I’ve wondered this since attending a recording of the new Working Dog project, Pictures of You. Set to appear soon on our television screens, it is a novel talk show that takes its celebrity guests through their formative years, using their own photographs as prompts.
It is an interesting device – a Rorschach test for the way we perceive our past and the people in our lives. We can after all be oblivious to the significance of the moment. It is only when we get some distance that we are able to properly sift through and isolate what is truly precious. Sometimes it emerges from the most innocuous, badly composed, under-lit photo.
I was struck by this as the host, Brian Nankervis, presented a parade of images, each of which drew out hilarious tales and revealing anecdotes from his guests. The point of the show, of course, is to entertain. But in the process, it humanises individuals whom we know only as the characters they play, or the personas cultivated for them by the media.
There is something incredibly affecting, for instance, when the genial comedian, Frank Woodley, has to pause in the midst of telling a story about his late father, in order to compose himself. The studio audience recognised immediately that they had stepped onto hollow ground. They waited, silent.
This response to an otherwise unremarkable image of a tall man looking off-camera invites the idea that a photograph is more than the sum of its contents. We can talk about who is in it, where and when it was taken, and by whom. But something in the way we respond to certain images tells us that it transcends these elements.
So what’s in a picture? Perhaps it might be better to first ask: what is a picture?
A picture, a photograph, is a key. It unlocks parts of our selves. It opens the door to our stories. Where it features a human face, it invites connection.
Digitisation has lent itself well to such connections, reducing the world to the short radius around our desk. The impact can be potentially devastating. It is hard to look away when you’re looking at a face similar to your own, the face of another human.
It is no wonder that social campaigns and art initiatives increasingly use user-submitted pictures to highlight issues.
Project Unbreakable, for instance, invites survivors of sexual abuse to send a photo of themselves holding a poster of the words that their abuser had said to them. The intent is to provide survivors an opportunity to overcome the power of such words. However, the resulting compilation of photos not only empowers individuals, it re-humanises an issue that is often taboo or undeservedly confined to feminist discussion or matters of law. The portraits remind that there are real people, real bodies behind the statistics.
The social media project, Faces of the Fallen, induces a similarly discomfiting response. Initiated by Middle East Voices (under the auspices of Voice of America), it seeks to transpose the numbers killed in the year-long uprisings in Syria into real persons, with names, individuals who are lost to their families, friends, and communities.
These and other such photographs open windows into experiences that are alien to us, even as they draw us into the spaces where people live or suffer. They also draw us into the spaces where people love. The technology may have changed, but nothing has shifted in what we take pictures of – we still try to fix in time the faces of those dear to us.
In the wider context of our human family, the intense familiarity of another person’s face evokes our fragility and connectedness. It challenges us not to look away.
What is in a picture? We are in the picture – humanity writ in pixels, our mortality underscored by the frozen moment.