Strangers in a frame

Me … at my teacher’s wedding in 1982. But the real star of the photo is her new husband; a total stranger whose magnificent glasses, beard and suit are a part of my visual history!

My blog posts thus far have been reasonably heavy going. On my part there has been some arduous yet rewarding plumbing of the depths and, for readers, some potentially confronting surprises. So today, possibly inspired by the beginning of Spring, I have decided to go with something much lighter and brighter. A blog post version of an intracourse sorbet, if you will, to cleanse our palettes.

Recently I was looking through some old photos and I got to thinking about the vast changes in technology, habits and attitudes in regard to taking photos that I have witnessed in my lifetime. When I was born the world was transitioning from black and white, to colour. When I was a kid you would drop off your film at the Kodak shop and pick up your photos, and negatives, about a week later. By the time I was an adult you could pay extra to have your photos ready the next day or, if you dropped in your film early enough, that same day! Some people even had a Polaroid camera. Exciting times.

Then we moved through the relatively brief digital camera age, although for enthusiasts that stage carries on much like vinyl records and printed books. These days, like so many other aspects of our lives (if that’s an accurate descriptor), the act of taking photos has been adopted by mobile phones.

In 2020 a lot of effort goes into the composition of photos and often five or ten versions of the one shot will be taken, as a subset from which the “best” one can be chosen, whilst all others are deleted from history. Photographs these days are numerous and transient — we share them, people “like” them and then, for the most part, they may as well not exist.

Of course, back in the day (yes, I’m old enough now to use that expression), it was very different. Actual photography buffs aside, we weren’t generally that obsessive about the perfect shot. In fact, film was quite expensive so we didn’t take anywhere near the number of photos that are taken today. Usually a special gathering or event was the only reason to even “take the camera” in the first place. Photos were actual objects; they were possessions. And it was potluck how you appeared in them, what the composition was like, and who happened to have their eyes closed.

Gone, too, is that unique experience of picking your prints up from the developers to find that you had completely forgotten taking the photos at the start of the reel, because they were from almost a year ago. I particularly remember the anxiety over whether or not the one photo you really hoped had worked out would be any good … or if it had an errant thumb, hair or some sort of weird solar flare, ruining it.

Whilst flicking through some old shots recently something interesting occurred to me. I was reminded of the unusual and tenuous connection that photographs give us with the strangers who appear in them. People who just happen to have been in the background, when we took those snaps, become a part of our narrative, our history, our storytelling. Whilst these days the technology allows us to reduce the incidence of strangers appearing in our photos (and even allows us to remove people altogether) old photographs capture and hold these people in our lives for eternity. Often, for me, it is these background strangers who are the most interesting aspect of old photographs.

My first visit to Anfield, late 2000. I kind of blend in to the background, however, and it seems to be more like a photo of the stranger with the statue of Bill Shankly emerging from the top of his head.

Sometimes we may even remember the random people in our photos. Perhaps there was a brief interaction with them which returns to our memory when we see their face decades later. Maybe we, or a friend, thought a particular stranger was good looking and we deliberately staged a photo opportunity with them in the background (… or was that just me?!) Furthermore what is that person wearing, eating, carrying or using? Sometimes it is the strangers in the background who most accurately portray the era in which the photo was taken; much like old TV ads on VHS tapes of programs we recorded (unless you did that pause and unpause thing, to deliberately cut out the ads).

On the odd occasion, when collecting your prints, you would actually find a photo belonging to another customer. Or perhaps one of yours was missing and, whilst you could use your negatives to obtain a reprint, there was the knowledge that someone else in the community had a copy of your photo to do with whatever they wished.

A friend of mine, during my undergrad days in the early 90s, once found a photo belonging to someone else and it was the highlight of our week. In amongst the shots of us picnicking in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens and rehearsing for whatever play we were in that year, was a random photograph of some guy on a rollercoaster. Taken from close range by the person sitting next to him, the photo was slightly blurred and showed a magnificent blend of emotions — joy tinged with terror. Upon seeing it we laughed that painful kind of laughter, where you can’t breathe, for minutes on end. We loved that photo so much that it was given pride of place on my friend’s desk for months. Everyone who came over to his apartment was told the story of how he had this cool, random photo of a stranger on a rollercoaster — and of course they were then shown said photograph so that they could fully appreciate it!

I often wonder if a photo of me ever played such a role in the lives of others, purely by chance. Do you ever think about how many photographs belonging to strangers that you are in? It’s a little like our often told anecdotes. I have lots of stories that I recall and relate to friends and family; stories that involve strangers — people who live on through the tradition of oral history. Like the guy that I accidentally drowned in a freak geizer of coffee at a bookshop in London’s Tottenham Court Road. Or the person who was sitting next to me in a sold-out midnight screening of Star Wars Episode IV: The Rise of Skywalker who blurted out “Skywalker” before Daisy Ridley had the chance to tell the old woman on Tatooine what her name is. And then there’s the story about the bloke at Hanging Rock who my father-in-law fooled by dropping a fake $100 note on the ground. As a family we watched from afar, in barely constrained delight, the man’s journey from discovery, through subterfuge and acquisition, to disappointment verging on fury.

How many photos must this guy be in? His job, to stop people like me falling to their death whilst kissing the Blarney Stone (2001).

So things have changed alot but, thanks to old photos and the stories we tell, we still have so many connections to strangers, that linger through time and across great distances. For me, these connections are more meaningful than the majority of constructs that are designed to bring people together — social media for example. Much like modern photographs our social media interactions with strangers are too numerous and fleeting to become significant. Besides … my policy (which I don’t always stick to) is never to read the comments of strangers on Facebook due to the overwhelming negativity and bigotry.

The questions I have are these. Does the man who was on the receiving end of the coffee shower 20 years ago in London still tell that story occasionally? Am I in anyone’s photos that they have framed? Is there someone somewhere in the world right now flicking through old photos and looking at me, a complete stranger, and wondering who I am or remarking on what I’m wearing? Is any of this relevant in a world where everyone is connected through social media? Does my grade 3 teacher’s husband wish that the kid in the tracksuit top wasn’t in his wedding photos? Who was that guy on the rollercoaster?

Catch up with more BORDERLINE & BI posts from Chris:

Libraries: what they mean to me ~why I miss my local library so much

My local running group ~what camaraderie means to an antisocial loner

Something good every day ~ now is the time to recalibrate your thinking

A strange thing ~ when a scene from a television show becomes a part of you

And now, for our Feature Presentation ~ back to the cinema post lockdown

The rainbow elephant in the room ~ identity, sexuality and BPD

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General misfit, halfling rogue, questionable morals.

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Chris Hiscock

Chris Hiscock

General misfit, halfling rogue, questionable morals.

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