The other day while getting a haircut, the barber asked the dreaded question – what do you do? It’s an easy answer, but the inevitable follow up is deadly – What do you photograph? After my conversation-killing response – lot’s of stuff, it’s hard to explain – I slumped down in the barber chair into the quicksand of self-questioning.
The protagonist of Italo Calvino’s short story ‘The Adventures of a Photographer’ engages in a similar form of oppositional self-definition.
When spring comes, the city’s inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another…Seeing a good deal of his friends colleagues, Antonion Paraggi, a nonphotographer, sensed a growning isolation. Every week he discovered that the conversations of those who praise the sensitivity of a filter or discourse on the number of DINs were swelled by the voice of yet another to whom he had confided until yesterday, convinced that they were shared, his remarks about an activity that to him seemed so unexciting, so lacking in surprises.
Instead of just continuing to argue against the practice, Antonio experiments with a form of anti-photography. Whenever he’d see a family organizing itself for an impromptu portrait, Antonio offered to take the camera. But in each case he would “make the lens veer to capture the masts of ships or the spires of steeples, or to decapitate grandparents, uncles and aunts.” He insists that his reason for doing this isn’t mean-spirited, but philosophical.
“… Because once you’ve begun,” he would preach, “there is no reason why you should stop. The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow. If you take a picture of Pierluca because he’s building a sand castle, there is no reason not to take his picture while he’s crying because the castle has collapsed, and then while the nurse consoles him by helping him find a sea shell in the sand. The minute you start saying “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who think that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order to really live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.”
Antonio’s argument is as good as any for why I hadn’t joined Instagram. But as the title of Calvino’s story suggests, Antonio eventually does become a photographer. “His antiphotographic polemic could be fought only from within the black box,” writes Calvino. In a similar spirit, I eventually gave Instagram a try. Just like Antonio, I tried to make photos that were more about ideas than pretty pictures. But then, without irony or conceptual forethought, I felt compelled to post a cute picture of my cat. To make matters worse, this picture received more ‘likes’ than any other picture I’d posted. Just like Antonio, I fell into a philosophical tailspin.
What do you photograph?
The next time I’m asked this question, I’m just going to say my cat.