The Dan Ryan Expressway leads to Chicago from the north. From the top of a bridge that spans its 16 rows, five years ago I filmed the uninterrupted ribbon of cars entering or leaving this beautiful and heavy city, from which some of the tallest towers loom in the distance. These ten seconds of traffic are part of the 4,281 personal photos and small videos stored on my phone and personal computer to date. Is it reasonable to clutter a device’s memory with things like that? We need to make our equipment last as long as possible and to do this, among other things, save their storage capacity. But I find it hard to separate myself from these images. Who knows which one will be precious to me tomorrow?
Faced with this abundance, I sometimes regret the time of the rare and posed photo. The one we took the day a photographer was passing through the village. The father, standing in a dark suit, the mother, seated in her neatly ironed dress, a child beside her, dressed to the nines, another on her knees. Sometimes the grandmother dressed all in black was there too, straight as an i. To their great-grandchildren, they would leave this image of them and no other. It would suffice to express all the solemnity of their life, and all its modesty.
I thought for a long time that we had gone crazy with our snapshots taken on our phones, and that we had to go back to neat photography, to albums, to framing. But when, in this spirit, I wanted to offer a child in my family, for his 10th birthday, a real camera, the seller confirmed to me that it was not in the sense of the time. For an affordable price, he had only one model. Nowadays, either we were satisfied with the shots taken with the telephone that we always had in our pocket, or we moved on to sophisticated equipment, at great cost. The middle market no longer existed.
I continued to strafe at all costs. The little one is too cute, his hand in his cousin’s, in the metro? Hop, a photo. Several, even. Am I meeting a friend by chance at the entrance to an exhibition? Whoops, a selfie. Or three, to have the choice. Without even talking about posting them on social networks, which I almost never do, I send these photos to anyone who may be interested. The parents of the little one, those of his cousin, my husband, that of my girlfriend… I water, in short. They water me too! The photos I receive by WhatsApp automatically join my own collection, because I refuse to uncheck the box that would block this function. I sort a little, I erase, but so little. Everything becomes precious. There is no longer any hierarchy. It’s a miracle, after all, that in nineteen years of photos accumulating in my phone, I only have 4,281.
A film seen this week, The Asada Family, helped me put order if not in my photo library, at least in my scruples. It tells the story, largely true, of a Japanese photographer specializing in family photos, elaborate photos, carrying a message, event photos, in short. But the dramatic tsunami of 2011 occurs, and the man finds himself browsing the rubble of a destroyed city, without a specific goal. He didn’t take his camera, he’s not there to take pictures. His mind is occupied by the memory of a couple of inhabitants whose portrait he had composed. He thinks of them. Spontaneously, just because he can’t leave them there, he starts collecting every photo – thousands! that he finds buried in these piles of muddy ruins. With two strangers he met on the spot, day after day, he cleaned them, dried them and then displayed them, in the hope that the survivors who had come to recover what they could, often uncertain or unfortunately fixed on the fate of their loved ones, would have the chance to find one or more images that will bear witness to the life that was.
I write these lines on Candlemas Day. As it does almost every day by the magic of a pre-installed function, my phone offers me a small selection of photos. Today are the ones I took that same day twelve years ago. I look at my very young children, smiling in front of their plate of pancakes, a few jars of jam, and Italian glasses that have since been broken. I soften, I send the photos to whom it may concern, I water. Our photos, our thousands of photos, circulate between us, immaterial and dense at the same time. More modest than solemn, they come to us by themselves, just as they are. They tell us that we love each other. Thanks to new technologies for no longer letting them be engulfed in mud.