On photos

"Tell me about your Instax," a friend asked me recently.

Last year, in a bout of optimism, I bought myself an instant camera.

Film has always felt like permanence to me, the same way anything written with ink and paper has always carried more weight. There’s something about translating your impressions into something solid, something you can touch — something that could outlast you, even, if handled with care.1Maybe, in some distant way, this is colored by my anxiety over access decay too. My mom was a photographer when she was younger, and that gave me years to appreciate how tangible images could be: the careful adjustment of dials; the heft of film canisters; the smell of developing chemicals; the distinct, rubbery thwap of a photo flapping in eager hands.

So, when it seemed like there might be opportunities to create memories worth saving again, the first thing in my cart was a film camera. (Instant film, as a concession to convenience and to my own lack of skill. It was the easiest to get and seemed the most forgiving to a beginner, haha.)

Maybe borders will open up in 2021, I thought (the fool). Maybe I can see the people I miss — and wouldn’t that be film-worthy?

It hasn’t quite turned out that way.

From a certain angle, my small, intermittent attempts at instant photography remain an exercise in optimism.

On sunny weekends, I take my camera to parks, to boardwalks and islands, to other people’s homes. The box on my bedside table fills with seemingly trivial snapshots. I sort through them and pick out the nicest ones when it’s time to send more letters home.

“Nicest” is doing a lot of work here. I’ve sealed envelopes containing photos that probably won’t make sense to most people. The pond at a nearby reservoir isn’t high art, nor is the McDonald’s from the park near my flat, but “nicest” in this sense has always been judged by how well each photo can convey the same message:

Here are the places that constitute my life now. Here are the spaces that I hope you can come to fill someday.

Maybe, if they can be less than unfamiliar to you, our worlds won’t feel as strange and distant.

What is drifting apart, after all, if not people receding into strangers who seem utterly unknowable?

From a different angle, of course, you could say that my camera punctures that optimism with each photograph. A shot captures a particular moment, and in these pandemic days, don’t most moments always somehow speak of absence and isolation?

Cheeky would-be philosophers would tell you that it depends on how you look at it. Lately I haven’t been able to bear to look at all. Constant rain and too much change have kept my camera shelved. In the meantime, I send other things: cards, stickers, ink and paper. Different attempts to achieve the same imagined permanence, if only for a while.