The Meaning of Photographs

One of my pupils, who graduated from our school 3 years ago and is going to Secondary 4 in the coming year, is now very sad because her iPhone cannot get recovered from iTunes backup and therefore has lost her 4355 photos — she does not have the habit of synchronizing her photos to either iCloud or other cloud storage but solely depends on her backups on a PC.

Of course no one wants to lose anything, or the storage service providers, either online or offline, would not exist. But we do not need to grieve so much that our precious sleep has to be sacrificed in mourning. As I told that pupil, nothing is eternal, and starting anew is actually easier than imagined.

‘Those photos are my memories! They capture those precious fun moments!’ She said.

No, they are photos, not memories. True memories exist not in photos but in hearts and minds. Photos capture those moments, yes, and help to remind you those moments. But if you need photos to remind you those moments, are those moments really precious? Are precious moments not preserved in your fond memory?

Fun moments normally will become sour and bitter in future. They are bad evidence of the past because, in future, either your life is no longer fun or your friends are no longer there to share your joy. Either way it is, is seeing those photos of the fun past not a torment?

I take photography as a form of visual arts. I take photos not because I want to preserve the moments, as I cannot do so by clicking the shutter button. I take photos because the sight is beautiful and it somehow expresses myself through colours and shadows. Beauty is temporary; everything decays. If the world remembers it, then it gains some kind of immortality in the collective memory of mankind, and I do not need a copy for myself. If the world does not, why should my own pride bring the photos to my grave?

Some of my colleagues see me as ‘full of negativities’ because I seem to see only weaknesses, stupidity, inhumanity and irrationality in the bureaucracy. That might be true, but only at work. In life, I can see beauty in every corner and find humour in every speech and action. My cameras, including my smart phones, are deployed to capture the beauty and humour in life, not because they are precious moments and ought to be preserved but the lifespan of photos are much longer than that brevity of bliss. The extra length of this lifespan enables the sight to be exposed to a larger audience with a hint of my personality. That is all.

Never attach too many ‘meanings’ to the photos. Photos are just a media, a platform, and will be gone, sooner or later, together with those ‘meanings’.

In fact, you have lost your childhood friends, your cuteness in kindergarten, your primary school works, the clean air, cheap food, youthful vigour, purity of innocence, ignorant optimism, and many other things when you grow up (and old). Losing some photos is no big deal.