I got a rare opportunity this week. I got to take a picture of a family of strangers with their own camera.
Cory and I were out walking one afternoon, when we spotted a family ahead of us standing off to the side; a mother, father and young son, perhaps 10 or 11 years old. The mother and father awkwardly took turns trying to hold their digital camera out far enough to capture all three of them in the shot. (Also, props to these folks for using a digital camera.)
It’s 2016, and many Americans have perfected (the art of?) selfie-taking. The front-facing camera has opened a world of wonders to token Instagram girls who have resolved to go to any lengths for that perfect gym selfie or pensive-expression-by-the-window filtered selfie. But this family of three was kicking it old school. And I liked that.
I liked it because it hearkens to those days of old when our dads bore Canon cameras on a neck strap on our vacations, never certain how the photo would turn out until we got the roll of film developed from the photo department upon returning home. The coolest thing about old-school picture taking was the no-brainer concept of having someone else take a picture of you. I’ll get to why that’s cool in just a minute.
So that’s exactly what I offered this adorable family trying to find the best way to get that perfect photo for the mantel at home. As we passed by, I asked if they’d like me to take their picture for them. These people did not refuse me. Take note, selfie-obsessives; these strangers embraced my offer with smiles of relief. And after I snapped their photo (following the obligatory confusion and “This button here?” question), they looked at it on the digital screen and proclaimed the shot perfect.
I felt inclined to help this family for two reasons. One: the only other option for getting the best photo (read “with no one’s head cut off or too much sky”) is to take turns behind the camera, which means one family member will be left out of every picture. Two: I get to be part of their story.
By taking someone else’s photo, I live with the knowledge that a stranger hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away will look at the photo and remember that someone was nice enough to take it. They don’t have to remember my face, and I didn’t give them my name, but they will look at the photo and know that someone cared. Someone they will never meet again cared enough to stop and offer assistance that would result in a precious frozen memory for their family and their future generations.
As a kid, I have no memory of my family and me ever taking a selfie. Mainly because the word didn’t exist. Anytime we wanted our photo by a landmark or in front of a sign or by a waterfall or outside our hotel, we implored a passerby. True, some people couldn’t be bothered to take the time and curtly refused. But it’s those people who stopped, smiled and captured us all together in what would be 3×4 evidence of our fun that I remember most.
Now, I couldn’t tell you what they looked like or how many of them there were or whether they were men or women, but I can look at a picture and know a stranger took it. Truthfully, it adds a little bit of light-hearted mystery to the photo. I’ll always look at it and think, “Who took that?” Which will then lead me to think things like, “Where are they now? What do they do? What did they do right after they took this photo? Do they still remember taking some strangers’ family vacation photo? Did their children grow up to become famous?”
More than that, though, my thought process leads me to a more vivid memory of the day the photo was taken. As I ponder the mystery photographer, I instinctively try to remember other notable occurrences from that moment, that day or that family trip.
These days, it seems to be a much bigger deal to ask someone to take your picture. If you’re investing the time to ask a total stranger to hold your phone (which, let’s be honest, contains most of our lives, sometimes including some not-so-savory parts), you’re serious about the photo. You want your whole group in it. You want the skyline behind you. You want your entire body in the shot.
When you hand someone your phone or camera, you’re saying to them, “I trust you. I don’t know you, but I need you. Someone needs to capture this moment, because it’s a special moment to me. I chose you to fulfill that task.”
Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but isn’t that essentially what we mean?
By taking that family’s photo this past week, I felt something that’s hard to find in our iPhone-focused, social media-absorbed culture: a true connection. And all it took was one, two, three, click.