As I write this, I am watching my two-year-old nephew Ethan while my sister-in-law takes my niece to an ice skating class. Mostly, my nephew spends his time emptying his Lego basket or smashing cars together, but every so often, he does something truly worth documenting. Just this afternoon, one of those notable moments came when, upon discovering my mother's walking cane, he seized it and began parading around the house, banging it on the ground like a royal scepter. I immediately knew what I had to do. Grabbing my phone, I started chasing after him, snapping photos that I could only pray weren't coming out blurry.
Pretty normal reaction for a doting aunt, no? But perhaps not for an aunt who can't see what she's photographing.
My quest to document my life in photos may seem a bit quixotic to some. After all, unlike most, I can't consult the memories instilled in these frames long after they've been otherwise forgotten. My friends, privy to the irony of it all, often make fun of me for my over-reliance on photos to convey my latest doings on social media. Rolling pizza dough on my trip to Washington? Gotta tweet it. Silk-screening a t-shirt at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh? Obviously needs to go up as a Facebook mobile upload. I send pictures to friends so often — in texts, status updates and snapchats — that the act feels utterly pedestrian, stripped of its irony.
You could probably accuse me of falling prey to the much-decried trend of millennials rushing to gratuitously out-share each other, revealing to the world increasingly personal details about the most mundane aspects of their lives. That may hold some truth in my case, though you will be happy to know that I have never broadcast my choice of lunch food to my Facebook friends or Twitter followers. But I defend my photo-snapping habit for a much deeper yet simpler reason: I want to fit in.
Whatever can be said of constant documentation — that it comes off as vapid, that it prevents the photographer from actually enjoying the moment — it is undeniable that photos have become the social currency of my generation. A social media presence without photos appears bare, tedious, almost less than human. I have previously written about how easy it is to devalue a blind person’s humanity, In my constant dance to avoid such dehumanization, I have found photos to be a potent weapon. Though it may be my instinct, both as a blind person and as a writer, to describe what I am doing in a long, rambling status update, I understand that photos depicting the same activity come off as both more intimate and more socially savvy. The photos I post on Facebook draw far more likes and comments from my friends than anything I write, a small indication of just how many people view my activity each day. I can only speculate, but I would suppose the photos are a way to normalize me in the eyes of my peers — a potent reminder that, though I am blind, I can communicate just as well, and share as much of a sense of humor, as everyone else.
Independence Day fireworks on the National Mall
Perhaps snapping photos is symptomatic of a larger desire to keep on the same technological footing as all my friends. In high school, it seemed as though everyone around me was adopting the Blackberry, that indomitable phone of sticky keys, brick breaker, and the worst of them all, BBM. High school passed in a haze of pins and pings and buzzes, and without a blackberry of my very own, I was excluded from all of it. Now, this may seem like a trivial concern. I had a regular old flip phone, so I could still text my friends or email them or, gasp, even call them. But it didn't matter. When friends posted personal news or made plans, they always did so on BBM. Without a BBM account, I had been rendered invisible. I frequently heard about plans after they'd already passed, all because I wasn't keeping pace with the same modalities of communication as my friends.
This is the frequent plight of the blind person: constrained to technologies rendered accessible, we are often shut out of the trendiest spheres in which our friends orbit at ease. It is a digital divide, one created not out of lack of knowledge but lack of access. I maintain presences on Instagram and Snapchat, not because either comes naturally, but because each serves as a subtle reminder to my friends that I am every bit as hip, accessible, and human as they are.
Do you take photos? Use other methods to stay "hip?" I'd love to hear your stories — either in the comments, or on Twitter using the hashtag #AFBBlog.
For more thoughts and yes, photos, follow me on Twitter @MHackman with the hashtag #AFBBlog.