I am a camera
The very first camera I ever purchased with my own money was a Sony camcorder that was so large that in the state of Texas, where I lived, my brown skin in conjunction with this monster on my shoulder made me look like someone from the Taliban to the locals. This was 2001, when point-and-shoot digital cameras were not too common and SLR cameras still used film, a storage format I didn’t care for much.
The reason for that was my father, who spent his life savings on state-of-the-art Leica cameras and took more photos back in the day than teenagers take selfies today. In fact, we went on vacations where we would run out of film before we reached the most pose-worthy locations. My siblings and I spent entire summer holidays scanning our family photos before they became fodder for assorted Chennai-based tropical fungi, so I had a visceral dislike for film photography. It was expensive, inefficient and hugely cumbersome. I like my technology to be simple, to get out of the way.
For starters, I am not anything remotely resembling a photographer. I am of course an “amateur photographer”, a term that applies to most human beings on the planet today in much the same way “breather” and “food eater” does. I like taking photos, and beyond mulling over a choice of Instagram filters (I almost always use Ludwig), I have no interest in aperture sizes, focal lengths, ISOs and shutter speeds. But I am a connoisseur of convenience in technology and therefore I don’t like carrying two devices when one can do the job.
In 2016, that sounds like a far more practical expectation than it was in 2001. So the real reason I bought a giant rocket-launcher-sized camcorder was because it came with a tiny, 1-megapixel, flash-memory-based still camera. It was sort of like a bazooka that came with an add-on vacuum cleaner at the end simply because desis like me are slaves to the idea of “value for money”.
The video was still stored in small 8mm video cassette tapes. So, in essence, I had purchased a $900 (around Rs.61,200 now) device simply because it did two things and I wouldn’t have to carry two devices—even if the one device I was carrying around looked like something commercial airliners wouldn’t allow on board. As with most of my electronics purchases over the years, I grew disillusioned with it pretty quickly. For starters, the still photos were terrible and the proprietary Sony memory stick required Akio Morita’s own DNA sample to actually work on my PC. And I soon realized that I had never once seen any of the footage I had shot, even if some of it was of dramatic scenes of the Niagara Falls, with my voice providing David Attenborough-style commentary about the grandeur of nature.
In a few years thereafter, SLRs went digital and point-and-shoot cameras were all the rage, but even back then, I was reluctant to buy one of them. I didn’t want to carry yet another device my forgetful brain was likely to leave behind in restaurants, hotel rooms, or in the pockets of trousers that go into washing machines. Yet again, I looked for convergence but, this time, I didn’t make the camcorder mistake. Camera phones were quite basic in 2005 so I relented and purchased a 5-megapixel Canon point-and-shoot that miraculously managed to stay un-lost for many years. But I still had a storage problem. I would often carry my laptop along on vacations simply because the SD card would run out of storage and vacation tourist traps tended to charge an arm and a leg for them. It was back to carrying two devices for one function again.
It was quite frustrating. If cameras did video well, they sucked at still photos. If they took high-resolution photos, the storage they came with held precisely two-and-a-half images before running out of space. And many of them came with the most atrociously unusable “sync” software instead of just mounting as a flash drive. Some made me buy extra cables just to sync. And still, none of this stopped me from taking a gazillion photos, most of which now lie around in dusty CDs, non-functioning flash drives or dubiously purring external hard drives.
And then the iPhone came around and changed everything. Because I valued my kidneys, I wasn’t an early adopter this time around. My first iPhone was the 4s model, and finally, almost all my grouses were addressed. It had a good enough camera so I didn’t need to carry a point-and-shoot. It had a decent amount of storage and shot nice videos too. But it still required iTunes, a monstrous piece of bloatware that has tormented users of Apple products for decades now. iTunes is the sort of thing CSI: Crime Scene Investigation actors will use to hack IP addresses with Visual Basic, if you get my drift. This meant that I rarely found myself backing up my photos and the 16 GB on the phone filled up pretty quickly. And Apple charges more for extra storage than Nariman Point in Mumbai does for real estate.
By the time the iPhone 6 came along, Google and Apple had finally solved the storage problem with the cloud. It was beautiful. I just kept taking photos and it kept backing them up to the cloud while just retaining the last 1,000 photos on the device. And it synced them seamlessly with other devices. I pointed Google Photos to every old hard disk of mine and it quietly uploaded every photo and video on those to the cloud in the background. One would think the perfect set-up for the forgetful, lazy, amateur photographer had finally arrived.
You see, one look at the my photo stream on the cloud today makes the problem obvious. Since I have a three-year-old son who is philosophically radically opposed to the concept of staying still, every photo that involves him is actually 263,748 photos taken in quick succession in the vain hope that at least one of them will be a case of the iPhone’s snappy camera outsmarting his Spider-Man reflexes. And in the one shot where he is beaming straight at the camera, my wife’s eyes are closed and I have the look of Hannibal Lecter gazing upon a fellow human being (also known as dinner).
And if it’s not duplicates, the rest of my photo stream is filled with screenshots because, you know, how else can I embarrass friends who delete tweets? And if it’s not screenshots, it’s close-up photos of body washes from various Body Shop outlets at airports (or as they choose to call them, gel douche). Why, you might wonder. This is to WhatsApp the wife and ask her if the Fuji Green Tea Gel Douche was an okay purchase.
So my first-world problem today, in a world of cheap and unlimited cloud storage and 3,847,585 megapixel phones that shoot 16K videos at 10,000 frames per second, is that I shoot too many photos and videos and I can’t be bothered to sit and organize them manually. My photo stream resembles one of those picture flip books where every photo is one still from a crude animation. And close-up photos of environmentally sustainable cosmetic products interspersed with screenshots, “Gud Morning” pictures from the family WhatsApp group and oh, photos of my car in multi-level parking garages in malls because I usually can’t remember where I parked it.
It’s like I have a continuous life stream of images that no one, myself included, will ever see again. If personal photography used to be about capturing those special, rare moments in one’s lives, it isn’t any more. I have two blurry black and white photos of my first birthday (in 1978) while I have 346,475 photos of my son wearing a Superman costume on his birthday.
I think we all understand that too many photos negate nostalgia but we still continue to click away. I wonder why. This is all the more evident at tourist locations where more people see the mind-altering grandeur of the Grand Canyon through a smartphone camera than the significantly higher-resolution human eye.
But here is the thing. I’m not a physical photo-nostalgist. I am an eternal technology optimist. For instance, despite being a voracious reader, I’ve moved completely to the Kindle for books and the iPad for graphic novels and hold no sentimental value for physical books. On the music front, I don’t hold fallacious opinions about the sonic superiority of CDs over modern-day digital formats. But when it comes to vinyl and faded photos, I think there is something else at play there.
The reason I sometimes prefer to listen to Indian classical music or Simon & Garfunkel on an LP is not because they “sound better” in that format. Objectively, they don’t. The thing is that they don’t sound any better on a state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen speaker system playing a lossless FLAC format either. But more importantly, the vinyl forces you to listen to an entire album because it doesn’t give you a fast-forward or skip option at the click of a button. If the music truly moves you, the format then persuades you to respect it, sit back and listen to the whole thing. The vinyl also gets scratchier with time, and it almost feels like the music ages with us. This is true for physical photos too. As much as we want the feeling of being able to cheat mortality by freezing moments of our lives on photo film, a constantly fading photograph of one’s own childhood is a subtle analogy of our own impending mortality. Digital photos don’t fade. They just sit around sadly on some server, till our credit cards cancel their storage subscription. Paper photos die, but they die like us. Digital photos just disappear, after being ignored forever.