Susan Sontag once wrote this thing, “All photographs are memento mori“. She said that to take a photograph is to acknowledge “time’s relentless melt.” Relentless – what dread, what urgency, what resentment oozes from that word. So I can’t help but consider the opposite: That capturing an image of a person is not merely an acknowledgement of their inevitable death, but rather a commemoration of their having lived – and inspired you – right then and there. It’s a tribute to their existence. And we’re selective about to whom we pay tribute, aren’t we. Do we take pictures of every person we come across, even though we easily could more than ever before? No, we actually don’t. We choose when and who and why. Sontag says that taking a photograph is an act of aggression. I think it’s an act of reverence.
This is what happens when I look back on pictures of the dead: I, of course, consider their deadness for a second, but mostly I consider their pulse beating in that moment, or that they held their breath to smile for me. Or, if caught off-guard, I consider their gesture captured mid-action, their body, once moving, now frozen in time. That they were living beings then, and so forever will be, in this image. If it’s a moving image, the kind I normally shoot, then that’s all the better: They had a voice, this was their kind of body language, this is how their brains worked, and this is how much I wanted to capture all of that.
Why write this? Because when I’m at my luckiest I get to see people come to life for the camera, and these moments of transformation should not be taken lightly by those of us who do it. In these moments I know that the person feels they are being looked upon with love and respect, because that’s when they give it back. That’s when you get an incredible performance, a moment of honesty, or humour, or whatever surprising and authentic turn you couldn’t have even thought up in your wildest designs. Sometimes I tend to brush that feeling off as simply “a shoot gone well”, professionally speaking. But truthfully, and especially in the documentary realm, this is a really special switch to witness in somebody. And this is also when the exchange takes place: You gave this moment to me and, hopefully, I can give this feeling to you. You’re enough. And what you do is all that I need you to do. Nothing more.
My friend Chris once took a walk around Queen’s Park in Toronto with the film director Wim Wenders, who told him that when you capture somebody on camera you are bound to that person for life. Oftentimes that connection isn’t entirely up to us, of course, because we are just one half of the exchange. We can’t control what happens next. But does that moment, no matter how brief (1/1000 of a second in some cases), does it indeed create a current that permanently connects us, as Wenders says? Yeah, I’d like to think it does, so long as we care enough, and so long as our memory holds out.
And if our memories eventually fail us? Well, that’s what the images were for in the first place. You may only see one of us in the shots, but we were both there.