I've been writing and publishing essays on startup marketing for a few years now, only lately assembling it all in a newsletter.
Every time I’m ready to publish one of these, I look for pictures to put it up with. As most marketers know, there is a (rather lazy) template for such accompanying photographs: laptops (preferably MacBooks), tables with stationary artfully strewn around, a few good-looking people pointing and gesturing, whiteboards with intelligent-sounding nonsense on them, and so on. I usually choose one with the least distractions, and don’t think about it beyond that.
Sometimes during such banal searches, a picture suddenly comes up that stuns me. I stop and stare; I know this is special, I download it if I can. But it saddens me for a minute, this travesty: this is not the place this picture should be. Someone made this photograph, a piece of art evidently of some aesthetic value, and this is where it ends up, on a random stock photo site on the internet, for strangers like me to peddle ideas with.
That’s how it is with all art, you may argue. Who decides what has value, and what doesn’t, you may ask. And you will be right. There’s so much stuff out there in the world now, and there obviously isn’t that much time in our lives.
Or is there?
With the amount of pictures, and memes, and gifs we make and share, aren’t photographs, in whichever way we engage with them, the predominant idiom of our age? The smartphone’s democratisation of creation, access, and distribution means that it is easy to see, rather than hear or read, in these times of short attention spans.
In Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole’s wondrous collection of essays, he writes:
Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented. It does not have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more.
In a world where the future is uncertain and the past is subject to an incessant wrangling over its meaning, it is in the photograph that a generation is trying to hold on to whatever is visible to them. That is why Instagram is so important now, that's why it probably will remain important for a while.
Near the end of Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 movie Troy, Brad Pitt’s Achilles has something to say to Rose Byrne’s Briseis. It’s probably my favourite movie dialogue of all time, and I come back to it often:
I’ll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again
In the moments that we are able to capture, share, and go back to, we have paused the past, defeated it for a second, even. Who we are in that photograph is who we will always be.
We will never be here again.
Written in November 2019. Photograph taken by Karthik Pasupathy in Yercaud.