A Fleeting Shadow

It is an incidental fact of the modern world that most of us are captured, unwittingly, in other people’s photos. Whereas once upon a time we might have dodged around the line-of-fire between camera and subject, there are now so many pictures being taken that it is almost impossible not to intrude. Outside York Minster cameras and phones are in all directions, with an almost continuous stream of snaps being taken from dawn until well after dusk. I’ve long given up trying to walk around.

No doubt my nonchalance about the risk of ruining an image is partly the result of technological progress. In my youth a photograph was a precious thing, involving physical film and a long delay between a click and seeing the image itself. If the camera was set incorrectly a whole reel of film could be lost, but you wouldn’t know until after all the photos had been taken and the cost of developing had been paid. As with all technology, there is a rearguard action against this progress and a growing interest in using film cameras, which market analysts expect to continue. Nevertheless, when I walk into someone’s line of sight today I know that more often than not the image can be deleted in a second, at no cost, and further attempts to capture the desired picture are almost unlimited.

In her new novel, The Hero of This Book, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken writes entertainingly about this shift in behaviour reflecting the altered state of the technology used in photography. At one point we find McCracken’s protagonist walking across the Millennium Bridge by Tate Modern:

I slowed but I didn’t stop. I strode out. “Well, that’s ruined it,” I heard a woman mutter as I passed. She was examining the screen of her camera – an actual camera, not a phone; she took herself seriously – and she wanted me to feel bad. The wind was pulling apart her ponytail in a quarrelsome way. I didn’t feel bad; I felt marvellous. For years I’d been polite around tourists taking pictures. I’d yielded, believing as many people did then, and some still do, that this was a moral law.

Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book, Jonathan Cape, London 2023 p. 38

Across the world millions of us will be captured on the edges and backgrounds of strangers’ photographs. In the Cloud there will probably be millions more – photos that will never see the light of day; be added to an album; or turned into images for cushions, mugs and mouse-mats. It is a theme picked up by the former doctor and hit TV script-writer Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty). In a semi-autobiographical novel that preceded his fame, Mercurio wrote about his time as a junior doctor in an NHS hospital. At one point he reflects on the fact that at the end of a patient’s life it is usually those closest to them who are present. However, there are also figures around the patient who have only appeared for the first time in the patient’s life at this critical moment: the clinical staff. As with many of the most significant moments in our lives, the images of this experience will be etched into memories for years to come. However, in those mental images – with key family members static by the bedside – the staff are little more than a blur:

Though I’m beside her I’m not part of the moment or part of another life ending for no reason I can comprehend. I’m a passer-by captured in a photograph who’s an out-of-focus streak of lines flashing through the frame and then gone. I’m a cold scalpel-sharp instrument slicing through scenes in other people’s lives and not ever being slowed.

Jed Mercurio, Bodies, Vintage Press, 2003, p. 134

I am less gloomy than Mercurio about the import and significance of the professionals’ fleeting presence. At our best we help foreground the key family members and the person whose life is ebbing away. By doing our work with suitable skill, attention and compassion we leave family members, not with the images of the clinical staff, but with an imprint of their loving concern and professional care. Many times I have heard people mention the commitment and dignity provided by professional staff when speaking about a critical moment in their life. The memory of faces may blur, but the impact of humanity and empathy remains. This isn’t only in the weeks and months following a loss, it can endure for a lifetime. What at the time may feel like a fleeting shadow, an intrusion into the frame of our family and friends, may leave a legacy of enduring goodness.

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