What A Box Of Old Photographs Made Me Realise About How Human Relationships Have Changed With The Emergence Of Technology

I went back to my hometown in Burgundy, France, last winter and visited my grandma and grandpa. It was nice leaving the bustling city that is London behind for a little while and being back in the countryside, waking up to the birds singing and the cows mooing instead of the constant back and forth of the traffic and noise of planes passing right over the rooftops.

I got terribly used to living on my own in the British capital. Even though I share a flat, everyone has such different timetables that we barely see one another, whether it’s for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And because of this endless feeling of aloneness, I became accustomed to taking out my phone or my laptop to read the news, have a quick scroll through my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds to start my day, that I had almost forgotten what it felt like to talk to people at these supposedly communal hours.

I guess there’s a lot we accept as the new normal that we don’t like at all.

For my first morning back in France, my grandparents and I gathered at the kitchen table, where everything was already prepared and handy – freshly baked bread come right out of the bakery around the street corner, jars of strawberry, blackberry, and plum jams, butter, croissants, as well as tea and coffee. All that was left to do was put the kettle on and boil some water.

Once we finished breakfast, I went browse through the shelves in the living room that was filled with furniture that smelt of oak; it felt like this place was one of those that had already seen a lot of things happen and been the scene of many joys and dramas. And there was an area that I had never explored before – I suppose it was about time I did. I had never sought to open the two little wooden doors of the sideboard carrying the TV… It was filled with old vinyl records. “How could I not know these were here this whole time?” I thought to myself. It was like opening the gates to Aladdin’s Cave. French singers’ records were mixed with some American classics, including musical soundtracks. I wasn’t sure where the fascination for the ancestors of CDs and mp3 tracks came from. All of a sudden, I simply felt like diving into a past that I had never known.

On the table next to the big wardrobe, on which a hearty shape was carved at the top, my grandpa had been taking his old cameras and other photography and film equipment back out, almost exhibiting them for the world inhabiting the house to see.

I have always been captivated by the art of photography and filmmaking. But I became a writer, because I found I could express more with words than I ever could with images, although I do acknowledge their power. My best friend would say, “they record moments that’ll be gone forever”.

And with this in mind, I asked my grandpa to show me his old photographs again. I had seen them before, of course. I have seen them a thousand times. But I never get tired of the experience.

He took, out of one of these hidden cupboards, a grey metallic box as well as a tiny vintage brownish worn-out suitcase, both filled with our family photos. Soon we were joined by my grandmother, and all of us each sat in one of the big and comfortable orange armchairs. My grandpa started showing photos of when he and my grandmother – now 81 and 80 – were kids in 1940s France and young adults in the 1950s, posing with their siblings and their parents, he showed me pictures of them and their friends in their early twenties, and a whole bunch of photographs from his time in Kabylia during the Algerian War too, where he served as a sergeant in charge of the artillery. He also showed me some more recent ones, such as photos of my dad when he was a kid in the 1960s, and photos of my brother and me when we were kids in the late 1990s.

What I love about these times is not only the browsing, touching and looking at old photographs printed on a paper that isn’t as glossy as the one we use now, but also and mostly the stories that come with each picture.

Photograph after photograph, I was almost time travelling, and most importantly maybe, learning.

Through her attempt to restore conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes this in her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age: “They [older people], of all people, should be given occasions to talk about their real lives, filled with real losses and real loves, to someone who knows what those things are.” And she adds: “it is not just that older people are supposed to be talking. Younger people are supposed to be listening. (…) I was once told that some older cultures have a saying: « when a young person misbehaves, it means that they had no one to tell them the old stories”.My grandpa was telling me the secrets behind his photos, and when we reached the ones I had memories of as well as the ones that were taken in my new town over the past year, I started to tell him and my grandmother the secrets and stories behind them. And as we were going through the messy piles, I was picturing my grandparents’ life-changing encounters and milestones, all the while thinking of my own.

And I thought… Things have changed. Relationships have changed. I feel like we have become more and more isolated as human beings. And the series of notifications on my phone waiting for me were constant reminders of how we had come to this.

It seems that human interactions are slowly taking a path to extinction. It seems that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their clique have made us lose touch. It seems that we’ve lost ourselves. It seems that we’ve lost each other. It seems that the selfie culture has taken away all of the “us”-s and “we”-s. It seems that my generation is only able to have a conversation in no more than 140 characters. Where has human warmth gone? It seems that children have grown more accustomed to indoors than outdoors, to tablets than actual and simple toys, to being alone than with others, to digital interactions than human connections. It seems that romances are not so much triggered by a spark in one’s close circles anymore, but rather by fancy profile pictures, catchy pick-up lines, and a mastery of the art of texting. It seems that even though the way we court has changed, the way we love hasn’t.

And it seems that technology has made millennials treat life, and work, and love, as commodities in abundance – easy to get and easy to let go of.

I looked at my phone for half a second, tempted to answer this umpteenth unread message and check my latest Instagram notifications, Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets”, but I didn’t.

I put it away and looked up again.

I got back to my grandparents who were sitting next to me instead of going back to friends, who were only there digitally – remotely. Because the stories I was being told reminded me of who we are, as human beings, i.e., in the words of Sherry Turkle, “creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations, artless, risky, and face-to-face”.


>> extracted from my book, ‘Photographs’ now also available as an ebook in French or as a hard copy in its original English version


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