A photo captures a moment in time. Unless we take the photo ourselves, we cannot know what happened before the shutter went down, or afterwards. The moment the photo captures, is all we can know, as the viewer. So we can be taken in. A deeply dysfunctional family can come together for a snapshot and look like the winners of the Family Of The Year competition! Babies and small children are blackmailed with sweets and unpleasant promises to keep them still and smiley. Husbands hide sulky faces and long-suffering, unhappy wives show toothy expressions that are easily mistaken for grins when they are grimaces.
We know fashion photographs are fantasy. But ordinary family snaps can be, too. Why? Because we need to record happiness, even if it’s not really there. We have to say to the outside world that we conform, we play the game, WE ARE HAPPY!
I have been looking at a friend’s old family photos. She told me to look at them with a new eye. I know that one of her ancestors was desperately unhappy in her marriage, yet the charming picture of this woman, surrounded by her children, with her husband standing behind in the patriarchal stance of all fathers at the turn of the last century, shows the dreaded ‘happiness’. But there is something; a glint in her eyes, the position of the children’s heads, the way the husbands has a repressive hand on his wife’s shoulder…? If you look closer, there is another story. I would not have seen it, had my friend not told me the truth about this family. My friend explained that before the photo was taken, the husband had probably given his wife a good beating – that is apparently, what he used to do. You could even see the bruise around her left eye, if you looked very carefully, she said. The photo was in black and white, but by using a magnifying glass, I could just see a darkened area around her eye.
Photos can also exude a great deal of love. All the pictures I took of my babies after they were born are of this nature. Wedding photos of the bride and groom gazing at each other can also be full of love. But so many other photos are a sham. Just look at pictures of Judy Garland the week before she was found dead in her lavatory. All teeth and smiles… Not a care in the world. A wealthy, famous woman who appeared so happy. And Michael Jackson‘s last shots? Could anyone have imagined what was really happening in his life from those photos?
The Mona Lisa smiles enigmatically at us. But no one knows what was happening before Da Vinci picked up his brush – or after he put it down. We can only speculate. But look in her eyes, not at the smile. The answer is there, I’m sure. That woman knows something that no one else knows, not even the artist. So the next time you look at a picture of people who’s lives you know nothing about, look a little more carefully. Like life itself, there is always so much more to discover in what appears at first glance, ordinary.