How Much Is a Picture Really Worth?

 How dare I ask such a question when as a child I had pored over the few black-and-white pictures my parents had brought from the “old country”? When these days everything, including food, is photographed and shared, and when scrapbooking has become a small cottage industry? When I likewise treasure every photo of our grandchildren? When I consider photography a much-valued art form and try to compose my own photos artistically? When no one seems to argue the truth of “a picture is worth a thousand words”?

Nevertheless . . .

            I’m troubled by what we do for a photo and what we lose in the process.

 When I was a student, working summers in Jasper, Alberta, I had my first taste of being a “local” in a tourist destination. Having spent spare hours hiking in the daytime and lingering on the lakeshore in the evening, I had learned to love where I lived, considered particular mountains my friends.

Then to see a tour bus pull up in the parking lot beside the most stupendous waterfalls in the country and watch tourists pile out to take pictures of one another in front of the sign, before getting back into the bus, was both amusing and horrifying. What would the picture-takers say when they showed their collection to hapless friends and family back home? They hadn’t gotten close enough to the falls to feel the spray, let alone climbed alongside and felt the thunder of the water on the rocks.

 Decades later, coming back to those beloved places with our grown-up children and watching tourists still posing in front of the falls, but now with a selfie stick that made cooperative fellow tourists unnecessary, I wondered what drives such compulsive picture-taking. What does one do with two or three hundred photos of oneself against a changing background?

During a recent tour in Russia and Ukraine, we visited Peterhof, arriving precisely at 11 o’clock in the morning when the music begins and 64 gilded fountains in front of the Grand Palace are turned on in a glorious choreography. Like all other tourists crowded on the bridge over the canal to get the best view, I was trying to take pictures. In frustration, I began taking pictures of the other tourists, all of them taking in one of Russia’s seven wonders through a digital lens.  

foreground is tourists holding cameras, taking pictures, and background is the palace in Peterhof, Russia.

When we entered the Grand Palace itself, we were told that photos and videos were strictly prohibited. As I slipped my camera back into my bag, I felt my disappointment change to relief. I owed no debt to the friends who would ask eagerly, “did you get lots of pictures?” I could forget about “capturing” the experience and simply be there, let myself be awed, watch the faces of my fellow travelers, listen to our guide, and absorb the beauty, without a thought for the morrow—knowing that I would remember. 

On the same tour, I observed fellow travelers ignoring the autonomy and privacy of local Russians and Ukrainians and surreptitiously taking photos of those who had refused to be photographed, just as they had also recorded singers who had forbidden all recordings. Who do we think we are that we can treat all experience as ours to hold and to keep for our own ends?

In 2011, back in Jasper again, our family witnessed the raising of the new Two Brothers Totem (the old Raven Totem having been returned to the Gwaai Hanaas  after nearly 100 years), in a solemn, sacred ceremony. The dense crowd, with all the upraised arms with cameras and phones, resembled a strange humanoid forest.

Author’s photo of raising totem pole in Jasper, AB

Then, just before the prayers began, the emcee made it clear that taking photos or videoing was now prohibited. Indeed, several Indigenous men were standing here and there on rocks or chairs to scan the crowd for compliance, a measure I assumed should have been unnecessary. I was wrong. Several people continued taking pictures, blandly ignoring instructions, even becoming annoyed when they were confronted, as if their rights had been denied.   

Suddenly, Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water came to mind. It’s a complicated novel, with humor, interwoven Indigenous myths, slyly hidden historical allusions, and a mischievous Coyote interfering in ordinary life. A dominant theme is the function of photography: the Blackfoot prohibit cameras and videos at Sun Dances, frustrating white tourists intent on getting pictures. King’s deft mockery exposes the essential act of possession that underlies our picture-taking, a strange greed that demands ownership, even of that which does not belong to us.

King also makes it clear that photos do not, contrary to arguments of would-be reporters, explain the Sun Dance to outsiders. Understanding is gained only by being there, staying with the people in their teepees, sharing their meals, joining the circle of watchers around the dancers in the center. No photo can ever offer the sounds, the smells, the feeling of the wind in the hair, the warmth of the sun on skin, the smiles in the eyes of new friends.  

Which raises another question for me about photography as automatic holiday record-keeping—even if we respect others in our picture-taking, what are we losing along the way?

Wendell Berry, in his poem “The Vacation,” depicts “a man who filmed his vacation.” As he flies down the river in his boat, video camera held to his eye, he’s “making / a moving picture of the moving river,” showing “his vacation to his camera.” Thanks to the video, the man has “preserved” his experience. It will always be there for him to look at “with a flick / of a switch.” There is, however, a problem: “he / would not be in it. He would never be in it.”

his camera 

preserving his vacation even as he was having it 

so that after he had had it he would still

have it. . . . .

[but] he would not be in it.

“The Vacation” by Wendell Berry

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, January 24, 2018