Tyranny of the snappers

Forcing us to stand unnaturally near each other and then shout cheerily in unison - who could be worse than the family photographer? By Ann Treneman
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The Independent Culture
I once met a woman named Mary Kaye Lee who spent a great deal of time and effort photographing a teddy bear named Harvey. This, evidently, is not considered all that strange a thing to do in certain circles. Mary Kaye even had a how-to column on the subject in a teddy bear magazine published in deepest Tonbridge. Harvey was a very photogenic kind of bear, she explained, as we flipped through the "family" album chronicling their trip on board the Orient Express.

Harv, it must be said, does not look all that thrilled. In fact, his expression remains unchanged throughout the trip. I am sure he is now secretly plotting a way to get Boots to excise him altogether. Now, I know that teddy bears are not real, but I do know how he feels. My idea of a good family photo is one without any humans at all. I have never achieved this - though Boots may now have provided the way forward - because everyone else in my extended family is addicted to taking photographs of one another at every opportunity.

No event, no meal, no sunset, no motorway service station is too insignificant to chronicle. In this world, all of life is measured in Kodak moments, every one of which is a potential memory to treasure. Or not, as the case inevitably is. This is family photo fetish syndrome at its worst and Harv and I are not the only victims. "Yes, isn't it terrible?" says a someone to whom I mention the subject. "There are religions that won't have their picture taken because they believe they are unfit images, or something. I think that's great. They've released themselves from the tyranny of the photo!"

It is not something I can talk to my mother about. That is because she is too busy shouting "Cheese!" at any lens that looks friendly. Do you recognise this scene? "Say cheese!" shouts someone I am related to in yet another restaurant. We are gathered in what I now think of as the Cheese Position. This is when we all lean forward, elbows on table and faces dangerously close to the debris that was our meal. We all then do shout "Cheese!" and, if we are lucky, the flash goes off, blinding everyone else. If we are unlucky, the flash fails. This is a trigger for the family to shout instructions. The shot is then lined up again - with great flapping of arms and instructions to "Lean in closer!" - and we repeat the "Cheese!" ritual. Only then does the picture actually get taken.

But it is not over yet. This is because we have to do it all again to fulfil the universal rule that one photo is never enough and that the second photo must include the person who took the first photo. Usually a stranger is approached. This can be the waitress or even another diner. In either case, inevitably, the camera does not work. Cue repeat of "Cheese!" scene combined with "flash doesn't work" shouting scene. Finally, it is finished and then everyone beams at each other and chatters away as if we were G7 leaders posing in front of the Alps.

But why? My first thought was that this the syndrome must be genetic because, well, almost everything is these days. It's certainly true in my family's case. My grandfather was obsessed and there is at least one photograph of every meal he ever ate involving more than two people. My mother has collected a roomful of the things and now my sisters are succumbing. By the way, if you think you have escaped, just wait until you hit 40. That is when psychologists say that most of us start to believe that we are going to die one day and that, in the meantime, it couldn't hurt to compile some evidence of our existence. Certainly, I notice that my sister, who has just turned 40, has now started accosting strangers on near deserted beaches. "Can you take our photo?" she asks a person who is obviously trying to have a nervous breakdown with a little quiet dignity. "Of course not," they lie (cue "Cheese!" scene).

A nightmare and, evidently, one that will never end. "Clearly you can either be the kind of family which lives or the kind which takes photographs," says social psychologist Halla Beloff from Edinburgh. Her theory is that people can take pictures in order to control a situation. "It can be very oppressive," she says. I think "very" might be putting it mildly. The experienced photo control freak can turn the whole thing into a full-time occupation that dominates every minute of the day. But not, of course, if they forget the camera. That's why they hyperventilate if the thing gets left behind. "Oh no! We'll have to go back!" they cry. "Why?" you ask. "Because we will want to remember this!"

But why would anyone want to remember a day dominated by a person taking lots of pictures while giving a running commentary on how many frames are left. Upon picking the photos up, the controller will then edit out the ones that make him or her look bad. Of course, the ones that make you look like a red-eyed mutant drunk having a bad hair life are kept in and sometimes even exclaimed over ("Not one of your best!"). The ritual must be finished off by the controller selecting which photographs can enter the album.

Thus is family history made. Within a relatively brief period of time, the family starts to believe the album version of history. The first way to subvert this is to get Boots to take all the people out. But if you cannot get your hands on the negatives per se, find the cupboard that holds all the photos that were not chosen and in which everyone looks like aliens and/or Darwin rejects. Then secretly start to repatriate these to the album.

Or why not try a spot of reminiscence therapy? I discover this delightful idea from Simon Biggs, a reader in social gerontology at Keele University who did his PhD on the related subject of videos. Evidently you use a photograph to get people talking about what really happened that day. Biggs says that they use this a lot when trying to cut through the official propaganda. Dangerous stuff, but then families are full of that. Especially when they are addicted to "Cheese!"

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