Monday, September 15, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Taking Group Pictures for Tourists

Amateur snapshot photography has been popular since the introduction of the Kodak Brownie box camera in 1900, but the recent emergence of digital photography seems to have greatly increased the popularity of picture-taking. Most of the developing and printing costs have been eliminated, and pictures can be distributed over the internet with a click of the mouse. Many—myself included—believe the average quality of snapshots has decreased, but this flaw is overshadowed by the benefits of digital pictures. Nowadays, many people seem to bring their digital cameras wherever they go—just in case something memorable happens.

Lately, I have taken great pleasure in a simple act of photographic kindness. Couples and families who are traveling together often find themselves in front of a scenic backdrop, unable to create a photo of the entire group. They go through the ritual of assigning one member after the other to be the photographer, but unless they are assertive enough to ask a stranger to take a picture—and willing to hand over their camera to someone they don’t know—they never get the shot they want. Recently, particularly if I am traveling, I have begun to be much more forward with offers to take photos of couples or families together.

Many of my most cherished family photos were taken at distant locations by strangers recruited on the spot. Naturally, the quality of these photos is quite variable, but having a record of the entire group is very important. For any couple or family, the sights and sounds of traveling are an exciting experience, but encountering them with others is a memorable part of the event. The group photo records that sense of shared travel in a way that separate photos cannot.

In the summer of 2007, I spent a few days in Seattle alone. It was a nice trip. The city is quite beautiful and exciting, but at various points I felt a little lonely. One day I took the ferry to Bainbridge Island and back, an inexpensive excursion that affords beautiful views of Seattle across Puget Sound. This is a West Coast equivalent of using the Staten Island Ferry as an inexpensive Manhattan tour boat. On the return trip, I wandered around the large, modern vessel, and when I arrived at the bow, I found several couples and families taking photographs of themselves with Seattle in the background. Without hesitation, I began to offer to take pictures of several of the groups. Naturally some people were a bit hesitant to accept my offer, but no one turned it down. In several cases the travelers were very appreciative as I patiently took multiple shots when necessary.

It is just a simple act: offering to take a picture. But knowing how much I value my own family photos, made it seem important, and for a few moments far from home and work, taking those pictures gave me a much needed sense of purpose. I stepped off the ferry in a far better mood than I when I got on.

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