I spent my last Australian summer in paralysis. Not the physical kind. Social paralysis.
The condition you’re left with after a breakup.
The fallout felt terminal: the awkwardness around shared friends, the scary desperation of singles bars, the fear of drunken public encounters with the ex. All good reasons to stay in.
I won’t bore you with the details of how I got there, suffice to say that I lived my summer vicariously at home, on my phone. On an app on my iPhone to be specific.
I’m talking Instagram here. That camera phone addict’s, social memoir app with the billion dollar price tag.
You know it. The one with the photographic filters and lens effects that allow you to tweak your snapshots into something that only good photographers far more talented than you used to take. The one with the feeds; streams of images uploaded by people you know or who you would like to know.
Some feeds are like a photographic diary. Others are a montage of visual wit, humorous personal observations or a carefully designed view of life.
Flicking through the feeds you subscribe to on Instagram gives you a piecemeal insight into the personality of who you follow, because of the choices they make about what they publish and what they don’t.
As a prisoner of my own scarred ego, I saw the feeds I followed on Instagram as a parade of people, coming to my bedside, telling me what they had done with their day and quipping about life to keep me entertained.
It felt safe because I didn’t have to give them anything back. I could just lie there, all maudlin and depressed and listen, or watch.
I remember the first day that I discovered the feed of an old work contact on Instagram. A graphic designer I had always held in high regard. Hannah Cutts.
She ran her own design agency when I knew her. I wondered what she was doing now.
I fully expected to see Hannah’s Instagram feed dotted with deconstructed typography, rustic textures, quirky illustrations. After all, that’s the sort of work Hannah’s studio had turned out to much acclaim.
Instead, the first photograph I saw of Hannah’s was of two boys, languidly conversing with a little girl on the concrete curb of a suburban pool. It was rendered in soft, almost gelatin silver black and white. In another shot, the boys again, or their wet legs at least, tanned and skinny, standing poolside on a grid of bright yellow safety studs. And then, a boy frozen in the air above the water, mid bomb-dive.
I started to feel I was no longer in bed, that I was sitting in the sun at the pool, watching the goings on over the bridge of my sunglasses, drawn to the sounds of laughter and splashing. I liked this montage. I scrolled down, loading more images. And then more.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself revisiting Instagram and Hannah’s feed again and again. Every day a new photograph would appear, sometimes two. I found myself wondering, what were they doing today, Hannah and these boys? Who were the boys? Were they hers?
I remember her taking some time off from her studio to have a child a while ago, but could it be 10 years ago? These boys weren’t babies. They looked capable of danger and mischief and skylarking.
They were running on concrete. They were poking fun at sharks. They were stepping over the safety barriers and ignoring the warning signs.
Unlike most mothers who would stand back and wince, Hannah and her photographic eye seemed to be totally along for the ride. Not watching over them. Not fussing them into family portraits. Not combing their hair and wiping their faces.
I realized many days and many photographs later what it was that I was watching here.
It wasn’t just a mother taking photographs of her children. It was a woman preserving memories. Not theirs. Hers.
These were Kodachrome memories. 1970’s or 1980’s memories. The filters and frames that Instagram uses were helping to deliver this retro effect, however the things the boys were doing were making it real. They were things we all used to do.
Now, I’m not saying for a minute that Hannah wasn’t living a modern life with her boys. There were surely days spent on the iPad and 3D movies and kiddie yoga classes to attend. Within the controlled world of her Instagram feed however, the images she chose to present seemed to be selected for their nostalgia value.
Could it be that Hannah’s Instagram feed was somehow her way of preserving her own memories of her own childhood? Innocent, carefree, pre-teenage freshness now buried under the scars of all that living that we tend to do on the way to adulthood?
Coincidentally, viewing Hannah’s Instagram feed also helped me preserve my own memories, so universal to 70’s and 80’s teens were the themes at play here.
Simple joys like riding bikes through flooded gutters. Hanging out on the grandstands after football practice. Coloured nipper boards stacked at the ready for a break in the weather. The giggling gossip around the ladies’ and men’s toilets.
It reminded me in the depths of my breakup depression, while I was trying all I could to avoid moving on, that past lives can’t be forgotten, they continue to be relived. If you’re lucky enough, they will come back to you, filtered and framed as happy nostalgia.
Wow you two! I am stalking you both. And i like what I see/read. That sooo resonated for me Steve. And Hannah, I’m a big member of your fan club as well. Glad to see thoughts I’ve had about instagram so beautifully written in tribute of someone whose work I have always loved. Take a bow both of you 🙂
What a beautiful article. It is also a very telling insight when someone looks at you from afar. I have been posting photos that remind me of my childhood…my freedoms. This realisation has also made me kick myself for all the times (very much including this morning) when I have screamed for release from motherhood and its ‘treadmill, Groundhog day-ness’. Thankyou Steve and keep up the blogging!