A camera, like an eye, is a window through which we view a very small portion of the world. But an eye does not see everything that lies before it. The eye did not evolve to record the present so as to preserve the past. It is an observational mechanism highly tuned to assess the now. Beyond the moment of direct observation, can we even trust our eyes? Can we trust our memories?
I realize, suddenly, and with no small degree of sadness, that I retain no memory of a specific sunset. Only the vague recollection of them all. The people I remember – are they preservations of actual impressions? Or are my mental images derived from photographs? My father, my favorite teacher, the woman that I still love. What is it I’m seeing when I conjure their faces? Pictures. Pictures of pictures. Palimpsest veils of light and form. Without the camera, what would I truly remember?
The photographer hides behind his memory trap, capturing faces, stealing souls. As innocent bystanders, we each get caught. A part of us is preserved in countless collections of vacation photos. My nameless face lurks in the background of thousands of family albums. We are rendered in our clothing, in our skin, in our trances. Our presences are recorded, our existences witnessed. And we are unnamed. Hundreds and hundreds of stolen moments, when we happen to be standing somewhere in front of that little window, that little box that gathers light and orders it precisely as it fell upon us.
The energy that does not pass through us, the energy that is reflected back off our bodies can be collected, it can be kept, it can be held fast with chemicals, on paper, in pixels, in long strings of zeros and ones.
Long after we cease to exist as containers of energy, as physical vessels that reflect light, older reflections of ourselves will still remain somewhere, someplace. Our reflections will far outlive us. Has not, then, some version of an eternal life of the body already been realized?
I am drawn to strangers. I watch and wonder at who they are beneath who they appear to be. I photograph them. I look at them later and marvel at their mysterious lives. Sometimes, when poring over photographs I take in public places, I find that a face staring back at me. As I captured I was caught. Sometimes the camera draws the eye like a headlight in the dark.
It’s jarring. To discover the stranger who saw me seeing them. But after the initial shock something else happens. A strange sort of communion. In that moment, we shared a connection. Like the lady on the bus who gives you an apple, or the guy at the train station who lights your cigarette, cupping his hands to keep the flame. The gaze that binds me to a stranger in a photograph reminds me that I’m not alone, not separate, not even an individual, but another cell in the body of us all. And we’re all working in this body, whether we realize it or not, we’re making the body better or making the body sick, we’re either manifesting love or we’re feeding off of it, we’re shining light or staying dark, we’re either adding to its living or contributing to its death, and the eyes that find us, the eyes that see through the veil and pierce us, those are the watchers who reveal, for nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad. I am not invisible, no matter how I try to be. I am always seen and always known.
The child in the photograph above is not only aware of my camera, she is emboldened by it. She is forever defiant, and forever young, and forever beautiful, and I will never know her name. I will never know what she may have been thinking in this random slice of time. I will never know if she had a good day or a good life. She won’t remember me, but for years to come as I peruse my images, as I go through my photographs, I will see her again. She will be there to remind me that I am seen, and I am visible and I am part of a whole. There’s that little girl in the window of House of Nanking. I wonder what she’s doing? I wonder if she’s married? I wonder if she has a daughter of her own? That is one of the great miracles of photography. Two lives connect. Two energies share a moment of sync. Vincent and Sarah. Vincent and Molly. Vincent and Chloe. Does a name even matter? Names are merely reference points for tiny bundles of flickering light.
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