Back in June, in the final weeks of my dad’s life, I made myself a promise. I pledged to return to the Western Isles to pursue some walking, cycling and photography in the peaceful, majestic landscapes of the Hebrides. I envisaged deserted beaches, secluded bays and single track roads, and putting pen to paper in the evenings, perhaps in front of a roaring log fire with a steaming mug of hot chocolate or even a wee dram of whisky for company.
These plans didn’t materialise, but I did manage to take a holiday for the first time in six months. I packed my suitcase, boarded an aeroplane and waved goodbye to Scotland as my flight disappeared into clouds over Edinburgh. The following day, I touched down on China’s east coast in Shanghai, the world’s second most populous city, home to more than 24 million people with an area covering some 6,341 sq km (2,448 sq miles). To put this into context for my fellow Scots, this is nearly five times the population of Scotland in a vast city covering an area comparable to Aberdeenshire, albeit with a somewhat faster pace of life.
On this, my third trip to China to visit my brother, I wasn’t only struck by the bright lights, busy streets and awesome architecture; I was also stunned by the overwhelming dependence on mobile phones. As I experienced my own enforced digital detox, unable to access certain Western search engines and websites, and blocked from logging into my social media accounts, it seemed that everyone around me, walking the streets, taking the subway, or even riding mopeds, had mobile phones welded to their hands.
Over the last year or so, I’ve made a conscious effort to detach myself from social media and the news. Whilst running a business in the twenty-first century requires me to have a strong online presence, I’ve learned to set some boundaries. Nowadays, my phone spends much of its time on silent mode, upside down on my desk, allowing me to work without interruptions. I try not to bring my phone to the dinner table, even if I’m dining alone. I’m adamant that I won’t check emails once I’ve finished work for the evening and I’ve learned not to look at social media at bedtime, to avoid the risk of seeing a post which might trigger unwanted thoughts and emotions when my mind should be winding down for sleep. The news has become a source of irritation too, with the endless stream of negative reporting, in-fighting amongst political parties, and the environment falling to the bottom of the agenda as usual.
It was therefore something of a fluke that I stumbled across the news article and social media campaign that inspired this post. Whilst having breakfast with my mum last month, we switched on the news and were soon fighting back tears and lumps in our throats. In a welcome break from British and American politics, the presenters interviewed Professor Green about his latest single, ‘Photographs’. I’ll hold my hands up and confess that I have no idea who this guy is. I’m still playing CDs and listening to the Beatles and Beethoven. Rap music, digital downloads and streaming aren’t on my radar! Nevertheless, the sentiment behind this new release struck a chord with me, both as a photographer and as someone who has recently lost their dad a couple of decades ahead of schedule.
Professor Green lost his father in completely different circumstances but his lyrics, ‘I wish that I took more photographs of us’, ‘if only time was something that money could buy’ and ‘we all thought we’d live forever’, spoke to me deeply. At times, grief can feel like an isolating experience, perhaps with our nearest and dearest at different stages in the process, or with friends not appreciating the depth of the emotions involved. Social media can be a lonely place too, with virtual friendships lacking the meaning of relationships formed in the real world; with commuters on Shanghai’s subway standing side by side in silence, eyes glued to their devices; and with troubled minds gaining little solace from witnessing the edited highlights of other people’s lives. However, Professor Green’s campaign, #WishITookMorePhotographsOfUs, united social media users across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with bereaved fans keen to share their own family photographs and moving tributes to lost loved ones.
As my current hard drive warns me that it’s rapidly approaching capacity, and as my book cases groan under the weight of family albums, I know that I’m fortunate to have no regrets about a lack of photographs of me and my dad. I’ve you’ve read some of my older posts, you’ll know that my childhood and teenage years were filled with idyllic day trips and caravan holidays across the length and breadth of Scotland. I remained close to my parents after I left home and it was rare for more than a few weeks to go by without spending quality time together. We filled many of our days with walks and picnics, many of which were captured on camera, leaving me with a precious legacy to treasure for the rest of my life.
Admittedly, I wish I had more photographs of the ‘everyday’ events – keeping my dad company on trips to the hardware store; washing the car together; playing cards; and drinking cups of coffee in my parents’ living room – and I’ll forever mourn the loss of the memories that we won’t make together in years to come. Bereavement has taught me the true value of photographs. I can conjure up my dad in the blink of an eye, but nothing brings the past to life more than our family photographs and camcorder footage, and I can’t help but smile and feel comforted by these memories.
I switched from film to digital in 2005 and, due to the sheer volume of additional photographs captured on digital compared to film, I quickly fell into the trap of neglecting to print my images. I miss the joy of receiving my prints back from the lab and the pleasure of meticulously labelling and filing them in albums. There is talk of the twenty-first century becoming a ‘Second Dark Ages’, with fewer than 1 in 100,000 images destined to be printed and with so much digital data set to become inaccessible in future. The most photographed generation since the advent of photography may be left with few memories to cherish in years to come.
I’m looking forward to having some ‘downtime’ over the coming months after a busy season with work and having been through the wringer emotionally. I won’t be watching any talent or reality shows on TV this winter or endlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. I’m planning to continue a much-loved project I began a few years ago; digitising my old prints and, simultaneously, printing digital images. My goal is to be able to share more pre-digital images online (using social media sparingly, of course!) and to create physical copies of my more recent photographs in the hope that these, along with my hand-written journals, will stand the test of time.
I may have missed out on a healing Hebridean holiday but I’ll treat myself to that steaming mug of hot chocolate or wee dram of whisky right here in my study, surrounded by photographs from Scotland and China, and find warmth and comfort in the memories of the halcyon days of my family and in the promise of happy times to come.