We’re on a pebble beach backed by a cliff. The horizon is due south. To the east erupts an industrial complex that scars the earth. To the west, a picturesque, rocky outcrop pierces serenely into the ocean.
A youngish adult man strolls past. The follicles that form his tidy beard and recently trimmed hairstyle are as measured and equal as each of the steps in his walk. Above-the-knee swim shorts and just-used-enough espadrilles perfectly frame his well-exercised quadriceps and calves in colours that complement his tanned skin, the sky, and the sea in a way that is too perfect to be accidental. He is looking west through sunglasses, the earth’s cement producing scar behind him.
Myself and a friend, both forcibly ‘retro’ with a disposable camera, recline uncomfortably on the towel that thinly separates us from the stones below. We watch him stroll towards the rocky outcrop.
Just behind him, a youngish adult woman and a young child follow. We can only assume they are a family, in the most ‘standard’ form of the noun. Her hair is styled in a way that I can only imagine isn’t particularly compatible with ocean water. She carries a little bag, of a size I’ve not seen before. The three of them together cross the 30 metres of beach that separate them from its most stereotypically picturesque corner. The cliff stands tall above them.
The boy excitedly splashes in the shallows and points at the little swimming who knows what and the small floating this and that. He is enthralled by the world; I don’t want to sound over the top, but the excitement of interacting with his immediate environment sparkles in his eyes in the same way as the sun’s light dances across the sea’s surface. In fact, if you could squeeze the entire in-view sea into an area the size of his eyes, there would still be fewer sparkles.
His mother and father have ensconced themselves upon a little rock not so far away that juts out of the water. The rocky outcrop and horizon meet behind them. The boy calls excitedly to them from his little world in the shallows close by. The mother opens that little mysterious bag and pulls a smartphone and selfie-stick from it. She pops the phone into the stick and extends it away from her and her partner. The boy, out of frame, calls over to them again. She takes a photo of herself and partner. She checks the photo. She issues a couple of instructions. The phone is once again extended away and a few more photos are taken.
The boy calls over to them. Instead, they call the boy over and lift him up onto the rock with them. The phone goes back up. More photos are taken. The photos are checked. More instructions are issued. Back up swings the phone and with it up swing the edges of their mouths in unison. Back down swings the phone and the edges of their mouths in unison. Again, the photos are checked. The boy runs back to his world in the shallows and calls out for his parents to come to join him and the swimming who knows what and the floating this and that. They are in their own world though. They call him back for another round of photos. Camera and smiles go up, camera and smiles go down. Camera and smiles go up, camera and smiles go down. Camera and smiles go up, camera and smiles go down.
Mission accomplished, flicking through their new photos and contemplating which to post, the parents stroll back along the beach to from where they came. The boy dawdles in the shallows between his two worlds and then reluctantly follows to the one he shares with them. The little swimming who knows what and the small floating this and that are gone now.
The mother and father lay on a towel and swim deep in their phones, their perspective of reality ever more wrinkly as they soak. The son, perhaps a little bored now, throws one last pebble into the water and takes a dip in his smartphone — no flotation aids in sight. He no doubt stumbles upon his parent’s recently posted picture and reflects on what a jolly good time they had at the beach.
Quite predictably, my friend and I sit on our towel and viciously judge and sentence the parents. One charge of using a child as a prop; one charge of demanding excessive amounts of emotional labour within the family; multiple charges of vanity; one charge of presenting a false image of happiness to an online audience at risk of benchmarking their own happiness against a fraudulent claim; one charge of being a copy/paste; one charge of…and the list goes on.
We sit and we reflect. Does, for example, an Instagram photo or story do more to shape the future world than to capture or reflect the current one? We reflect on a period — that because of our ages we barely recall — before photos could so easily be reviewed, disposed, and retaken. A period when personal photos were perhaps a better reflection of reality. A more dramatic individual could ask if there is even such a thing as a personal photo anymore. A period when there was perhaps far less pressure to constantly demonstrate to the world how happy, stylish, tasteful, cultured, skilled, adapted, balanced, and fucking woke we are? A period before the world had been twisted into a giant stage by the weight of a camera in every pocket connected to a thousand TVs the palms of family, friends, acquaintances, enemies, and everything in between. A period before the labour of keeping up appearances had crept into every corner, cranny, and crevice.
We wonder the extent to which this works, at least for most, to homogenise us, as evidenced by the ocean of exact replica photos sloshing around on social media, with stage lights eating away the darker more private spaces we could once retreat to and be ourselves in (whatever that actually means). We wonder the extent to which real human emotions have been replaced by those emulated in photographs. We wonder how wide the gap between what is reflected in the photo frame and what is framed by the mirror now is. We wonder how soon we’ll get a shock when we look in the mirror because each of our realities is so far from the story that we each perpetually tell.
We arrogantly imagine we are a golden generation, exquisitely aware of the changes afoot, to later be defined by its role as a bridge between those before us and those after us: between the final generation raised entirely in absence of social media and the first generation who knows nothing but it.
Defined by defiance in my actions, I raise the disposable camera. I take a picture of my friend (to later be digitized and posted on Instagram, so long as it is cool enough). The camera falls, our smiles fall, and so do our stage puppets, their lives a show switched on or off for our pocket TV networks.