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Disposable photos: transience and analogue rituals

Artwork by Zoe Smith

There are 153 notes in my phone notes app. Most of them say completely useless things like ‘A dog called soap’ or ‘seven pints deep in an Italian restaurant’. I contribute to its archives obsessively, frantically tapping down phrases and half-poems on train platforms and in pub toilets in an attempt to petrify perfect moments – to trap the sleepy, warm car-rides home from the beach and hungover mornings eating buttered toast somewhere before they dissolve into the ether. Its little scrappy library makes up a love letter to my life – to friends and contentedness – that makes it one of my most treasured possessions.

In his 1915 essay ‘On Transience’, Freud recalls a summer walk with two friends, an artist and a poet, who are made miserable by the beauty of the world around them because of its impermanence. Experiencing something with a knowledge of its transience gives them what Freud describes as ‘a foretaste of mourning’, pushing them to ‘despondency’ or ‘revolt’ against the fact that someday everything will be lost. From my very first days at Cambridge, the nature of these years as an era with a fixed endpoint has hovered in the background like that feeling before a storm, charging our conversations with a premature nostalgia. It was like a giant fairy tale clock had begun to tick down towards our inevitable graduation and every moment had to be filled with some coming-of-age movie vignette. Looking in at ourselves as we hurtled through evening bike rides and May Week parties, that ‘foretaste of mourning’ intensified every experience, propelled us into a manic romanticisation.

Freud’s essay elaborates that ‘the proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind. The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted’. In our day to day lives, I think most of us choose ‘rebellion’. Looking around me here, I see Freud’s ‘revolt against mourning’ in unexpected places: in our collective analogue rituals – disposable photos, letter writing, birthday cards, repeated heartfelt expressions of love in Instagram captions – a collective obsession with memorialising friendship and togetherness that anticipates its loss.

Then, too quickly for anyone to get their bearings, things change. The fairy tale clock has kept ticking, but our experience became unrecognisable. In waves over the last year, our world has felt freshly unknowable, with constant change entailing constant loss. Already on the cliff-edge of our adult lives, we’ve spent a year on the brink of something; of things getting better, of things falling apart and being taken away. When I look back on my scribblings from the time here before the pandemic, the scenes they capture feel proleptically insensitive. Like Florence Welch wrote prophetically in a Vogue piece in 2019, now ‘the world feels too fragile to be sipping champagne and flicking the finger at it’.

A writer I have returned to over and over in the past year is Philip Larkin, whose preoccupations with change and permanence sparkle with truth. In one of his most famous poems, ‘MCMXIV’ (or ‘1914’), he writes of the lost innocence of the First World War – how the world as it was before ‘changed itself to past without a word’, a line which captures so astutely the nothingness of those transitions: something is, and then it isn’t – the moment of change is unfelt. The powerlessness this leaves us, I think, also propels some of our desire to record, calcify. Since our sudden confrontation with the liability of normality to dissolve, the click of my camera every time I take a photo of that same view feels more and more conspicuously like an attempt to gain control over that transition, to soothe with a repeated action that realities are always lost before we know we are losing them.

Recently these rituals of preservation have felt more important, more pressing, less personal. For anyone who has experienced depression, that dull alienation of waking up one day and finding the world - with all the same people in it and everything in the same place – to feel remote and hostile, is a familiar feeling. My notes app freeze-frames of happiness have always made up a powerful weaponry against my brain – knowing how bad it can all feel makes you cling to often very mundane moments – lying on the floor laughing in my college room, afternoons wasted in pub gardens – with a real ferocity. All the time, I want to express to the people who make up these moments how important they are to me – buy them flowers, write them cards. I never do. It feels stupid. Freud rejects the desire to record embodied by the painter and the poet, stating ‘since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration’. His peace with transience is comforting. I think of dancing in my friend’s room before the winter lockdown – how that little lit up window, the blur of smudged-mascara faces yelling song lyrics around me effaced for a moment every anxiety of the night sky outside, the next day, next year. That moment had ‘no need to survive us’. Transience can make us miserable, but it can imbue moments with a magical quality, make them more beautiful in their urgency and uniqueness.

There is also something incredibly affirming about Larkin’s depictions of permanence. In ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, he writes on the importance of images for mourning, even when the exact subject of our mourning is undefined: ‘We know what was/Won’t call on us to justify/Our grief, however hard we yowl across/the gap from eye to page’. The images of my own photograph album; the ‘what was’, will capture the fits and starts in which I’ve been able to see the people I love - in parks, fields, the seaside, random bits of pavement on London streets – moments when everything felt more swimmingly intangible than ever. But they will also recall the fresh clarity of those interactions; the unselfconscious acknowledgement of how much we all need each other.

It is inevitable that it will gradually become harder and harder to believe, both individually and historically, that these strange three years really happened. – in Larkin’s words, past time, as it always is, will be ‘transfigured into Untruth’. But with every ‘revolt against mourning’, every disposable camera flash, every giddy notes app paragraph, we keep Larkin’s prophecy true, that ‘what will survive of us is love’.


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