On photos

There’s a tiny little photography shop in Hove that I walk past most days – the kind of shop that has faded Kodak posters on the walls, and displays of mid-priced cameras in the window. The other day when I was walking past, I saw a teenage girl standing just outside, examining a set of passport photos she had had taken. She was leaning forward, and her long black wavy hair was shielding her face, as she looked down at the quadruplicate of pictures. I was struck by the nervous way she peered at herself, as if looking for something, some feeling, that this face belonged to the person she knew herself to be. Since everyone started to transfer over to digital cameras, there are inevitably less scenes like this outside photo developers – engrossed patrons flipping open the paper wallets of snaps in the doorway, oblivious to everything else momentarily, leafing through to see if there are any good ones, or to check out their double chins. I suppose seeing yourself from the outside is always interesting, and it’s not something you stop wondering about. We look at the bits of ourselves we can accept, and worry about the parts of reality we’d rather not know. The teenage girl looked like a language student, but she was on her own and seemed somehow vulnerable in that moment, all imperfections repeated four times over like an error in a document rolling through a photocopier. Be it a genetic or inherited slip, or an unpredictable arrangement of features, it only is and isn’t us after all; what we really are cannot be photographed, although character can certainly be transmitted through expression and gesture. But you can never be sure. Photographs are mysterious, fraught, and intriguing, all at once.

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