It is a perfect Sunday afternoon in autumn. The sun finally decides to grace the earth with its warm glow after days of bleak grey sky and biting wind. The shedding trees have been giving the sanitary crew a hard time, but in the comforting nook of one’s own backyard, their rich foliage has weaved a nice soft blanket promising intimate contact with nature. Taking in this inviting view outside, granny resolves that she wants to have something with which to commemorate this all-too-rare family gathering. She orders her son to dust off the old family camera, and her daughter and daughter-in-law to round up the young’uns to gather in the backyard for a family photo.
This description sets up the music video of the band Mutual Benefit’s haunting and melancholic song “Advanced Falconry”. If you were to read only these words without watching the video, you could still easily form in your mind what the finished picture would look like: a lady surrounded by her children and grandchildren, all smiling, carefree. And you are right. This is exactly what we get by the end of the video. Yet what makes this video extraordinary is all that transpired before the photo is taken.
Once in front of the camera, the grown-ups begin to make sure they look good for the photo, pulling back stray hair, straightening collars – necessary gestures to maintain an appropriate exterior. As a counter point, the children, not yet fallen prey to notions of propriety, start to act out. The mask of civility and domestic bliss is torn apart instantly. Suppressed emotions erupt into glorious manifestations: hysterical screams, bitter tears, jaded eye-rolls and generous releases of passive aggressiveness. Make-believe is over. Claws are out. The only ones unfazed by all the psychological discharge are the one who has seen the most life, and the one who has seen the least. By the end of the video, and right before the click of the camera, all seem to be back to ‘normal’, all smiling, carefree. But are they really?
The reason why this video is brilliant and poignant to me is that by presenting this short vignette of life in slow motion, time seems to be prolonged, and the small graces and disgraces of humanity are put under microscopic gaze. By disclosing the scene behind the scene, the video also lays bare the insufficiency and paradoxes of photography: what is left out is more than what is kept in; the presence of the photo evinces the absence of the original referent and context; its present-ness accentuates its past-ness.
The first time I watched this video, I was immediately reminded of a line from the TV series Six Feet Under. In its series finale (SPOILERS), the daughter of the Fisher family, Claire, is leaving for New York to pursue a career as an artist. Before she leaves, she gathers her family in front of the family house to take a photo as memento. Just as she is about to take the shot, someone whispers in her ear: “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.” I was not sure of its meaning when I first heard it, but I think what Susan Sontag wrote in her collection of essays On Photography comes the closest to an explanation: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Photographs are powerful artifacts, especially in this image-obsessed society where our ontology seems to hinge on the constant (re)creation of selves, and the exchanging of sliced out and packaged life moments. But their promise of permanence is sometimes out of sync with our lived authenticity.
On a recent vacation, I chanced upon the most sublime sunset I have ever seen. Like all my fellow admirers at the scene, I started to take photos obsessively, trying to capture the sunset in all its glory. I fussed over the settings on my camera, testing out different compositions of the shot, and blamed myself for being too cheap to put down the dough for a better camera. Then suddenly, I realized I was so concerned with taking the best picture to share that I was not really there. I stopped short, put away my camera and cellphone, and just stood there, taking in the view, breathing in the air in big gulps, letting the totality of this natural sublimity wash over me. And it was divine. I was only able to really feel the abundance of it all because I allowed myself to be fully present in that moment without worrying about how to preserve it. If all a photo can possess is the static past, the inscription of the unrepeatable lived experience in our memory takes on a timeless quality. It is in the mind, in its countless replays, that the past gains new life, becomes yours, becomes you.
Holden Liang Qichao is a PhD student at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all pieces by Holden.]