“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) vulnerability, mortality, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” — Susan Sontag“
Darling, do we have to sleep with Susan every night?,” he asked, pulling Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks from underneath his back.
“She pokes me!” Well, she pokes me too. We seem to seek the jarring comfort of particular writers’ words at different epochs and this is the Susan era. Actually, it is always the Susan era, the Joan days, the Mary mornings.
Even though I am currently absorbed in Sontag’s diaries, only to realize she was a more complex, eloquent 16-year-old than I could have ever aspired to be, I was first acquainted with her during a course on authoritarian cinema as an undergraduate. I do not remember the text, I cannot provide you with a reference, but I remember what the page that contained the excerpt I am recalling looked like. Her passage spoke to our need to order and make sense of the world, like librarians of life: to classify, and through sequencing or organized mayhem, to reflect.
Unlike librarians, however, our options for arranging a life narrative are less tidy. We cannot alphabetize our experiences. We cannot line them up by height. Color resonates more: My golden-beige Cairo, my rosy-hued Jerusalem. Terracotta Guatemala, Greece in green and blue. For some, the more unusual units of measurement struck a chord: J. Alfred Prufrock “measured out his life in coffee spoons.”
For me, 2012 was going to be the year I would be Measuring Life in Photographs. The premise was simple: I was going to take (at least) one photo every day, and then select one to share on the site. I was committed to capturing the flow of life, to freezing days in time before I could stuff them into motifs or seat them at a pre-assigned table.
At 16 moments in time this year, I felt compelled to photograph my desk, and whatever was occupying it. Unless one lives in a Pinterest board, her curiosity is not triggered by the immaculate and dust-free surface; she is drawn, instead, to the papers and notes and ideas piled messily on top of each other, waiting to be sorted.
On 7 other instances, I photographed words on walls. Thessaloniki, Hebron, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Khartoum (that last one, furtively). My collarbones make an unexpected number of appearances. See: April.
And then there were the shoes.
Deliberate as the portraits of shoes may seem, they sprang from a curious need. A week into committing myself to the one-photo-a-day project, work brought me to a country where photography was prohibited without a government permit, of the type that is not typically granted to human beings with “rule of law” and “mass atrocities” in the resume the government requested. The only photos I could, therefore, take in order to not let a nascent project crash and burn were from a camera phone while “texting.” Little blue flats were the only story I could tell. Then, they became a ‘thing’, gained momentum of their own. They became a filter that was applied to future experiences: blue flats in the Jerusalem spring, the Vermont fall. Their pink siblings in Boston, in Caesarea by the sea.
What was intended to be a spontaneous endeavor was constrained by memory. The early patterns that emerged — my affinity for anything reflected in a puddle or surface of water, my determination to never ignore hearts etched into unlikely places — made it impossible to see these themes emerge on later travels, later projects, later wanders and not want to point a camera to them. This made the project no less sincere, but certainly less spontaneous.Measuring Life in Photographs was an exercise in mindful presence — only to learn to let myself fail at it. In August 2011, Beth Nicholls asked me: “How differently do you see life through the lens of a camera? I had said then:
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton discusses the process of drawing while traveling. He remarks that drawing enables the traveler to see: to squint, to scrutinize, to look in a way that transcends the fleeting glimpse. Photography plays a similarly enabling role in my own life, even though it is more instantaneous than the process of drawing. I look through the viewfinder searching for beauty… or for surprise, incongruence, contradiction, conflict. The camera reminds me to look — to really look.
Revisiting those words in April, I said: “I embarked on a project to photograph life every day in 2012 as an attempt to do exactly that: to look closer, to squint, to be surprised. To find wonder.”
Wonder I found plenty; presence eluded me. On some days, I did manage to sit with the discomfort. Out of blissfulness or restlessness, I embraced the imperfect moments and imperfect photographs.
On May 8th, I subjected you to our Jerusalem mattress cover, free of its sheets. It felt compelled to share all the different ways one can cook meat. We slept there for short of a year, and it had to be shared.February 11th: Weary eye, black circles. Typhoid. There for posterity.September 27th: Unimaginative photo of my porch. It was our first porch in, well, forever. That, and the light that day, were enough.
I can tell you with confidence, there were more ugly days than “just” those. How do you photograph the anxiety for a visa that can enable you to pursue a dream? How do you photograph antsiness? How do you capture missing him, missing you? The complete hollowness of missing that colored whole weeks at a time? The kind of missing that would be embarrassed to be represented through Instagrammed food and puffy clouds on perfect hilltops?
Perhaps we are not meant to remember every day.
Not all of them are equally photogenic to our memory. The light has been more generous with some photographs, the mind has been partial to memories that stick to the heart. That is how one October walk through fallen leaves became the image of all of October. One Vermont weekend colored November. The same desk recurred in all of autumn, the same fruit crumble in all of Jerusalem. Those memories obliterated the rest. They fought them out for space in a camera, in life, and they won.
I may have failed at mindfulness, I may have let images taken on the same day stretch on for a whole month and set the narrative. Funny how the narrative that remains, the story I did tell, is still true. It still is measuring life — as I lived it, as I remember it — in photographs.