In my composition classes, I teach a section on photographs. We look at the different ways photographs convey meaning as well as composition. One of the topics is the intent of the photographer. Why did they frame the photo that way? Why did they choose that subject? What are they trying to reveal to you? I explain this isn’t just true of professional photographers, but true in all the snaps of food and duck-lipped selfies people upload by the billions to social media everyday.
As an example, I use myself. Although, I didn’t realize it until retrospect, I had been sending messages into the world – friends, family, strangers browsing the internet – saying all was well, even though I felt like things were imploding. I’d become a single-father to two girls, eleven and thirteen and struggled at every imaginable level. My instinct was to take them places. And I ended up sharing photos of the three of us in Pismo Beach camping, at the La Brea Tar Pits, at the Getty Center, us snorkeling, us making dinner, us exploring the desert, us at the zoo, us at the ballet, us at an amusement park, us at a Dodger’s game, us at anyplace that looked like we were having fun and experiencing a good time. It was me saying to the world, all is well, no need to send child protective services… Okay, maybe not that drastic, but I wanted to show people we were okay. We were getting by and going to survive and survive not by the barest of margins, but with all the style we could muster. We were embracing the world. But importantly, in the words of The Who – The kids are alright.
I noticed this phenomena with friends who had found themselves single parents too, so I knew I wasn’t an outlier. It made me realize, for all the bad social media has to offer – extremists, Qnuts, disinformation, conspiracy theories – that it helps people not just to let others now we are okay and doing fine, but act as conduit for the taker of these kinds of images. In the act of taking the photo and sharing it, we feel better, a little. It’s not what we are trying to reveal to others, but reveal to ourselves and communicate in this moment. We are doing the best we can and that’s all anyone ask of themselves. The grownups are also alright.