THERE was a time, not too long past, when photography was a relatively expensive hobby, especially here in Pakistan.
Cameras themselves, the better ones that were worth it, were rather expensive acquisitions. And given that photographic film was worldwide made by a handful of companies such as Kodak or Fujifilm, the rupee didn’t stretch to buying as much as many people would have liked.
Despite that, most homes in urban areas in particular had a virtually obligatory wall of photographs which showcased the growth of the family. Next to the now-fading framed print of Ammi and Abba on their wedding day, looking oddly stiff and ridiculously young, there would be a line in chronological order: baby’s arrival into the world, his first birthday, in a school uniform, now with a sibling, now a teenager, and so on.
The spill would be pasted away carefully in family photograph albums; many people maintained these photographic records of their lives and loved ones over successive generations — from great-grandfather in his Second World War army uniform to a descendant off to university in yellow flares and sunglasses or with punk hair.
Reflected in these photographs were changing seasons and fashions; the steady march of time and the passing on of the baton from generation to generation. It can be argued that these records were part of what gave people a context within which to place themselves, recognition perhaps of where they came from and the fact that while individual faces and names die away, humanity is a continuum.
That tradition, I feel, has been upset by the digital age. In most homes I go to now, the photographic record ends around the middle of the last decade or so, around the time when the digital age kicked in here in Pakistan.
I would imagine that in terms of sheer volume, here and elsewhere, more photographs are probably being taken now than ever before. Digital cameras have de-linked photography from the expense of buying film and having it developed, and a camera is an essential part of even older model cellphones.
Perhaps never before has humanity and its abode been as extensively documented and made public as now, what with Facebook and Flickr and YouTube and a host of other ways to share every moment, as it happens even, with previously unimaginable numbers of people.
There are obviously massive benefits and conveniences in this, which is why so many people around the world are hooked. Staying in touch with people around the world has never been as simple, as immediate, as now. Skype has broken relationship barriers at multiple levels. The Internet has helped out significantly with protests and revolutions, and been the first to break world-changing news.
But there are cons as well. One of the casualties, for example, is that wall of photographs in our homes, reminding us constantly of pleasurable moments past. We take photographs with our cellphones and cameras and tablets, and transmit them back and forth electronically between computers, laptops and the web. They get uploaded for everyone to momentarily see and to comment on — and then, they’re history, a file in the digital memory.
It’s just as simple to burn them on a disc and take them for printing, or even print them at home, but few people ever get round to actually achieving that. Social networking sites update moment to moment, you’ve taken another lovely picture of the sun filtering through rain-drenched branches that absolutely has to be shared, and you move on.
On your hard drive or in your phone memory all those moments will stay, being very occasionally revisited until the hardware dies (unless, of course, you’ve got backup on cloud storage).
It seems to me that the speed at which the digital world operates also means that everything in it is rendered all the more transient. Which is rather anomalous if you think about it, because by contrast many of the phenomena of the digital age, the Internet, for example, lend indefinite life, usually in true-to-life detail.
Could it be described as more chatter, less melody? When you have a hundred moments a day between which to divide your attention, the significant is much more likely to get lost in the white noise.
But this is not a lament for a romanticised idea of the world as it used to be, a plea for the days of old to be restored. The world has seen many game-changing events, technologies and inventions and every time there have been suspicious-of-change naysayers that have gloomily predicted about it being the end of the world as people know it. When calculators started being widely used by students, there were those that predicted that future generations would become over-reliant and lose the ability to do mental calculations. Film was supposed to kill off theatre and in turn be wiped out by television.
In a way, it could even be said that those sceptics were right. Generally, for example, educators tend to rue that, unless they are particularly inclined that way, children don’t seem to have the same mathematical prowess that their grandfathers had (though one could counter that by pointing out that schooled-unschooled ratios now, in most countries, are better than half a century ago).
But the thing about game-changing developments is, the world does change — and moves over to make room for the new. Time saved by not having to do the sums tends to get spent more profitably elsewhere — write computer programmes, perhaps? Instant messaging and file-sharing is changing the way people interact, but that doesn’t mean it’s to the detriment.
In fact, it’s not a situation that can be judged on the basis of good or bad; it simply is. If you have to live in the moment, many would argue, make that moment count.
The writer is a member of staff.