Saturday, February 20, 2010

A photographic memory

Here was a rare moment of quiet calm and perfect lighting. Soft sunlight from a grey, February sky shone through the window onto my youngest son's face as he drove Matchbox cars across the hardwood, making spluttery motoring sounds with his wet lips. Absorbed in his own imagination, he did not seem to notice that I was watching him. How could a mom with a camera resist the urge to freeze time? I couldn't. Pressing the shutter, I thought to myself, "Years from now we'll ooh and ahh over these sweet photographs of childhood, these preserved glimpses of real life."

Real life. Yes, sir. Later, as I reviewed those charming photos on my computer, real life showed itself, glowing in all its full-color ridiculousness, on my screen. There, smeared across my toddler's cherubic face, was a crusty streak of snot. And this snot created a sort of ethical dilemma.

I admit that I am rarely bothered by the work of digitally improving upon reality. Having spent the last 13 years using Photoshop to remove everything from horse manure and acne to birthday cake and entire backgrounds, I knew that a little smear of shiny mucus could be removed in a few quick clicks of the mouse. That would be the easy part. The hard part was deciding if I really ought to take that bit of "reality" out of the picture. This photo was supposed to preserve a true-to-life image of my son's childhood. He had looked so sweet at the time. Or so I thought. How could I have failed to notice the boogers smeared across his otherwise flawless skin? But there they were, blown up to more than full size on my computer monitor, reminding me once again that this is, indeed, a fallen world.

So what to do now? It struck me that I had to decide what story I was trying to tell here, and whether the story was true. I could make his skin look perfectly clean, but my child, had not, in fact, looked like this. Was I willing to make people believe that he had? When "reality" is the very thing I was trying to capture, then shouldn't I leave "reality" alone? Doesn't the booger on the baby represent the truth of the matter? Isn't cloning it out—or whitening teeth or replacing the ugly family photo background with a snowy wonderland—a kind of lie? And isn't lying, under normal circumstances, a sin? I frequently tell my children that it is.

Oh, the hypocrisy! Oh, the deception! Maybe photo editing should keep more people awake at night.

Yes, it's a fallen world all right. Even the everyday realities of head colds and dirty laundry can serve as small reminders of this sad truth. Ugliness and suffering truly do exist. That's the reality. And if you want to win a Pulitzer, that's the reality you've got to depict before the public. We've got to keep our feet on the rocky ground, right? Don't try to hide all the foulness, the cruelty, the sickness, the death; let's keep it real. Stock up on black eyeliner and come to grips with the truth: life is pain. Leave the snot on the baby. The snot is real.

Sure. These sophisticated cynics do have a point: Snot is real. Unfortunately for them, the snot is apparently more real than the baby. But here's the thing: the baby was there before the booger. The beauty was there before ugliness marred it. And the beauty will remain when the ugliness has been wiped away, which seems to say that the beauty is the more enduring reality—the more real reality.

I recently watched a short video that's been floating around the internet—one that shows how an average-looking woman is transformed by an army of stylists and at least one digital wizard into an idealized image of marketable beauty. "See?" the ad implies, "Beautiful women are fake. Cover girls don't really exist." That's probably true to some degree. Perhaps we're right to think that these fashionistas have gone too far in their pursuit of beauty at the expense of truth. And, I suppose, for all of us average-looking women, there's comfort in the thought that at least we're not fake.

But the truth is, whether or not we have personal stylists and professional photo manipulators at our disposal, most of us do what we can to hide our imperfections and draw attention to our strengths. Girls with nice legs and bad teeth will swing their hips in skinny jeans but smile with their lips closed. We prefer not to have our ugly side put on display. We would rather not have our errors and sins repeated by the people we've wronged. None of us wants to be the one stuffing a fork full of mashed potatoes into her mouth when the family photographer captures the moment at Thanksgiving Dinner.

It may be true that we wake up with bed head, that we get the flu, that we sometimes yell at our kids. But that doesn't mean we should want posterity to forever remember us that way.  Of course there's a kind of selfish pride that cannot admit to any faults, but that's not what I'm talking about. We—all of us—want to be shown to advantage. And it's not necessarily because we want the world to believe a lie. Often it's because we want the world to see the more attractive side of the truth. It's because we love ourselves. I know I do.

In fact, we love ourselves so much, that the golden rule is built upon that basic assumption: You know how much you love yourself? Well, that's how much you ought to love your neighbor. Whoa. That's not easy. But I think we must conclude that the stories we tell about our neighbors—including our littlest neighbors—should be the kind of stories we would want told about us.

I'm no sentimentalist. Dark moments are found in everyone's story—in the world's story. Earthquakes, ear infections, cancer, crucifixion, snot—they're all real. I don't deny it. But does that mean the essence of the story is ugliness and evil? Is Sleeping Beauty a tale of darkness and despair because it involves the witch and the thorns and a battle to the death?  If the essence of life is pain, then (in all seriousness) how do we explain chocolate? How do we account for orange blossoms and the Caribbean Sea and goose down and Tetris and Easter? How do we make sense of the sweet baby-the one who also happens to have snot on his face? What about that reality? To say that life is pain is to ignore the coexistent—and the far more persistent—realities of beauty and love and forgiveness and joy.

Yes, the history of the world is a story with some truly gut-wrenching scenes. But I've read the spoilers, and I know the ending. This story ends with a wedding. The knight in shining armor slays the dragon, claims his bride‚ declaring her flawless (yes, flawless). The wedding feast  is incomparably glorious, and every sorrow, every tear—and every runny nose—is wiped away. Heaven is brought to earth, and Love, in perfect fairy tale fashion, conquers all. That's the end. Roll the credit.

So what does that have to do with Photoshopping the snot off the toddler?

Only this: that the child is a more important—a more real—part of this story than the bit of ugliness marring his face. Sure, I want to remember reality. But I also want to remember the beauty that underlies reality. I don't want to forget that sin exists. But I also do not want to forget that love covers a multitude of sins. Sometimes, of course, the dirt and the messes and the runny noses will be part of the fun of remembering. And even the most painful challenges, when they have been overcome, can become the stories we like best to tell. But at the same time, when I do tell stories about (or take pictures of) my children, I hope I will edit out the flaws and remember them in the best possible light. Not because I am lying about them, and not because they are perfect, but because I love them. I would want them to do the same for me. And in this case, I've decided that if love can cover sin, it can surely cover snot. In some small way, Photoshop looks a lot like forgiveness.


Erika said...

Beautiful, I know that I struggle with using photo-shop sometimes..Kjerste and I were just talking about this very similar thing, when taking pictures for the blog moving all ugliness out of the frame to make people think that while you are sewing up this perfect something and being so crafty, your house is also spotless. Yeah right. But I think you're right, I think sometimes it is important to capture the snot, and other times enjoy the beauty that Christ sees in us, past the snot, because that's what a Mother sees, and obviously our Savior saw in us.
This post makes me want to dig up some photos that have been 'helped' just to compare! Fun.

Kjerste said...

Not sure how I missed this post, but I'm just going to go ahead and say for all of us, hello?! Did you just lump yourself in with all of us "average looking women"? Take a look in the mirror my dear! :) You certainly don't fit that category!

In all seriousness though, lots to think about. Thank you so much for sharing what is going through your mind. I so appreciate it.

Total Pageviews