Those of us who can claim a certain vintage may still remember our family photo albums. For some, printed photographs were fixed inside an album or scrapbook with "sticky corners"; small, paper triangles that could grip the corners of a photograph. Wonderful in theory, fiddly and largely ineffective in practice. No matter how carefully we placed those sticky corners around the prints, they always seemed to work their way loose.
More successful were the albums with pages covered in a sheet of clear, sticky plastic, beneath which we would carefully position the photos from family holidays and birthday parties. The covers of those albums, probably purchased in the local Woolworths, always seemed to have some sickly-sweet image of a couple walking hand-in-hand through a misty meadow or a gypsy caravan beside a field of sunflowers, reminiscent of that famous advert for Cadbury's Flake chocolate.
Regardless of whether you used sticky corners, Woolworths photo albums or an old shoe box, printed photographs had a value that I don't believe digital files will ever match. The printed photos told the stories of our lives, they encapsulated our childhood memories and documented the passing of time. We might claim that digital photographs do much the same thing but those printed pictures required an investment of time and money that gave them inherent value. Looking at the family albums was actually an event. We would gather round, all attention focussed on the turning pages, pointing out the same gurning expressions that we'd laughed at many times before. It was an experience I never grew tired of.
Now we can make beautiful images with hand-held devices that also make telephone calls. It's really something of a miracle when you think about the changes we've seen in the last 30 years.
I'm all for the democratisation of photography. I love the immediacy of digital and the convenience that it provides. I'm not so ancient that I'm yet given to talking about "the good old days" with a shake of the head and a sad sigh. Nearly but not quite.
But I do wonder if the value of a single photograph has diminished in the digital age. Perhaps, to be truly cherished, a photograph has to be tangible. We need to be able to hold it in our hands and pass it to our friends, from one hand to another. Swiping an iPhone screen just doesn't seem to be quite as substantial. Convenient, yes, but it's one step removed from our physical selves and lacks that tangible quality.
For several years, I've carried a Fujifilm Instax camera on most of my assignments. (Full disclosure: I am not sponsored by Fujifilm and am in no way associated with them - I just like the Instax cameras). I've recently upgraded from a Instax Mini 50S to a Mini 90 but both do pretty much the same job. Each can carry a cartridge containing ten prints. A pack costs about $5, so each print is about 50¢.
Whilst a print costs 50¢ to make, it's fair to say that the value to the recipient often seems to be priceless.
I've recently returned from an assignment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India where I've been photographing in schools and orphanages. For reasons that still escape me but which nevertheless delight me, the kids are always super excited when we arrive. I like to think it's my magnetic personality but I know it's much more accurate to say that it's my cameras which they find appealing.
The kids love to be in the photographs. Taking a photo of just one or two children can be virtually impossible because their friends will sneak into the back of the shot, appear from beneath desks or just leap up in front of the camera. Nobody waits for an invitation. Fortunately, I work with wonderful clients who have become expert at crowd control.
Occasionally, when time permits, I'll shoot a quick video and turn the camera around so the children can watch the movie. I'm sure that if I was able to magically levitate in the centre of the classroom or produce a rabbit from a hat, I could not conjure any more excitement than my camera LCD screen can create.
If you'd like to see the video they watched, you're in for a treat. You might not think that a small, dark, one-room school in a slum neighbourhood in Bangladesh would be a place where you'd find a lot of joy but you'd be mistaken, as these two girls demonstrate.
I've written before about the strange vocabulary photographers use. We "take" photographs. We "grab" a picture or "capture" a frame. It's accurate language, I suppose, but I've never felt fully comfortable with photography being a one-sided transaction.
When the work part of the assignment is done, I'll often hand my cameras over to the kids, which produces some fascinating results. They invariably appreciate the trust and confidence they feel has been placed in them and immediately launch into full creative mode, posing for each other and taking turns at directing the action.
My new best friend, the schoolgirl and wonderfully enthusiastic Yasmine Kaddour took this photograph of her schoolfriend below. Not only is it a fine portrait, it may also be one of the first photographs taken of a young lady who seems destined to be a famous photojournalist in the future. What a confident pose.
If it's practical, we'll use the Instax to make some prints to share. I'm not sure if it's me or the kids who get most excited about this exercise but it's fair to say that being able to share the photographs adds a really satisfying dimension to our time together.
The slideshow below contains just a handful of hundreds of images that I've taken with recipients holding their instant prints. These photos are as cherished by me as the prints themselves seem to be cherished. When returning to places where I've worked before, sometimes many years later, I frequently meet people who have kept their instant print in a wallet or pinned it to a wall in their home.
I've often said that if I were only allowed to keep one of my cameras, I'd be very reluctant to lose the ability to make and share instant photographs. The inexpensive Instax might win out over the Canons and the Leica gear. That's no exaggeration. It might not earn me a living but if Fujifilm ever want to sponsor me to travel the world, handing out instant photographs, I'd be delighted. #fujifilm :)
Here's a link to information about the Fujifilm Instax.
In Dhaka and Kolkata, I've been working with the really inspiring crew at Splash. If you'd like to be involved with an organisation that improves the lives of children in many parts of the developing world, I can really recommend that you take a look at the work that Splash do.