Yesterday I went to a funeral, at the end of which we were invited to visit a slide show playing off to the side of the church. You’ve seen these before. They play at milestone events like weddings, 50th+ birthday celebrations and in their saddest iteration, funerals. It made me think about what those pictures really mean.
Why do we like to look at pictures? Why do we care?
Usually these slide shows are put together by someone close to the person, or for a wedding, the couple being married. They are often preceded by an email call out to friends and family asking if they’ve got any photos of the beloved(s) they can share. The end result is always a mishmash of photos taken over a span of years, with varying – usually fairly amateurish – photo quality. Overexposure, odd crops, off-colour and poor lighting are commonplace – and it doesn’t matter at all. You can almost always feel the full emotional impact of the image regardless of quality. In some case, too much quality actually diminishes the emotional power of the images. We expect professional looking photography when we see an ad or hire a portrait photographer to shoot the family portrait, but we mistrust it in the context of the real, old-fashioned slide show of your life.
For a wedding, the typical formula is a series of baby images and fun kid shots of both the bride and groom, as they are growing up. Family vacation photos feature prominently. Usually around mid-way through, the couple meets and there are a smattering of images of the two together leading up to the present moment. There tends to be more text and jokey captions on the wedding reel and the end is always celebratory, a kind of big “To Be Continued” implied as the couple will presumably go on to fill out the rest of the slide show together as they live out their lives.
Birthday slide shows are looser, more jokey then the funerary genre but usually carrying an undertone of celebration and kind poking fun at the subject. Key images likely include at least one shot of the subject wearing a ridiculous hat, a few with Hawaiian shirts, and of course, as many as possible showing the subject making a fool of him or herself in various states of inebriation. This kind of slide show is there to fill in the time between speeches and dancing, or it loops while dinner is being served. It can be played with or without narration, depending on the setup in the party.
And finally, the end of life slide show. This one, of course, is the most emotionally riveting. There is something unbearably sad about looking at the smiling face of someone in full life who is now gone. And yet, I think these slide shows are also an important part of the grieving process and they help the bereaved to say goodbye properly. We want to hold on and the pictures we have of the people we love and have loved throughout our life help us to do it. Like slowly letting go of a hand, these final images are there to tell us that the person we loved, lived a full and happy life that we were a part of. These may be the photos that matter the most to anyone. The images you would run into a burning building to save. They matter to us because the person or the people in them matter to us. And while nothing replaces the living presence of another, a photo saturated with love and seared into memory by a deep emotional connection, matters. Not just to help us deal with the loss of our loved one, but also to push us back into living life.
Because, in the end, a picture is always and inevitably a revision of a lived event. What really matters, of course, is the living. Experiencing each moment as fully as you can. Being mindful that this moment now, is really all you can ever hope for and to feel it and sense it and be in it as fully as you can. So while the photos we collect of our family and friends are treasures, the moments we share with them matter much, much more.
So put away your phone, take a break from updating your status on Facebook, look up and see who you are with. Then go out and make a moment that you’ll want to keep for the slide show of your life.