naturally pleased that I take time and show an interest. What I see can sometimes present a challenge to offering a kind and positive comment. Then again with that information, I don’t feel intimidated when I look into the owner’s waiting eyes again.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. You can see a lot in someone’s eyes. They also say that certain tribes once feared that cameras stole your soul. There may be something to that, especially if the eyes are the windows to the soul. I don’t claim to know.

I know the eyes make it easier for me to look at other people’s photos.
—me strauss Letting me be


Cheryl said...

Ocassionally I can 'read' people from their photos - by that I mean more information about the soul than is in the graphic representation.
People share photos for the same reason they do memes - for a pat on the head. They let you in to their perivate world hoping for nothing more than an 'aww' or a show of interest in their private life. At least in the UK, but maybe we're more reserved, and I'm certain some people bring in a pile of new photos just because the unwritten law allows them to annoy everybody with them, one at a time, instead of doing any work.

Cheryl said...

Was that going to be personal, or private? Hey ho, its perivate now.

ME Strauss said...

Hey Cheryl,
It's good to know that others get annyoned or put off by looking at other people's photos too. I should have mentioned that I don't take photos either. The pictures in my head are so much better.

I don't think there's a difference between the UK and the US on this one.


ME Strauss said...

i like perviate. I works well with a photo word I once used horizontical.

Jennifer said...

Good Morning (a bit later than normal, but Thursday is swim morning :))

You knowI used to hate having my picture taken between the age High School and partway thru college. THen after a trip overseas with my SChool that all changed. And ever since I've loved taking pictures, but what I love even more is taking those pictures and putting them together in an album.

It's a whole other way to tell a story. I don't just 'put' them in an album, I scrapbook them. It's a journey that I retell through pictures. I love other peoples pictures too. For all sorts of reasons. Expression, backgrounds, the stories people tell, the saddness, the happiness, the joy, the sorrow, the moments of delight or despair.

I think (as the says goes) that a picture speaks a 1000 words.

Again maybe I'm so interested in photos because it's like a glimps into someone's private world, and I love to know anything and everything about people. What makes them tick?

On the topic of the Wallet Photos. I've never had anyone show me pics. Probably because me, my friends and the age group I normally associate with haven't reached the stage of having pictures in our wallet :) And sometimes I wonder if we will.

Okay I've rambled way to long and muct go work!

ME Strauss said...

Hey, I was just this second thinking about you.

I bet with your right brain/left brain thing that you're really good at telling a story with pictures via scrapbooking.

I think I could get into scrapbooking and I really don't mind photos of people who can say something interesting beyond, "Here are the pix of my nephew's 4th wedding."

I really hate bad photos which is part of my problem.


Orikinla Osinachi. said...

Pictures speak louder than words.
A picture could be worth a million words.

But, you can read me through my picture. Because, I am a good actor and I love the cameras and I can do a lot of posing and posturing for the cameras.

Life is actually a photo album made by God.

What is history?

As told God.

ME Strauss said...

Hello Orikina,
I may not be able to read you through your pictures, but I imagine I would see that you are posing.

Yes pictures do tell a thosand words. But sometimes the words we hear are not the words the pictures are portraying.

My father used to say believe only 1/2 of what you see.


The Hungry Writer said...

I really never like photos. I think the posed ones are ridiculous. They never seem to capture what I believe they were meant for: a sudden moment of pure clarity. Great insight Liz. With digital cameras, it seems worse, because now people can recapture as many times as needed to find that "moment."

ME Strauss said...

Hi Lane,
See that you've been getting around. Nice to see you here again.

Thanks for your comments. Yeah, I don't like posed photos much either. Though years later they're nice to show what someone looked like.


toadman said...

Unlike you, I suppose, I like to look at other people's pictures. I don't like pictures that are "staged" though. I like candid shots of people, and action shots. I suppose they seem more "alive" than the others somehow. When my mother used to have us all line up and take a picture as a family, I used to bristle. It was staged, fake, an unrealistic display of something that didn't really happen.

My wife and I take alot of pictures of our kids, since our families are over two thousand miles away from us. Grandparents demand pictures you know. But I try to take pictures that are interesting, at least to me. I do also take the kind of pictures my mother wants to see, the ones where we stand there and deliver our best fake smiles. But my favorites are the ones snapped when we are genuinely happy, when the action is real.

See my Flickr page (linked to from my site) for some of my favorites.

ME Strauss said...

Hi Toadman,
I don't mind real pictures of people I know doing things that they like to do. It's pictures of strangers that make me crazy with self-conscious wondering about small talk and such.

I think I'd have fun looking at pictures you took. You have a spark with how you talk about the pictures. I'll have to look.


fineartist said...

Oh Liz, I LOVE photographs. I absolutely find them fascinating, but then again, I am very visual. I especially love black and white or sepia photos, and any photograph where the composition is artistically planned, doesn’t have to be posed, but snapped with an artistic eye.

Like Cheryl and Jennifer, I also enjoy the glimpse into a persons private sphere by viewing their photos. They do tell a lot, from the objects in the picture to what the person has chosen to show. I find myself wanting to put a face to type, so until I have actually seen a picture of someone, I will imagine in my minds eye what they look like.

I also love collecting photos of family and friends, I have them everywhere in my home and at work. They remind me of how much I love the people in them. I have a love board where I tack them up at school, and love trees, of past and present students. They make me smile.

I have special photographs of my children and grandchildren. I must admit that the special ones are usually candid shots though. They make me smile.

Responding to photographs, the small talk, don’t sweat it sister, say what you feel or not. Liz, I cannot imagine you ever feeling awkward about responding to anything, as articulate as you are, this post was very interesting.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, two of my sisters once had “glamour” shots made. OMG, they were the worst photos I have ever seen. The makeup artists put so much makeup on them that their faces were cracking in the pictures, and they were both laughing so hard--because they knew that they looked awful--that those lousy pics, sometimes we will drag them out and laugh like fools together.

ME Strauss said...

Hi Lori,
It's not the photos I don't like. It's the people looking at me, waiting for a response. I write much better than I do small talk.

Give me a single photo and a glass of wine and I can spend hours looking at it and thinking about it. Look at me while I'm doing that and I get really nervous.

Where were you when they got the glam pix taken?


dog1net said...

Writing an essay where we not only try to reflect on a specific feeling, but also try to get at what we might be experiencing as a certain sense of angst with something, is not an easy thing to do. For me, the process starts off as a feeling of agitation. It takes me a few days to really figure out what I am attributing certain feelings to. But once I've gone through that, the writing sometimes comes fast and furious, but even still, shaping the essay into its final form can take some doing.
"Photo Small Talk," is both a loving, and lovely, well-written essay expressive of the human voice that comes from deep within. There is so much here that I find I can relate to as I often feel the same way when people show their photos to me, especially when I hardly know them. I like your "coping mechanisms" for dealing with these kinds of situations. Focusing on the details, looking at the eyes, the humaness of simple recognition that we're all part of one big cosmic family that stretches from the photo to eternity, is what makes this writing so affirming and connected.

ME Strauss said...

You take so long to write your essays, yet your comments are such beautifully written expressions of humanity. I read what you write on other sites as well and they are always well-thought, well-expressed and tailored exactly to the person and the piece you are commenting on.

I find that amazing and so special.


garnet david said...

great subject. I'm almost incapable of looking at other folks photos. it's like being at church and having to get up and read aloud or sing. I'll try looking at the eyes. (actually, that might help me talk to others as well, since I have trouble doing that as well.)

I hate posing for photos. Everyone gets stiff and fake. When photoing others, I like to catch them off guard. Then there's some real life in it. My Dad counts odd numbers, like 5, 4 8, 2 6 and then take the photo. I love that.