A picture is worth . . .

Mar 23rd, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

“How much did they cost?”

It is startling to look at piles of packets of photographs and try to work out how much it had cost for the films and the developing and printing.  There must have been times when the photographic counter at the local chemist’s shop delighted in (or perhaps dreaded) our return from holidays.  Dozens and dozens of photographs, some of them exceedingly odd; such subjects as a supermarket trolley half buried in sand on a beach and a sign from the west of Ireland warning of uneven roads.

Apart from the years when the children were very young, when every moment seems to have been recorded, the most abundant photographic times were the ‘twink’ years – two incomes, no kids.  Sorting the piles into chronological order, there is the realisation that back in the early-80s, the pictorial record becomes very thin.  Perhaps there was not the propensity to snap everything in sight; more likely, films were too expensive to be used for anything other than selected, and often setpiece, pictures.  In a time when every moment is recorded by mobile phones or digital cameras, when thousands of images cost almost nothing, it is hard to imagine what it was like when pictures were not only worth a thousand words, but they probably cost more than a thousand words.

Some of the most intriguing photographs from ages past are not those of the great and the good, nor are they portraits of families dressed in their Sunday best, they are the pictures of the ordinary things of everyday life because such pictures are rare.  People would have thought it a waste of money to have photographs of street scenes or of workplaces; who would be interested in such pictures?  Photographers who recorded the ordinary things probably found very little market for their work; but decades later, it is such shots that bring to life whole periods of history.

Being camera shy, and being the sort of person who likes photographs of bollards and manhole covers, it never occurred to me until last year what a privilege it was to be able to have countless photographs of oneself.

It was in a small Rwandan village;  invisible to the outside world under a canopy of trees.  The intention of the visit had been to meet with families that had received assistance through a programme of giving farm animals to the poorest; the firstborn of such animals being passed on to another member of the community living in similar circumstances as a way to sustain the programme.

1st July 2009About to leave the community, a crowd had gathered.  “Give money”, shouted one child.

Turning round, I pulled the linings from both pockets to show I had no money with me.  What was in the right pocket was a camera.

“Take picture”, said the same child.  They surged forward to pose.

The picture taken.  They gathered to look at themselves in the camera.  To be recorded, to appear in a picture, was a matter of dignity.

Their picture remains as the wallpaper on my laptop; a daily reminder of the privilege in which I live, a privilege measured in thousands of photographs.

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  1. And a good picture it is too.
    I am also the sort of person who likes pictures of dilapidated doorways, strangers looking from distant windows, imaginative graffiti – but I have few in which I feature myself (unless it’s via an attempt to be clever with the reflection in a shop window.) But it’s not because I’m shy. It’s because I’m the lucky person carrying everything, including the camera.

  2. And now we have thousands of pictures on our hard-drives. One positive of the ubiquity of digital photography is that film (and film cameras) have become much more affordable. Just last week I bought 20 rolls of professional quality film for £20, at least one fifth of what they would have been worth a few years ago. I still find though that with taking film photographs I weigh up each shot with much more care, so per 36 shots there are a lot more ‘keepers’ with film than with digital.

  3. Any picture I take is a matter of sheer chance – I point the camera and press the button.

    I love Andy Sheridan’s stuff:


    and Pol O’Duibhir’s pics (when he updates them!)

  4. I enjoy your black and white stuff, Daniel. Is monochrome film still easy to get?

    I knew guys in the North who would shoot a whole roll of film for one shot; I used to envy them the money to be able to do so!

  5. Hi Ian, yes the film is available (though rarely over-the-counter). I have bought film from discountfilmsdirect.co.uk who are good but quite expensive and also from eBay where there are a few good bargains to be had. The problem is that getting the films developed is expensive if you can find anyone to do it. The best way is to develop them yourself which I promise you is not as hard as it may sound. Have a look at ilfordphoto.com if you are keen :~)

  6. Daniel, I fear that anything that demands manual dexterity or artistic skill or, as in the case of taking and developing one’s own photographs, both, is completely beyond me!

  7. Ian: This post, along with two others of yours have been an interesting commentary on photos and what legacy we leave behind. Normal, everyday, mundane fills in the gaps between history’s big events. But I’ll bet we wouldn’t hae to go very far to find local folks who don’t see themselves in photos very often because of economic status.

  8. Gram,

    I suppose the rich and the elegant like being photographed because they are rich and elegant. Ordinary people might not be so happy being photographed because they are ordinary!

    There was an incident in Paris in 1947 when Dior tried mixing the two worlds up. He launched his ‘New Look’ and tried having photographs taken at a street market in Rue Lepic . The women of the area were so angry at being faced with such wealth while they were so poor that they tore the dresses off the models.

  9. I cherish the ordinary old photos of my ordinary old relatives. Last year I received a photo of my great-grandmother (whom I never met) and she was stoop-setting at the front of the farmhouse – apron, babushka, and a weary look on her face. But . . . when I was raising Goodight’s mother, I lived in an apartment complex where there were people who couldn’t afford a loaf of bread, let alone a camera or some film. They would have loved to pose for a photo like the one you took of the Rwandan children. One of the consequences of poverty is the lack of documentation of . . . the ordinary.

  10. I agree with you, but I would never take a photograph of people in poor communities unless asked, or unless they were demonstrating something and it was courteous to be able to ask if a picture might be taken. I think some of the aid agencies are extraordinarily paternalistic in the images they take and use in the promotion of themselves. One of the things I admired about the British agency Christian Aid was their efforts always to use positive pictures.

  11. I concur. I wouldn’t take a photo without permission, either. In that apartment complex, I sometimes asked if the parents wold like me take photos for THEM to keep, not for me to keep or use.

  12. I love to photograph people but it’s very difficult to do so without intruding. As for personal photos, they’re all stuck in rarely viewed albums, perhaps I should think about converting them to digital, especially those of the children. I had a bit of a ‘gap’ in the early 80’s too because I tended to brandish a video camera. Now I have the magical Digital SLR and can take thousands, store them on Flickr and I’m a happy camper. I love my camera. Not so much photos of myself. Did you ever send a print to your Rwandan friends? Oh and a great initiative too. I’ve heard of programmes like this, very worthwhile.

  13. Trying to send a print would have been impossible; there are no addresses in such places. However, I’m going back to the area at the end of April, to look at how stuff is going and maybe I’ll take some pics with me.

  14. Thanks for the compliment.

    On the price of film and processing: I used to get my films developed but not printed. That was much cheaper and if you opted for prints they would also print a lot of the ones that didn’t come out but you’d be charged by the print.

    So I have a huge collection of 35mm negatives which have never seen a sheet of photopaper.

    Now, with modern technology, I have scanned in some of these but I really must get down to going back through them all.



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