I arrived early for a local musical production. Cameras were flashing all around. It took a minute to realize what was happening. People were taking pictures of themselves as they waited in the audience.
Is this what you call mesies, or yousies, or is it ussies? No, selfies! That’s it. Fascinating. I never realized being in the audience was picture worthy.
Since then, I have become aware of this picture-taking phenomenon. Everywhere people are taking pictures — pictures of their purchases, the food they eat, who they’re with, where they are, what they’re doing minute-by-minute. Everyone in the group has a camera taking pictures at the same time. They are even snapping pictures of each other taking pictures.
Will these pictures ever be viewed again? Are they an attempt to document life or validate it? Are they meant to record the significance of the event or give significance to the lives of those in them, as well as those taking them? Are the pictures capturing a moment in time or is the moment being missed, because the people are too busy taking the picture? If a picture’s worth a thousand words, are thousands of pictures really worth that much more?
My family had one camera. My father sent my mother a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye during the Korean War, so she could have someone take pictures of her to include in letters to him — a “selfie” of sorts.
The Brownie facilitated their courtship, documented their marriage, and recorded the arrival of each of their three daughters. It chronicled developmental milestones and noteworthy events. The significance of these occasions was highlighted by the retrieval of the Brownie from its lofty perch on their closet shelf.
A favorite childhood pastime was looking through our photos while my parents reminisced. Their carefully maintained picture collection introduced me to people who died before I was born and allowed a glimpse into the lives my parents led before having children. I came to know myself through a series of photo-inspired memories of things I did before I even realized I was a person. The Brownie provided illustrations for the stories of our lives.
The Brownie was a nifty, Bakelite, four-inch cube with a lens centered in the front. Holding the camera steady at waist height with the light behind you, you framed the subjects — who were perfectly still — with the view finder, and then pressed a gray button.
You turned a knob near the bottom to advance the film.
he flash attachment looked like a miniature, silver, satellite dish on an arm. You fastened the arm to the camera and screwed in the bulb.
With a Brownie, you had to be the one who was “smart,” because it wasn’t.
While lacking technological savvy, the Brownie supported valuable life lessons. Holding perfectly still and waiting while being brought into focus helped develop patience.
Its rare appearances made it possible to discern what constituted a special occasion. Waiting to reach the end of a roll of film and then waiting weeks for the pictures to be developed required delayed gratification. Blurry or double-exposed results provided practice in dealing with disappointment.
Sharing pictures with a limited audience differentiated private from public. Earning the privilege of fetching the Brownie and permission to actually use it created rites of passage. Learning how to use and maintain it encouraged responsibility and self discipline.
Whether intentionally or accidentally, that dandy little camera facilitated the process of developing my character.
Now, discarding my smartphone and pledging to never take another picture would be foolish. Declaring that modern technology makes it impossible to teach patience, responsibility, self discipline, discernment, how to delay gratification, how to deal with disappointment, and how to distinguish between what’s private and public would be equally absurd.
However, I would submit that instilling these lessons is more challenging in a cultural climate characterized by immediate results.
When the prevailing message is that whatever you want should be instantaneously received, it’s hard to counter with the notion that most things worth having are not.
The advent of “smart” technology has prompted me to become a “smarter” parent. When modern cultural trappings fail to affirm desirable personal qualities, it’s necessary to actively seek, even create opportunities for them to be experienced, practiced, and hopefully embraced.
I am surrounded by accoutrements promising to reduce the amount of work, thinking, and even remembering that I have to do. I cannot control the presence of these items in the world, but I can certainly control the role they are allowed to play in my life. I control the power button, not vice versa.
The Brownie sits on a shelf in my parents’ house, empty and long retired.
Unlike its successors, it has no memory. But it sure did enhance mine. It’s a reminder that it’s impossible to capture a moment in time for storage on a cloud with the hopes of actually living it later.
The Brownie was merely a tool used to commemorate moments of our lives.
It was up to us to live them to their fullest.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman lives in Lexington, Kentucky. To contact her, please e-mail paren