27 December 2017, 5:58:49pm was the exact moment in time. The photograph was taken on the promenade at North Beach in Durban, with a phone camera. One of the billions of images captured on smartphones every day, around the world. The phone itself was an Apple iPhone SE.
I was with my children at the time and they were eating ice cream. I was wearing slip-slops and dirty shorts. About an hour later, we were seated at the Britannia Hotel in Umgeni Road. I edited the image while waiting for a bunny chow. “Colour, or black and white?” I asked my kids. We all agreed that black and white was best. I brought the brightness down a little, increased the contrast and then uploaded it to my Instagram account with the words “Beach Scene. Durban” and a few inane hashtags. I like the picture.
What does this image mean? It does not exist in a tangible form. It has not been printed and I have only seen this image on a screen. I once attended a talk on digital photography at which a speaker argued emotively that an image does not actually exist unless it was shot on film. He said that a digital image is not a real image. Film is an object, he said, you can touch it, you can hold it. It occupies space and therefore is “real”.
The only space this particular image occupies is about one megabyte of digital memory and a small slice of cyberspace. It is “a series of numbers 1 and 0, to show that a signal is present or absent”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of “digital”.
Some might proclaim that this image is less important because it was shot on a smartphone and not a Canon or Nikon Digital SLR, or even an old 35mm film camera, perhaps a Pentax K1000 (my first baby) or a vintage Hasselblad 6×6. I can see why they might say that. They might have a point.
Moment in time
Is this a political image? The Durban beach is a political place, all South African beaches are. They have been since colonial ships started to dock there. Since people with black skins were banned by law from spending time there. Since Penny Sparrow and until the next racist decides to pronounce something hateful on social media. Therefore, it follows that the photograph could be political.
Is it an artistic image? Many photographs are considered works of art and many photographers, artists. This photograph could be a visual statement about society, politics, privilege, hegemony or spaces. If it is art, then what was my intention?
Did my presence influence the content of the image? Does the image reinforce a stereotype or a racist trope? Or a deconstruction of those tropes, perhaps? Is the image a product of my white, male gaze? I think I could write about 620 words on why it should be seen as art.
To the person who sees this image, it could be everything or nothing. Hell, some people will like it and some people will think it’s kak. Some people will like it only because they think other people like it. That’s photography.
For me, the photographer, it is merely a moment that has now passed. A holiday memory, a joyful moment. The photograph gives me a chance to contemplate my own life. Things have happened. The seagull is long gone. So are the considerate people who arranged themselves so serendipitously for me. I wonder what has happened in their lives in the two years that have passed.
My memory of the moment remains, supported by the writing down of these words. And a picture, just a picture, made by pixels, sensors and me.