Preserving the Past Part 2: My Photo-Taking Craze During the Last Year of School

In my last post I wrote about my obsession with preserving memories by making time capsules for the future. I focused on the scrapbooks and journals I made toward the end of Primary School, when I was 11 years old, in which I compiled things I thought my future-self would enjoy. In many ways I think that was the point- write it all down so that one day I can travel back in time. Everything was made with that future benefit in mind. I wanted to immortalize as much of my youth as possible, and make each memory last forever. And one of the best ways to give a memory staying power is by taking a photograph.

I didn’t get the idea to start taking photos until right at the end of my school life, but once I did, I couldn’t stop. Just as the end of Primary School had inspired me to make those scrapbooks, the end of Secondary School likewise inspired me to immortalize what I could. Secondary School lasts five years, from the year you turn 12 to the year you turn 16, and those five years felt like a vast period of time. In my mind, those 5 years feel longer than all the 12 years since put together. It was halfway into my last year of school, during the Christmas of 2008, that I was given a small digital camera. The camera fitted comfortably into the palm of my hand, and I kept it in the pocket of a large coat I always wore at the time. I was pretty sure that the camera wouldn’t be allowed in school, but I figured there was no way the teachers or my parents would be able to touch it so long as I kept it in the pocket of that coat.

I think one of the factors that led to me documenting life via photos specifically was the rise of social media. Sometime in 2007 everyone started making profiles on a website called Bebo. It was shortly after I got my camera, in the early months of 2009, that my friends and I started using Facebook instead. On both of these sites people uploaded pictures of themselves and their friends, and I think seeing these photos probably inspired me to take some of my own. Most people took photos with their phones, but at the time my cell phone was borderline prehistoric, so I only used it on rare occasions. This set me apart somewhat, since most people took their phones to school to use primarily as a phone, and used the camera function for spontaneous moments they wanted to capture with a photo. A camera, however, is only a camera. That meant that I was coming with the intent to take photos, rather than just having my phone on hand as an option in case an opportunity came up.

At first my friends were both curious and apprehensive about my sudden desire to document everything. Generally speaking, people liked the idea of there being a cameraman on hand, but some were- understandably- particular about when and how they wanted to be photographed. Others didn’t want their picture taken at all, and made it quite clear that if I took the camera out there would be trouble. On the flip side, I had friends who loved being photographed, and I got plenty of requests. It’s interesting in retrospect how quickly I had to manage what my subjects did and didn’t want, not to mention the ethics of the whole thing. These issues came up immediately- and I was quite unprepared for them. I’d never taken pictures of people before. All I really had to go on were the pictures I saw of other friendship groups on social media. And once I started taking photos of my own, the way I looked at others changed. I realized that when you look at photos, your focus is always on the subject, and never on the process involved in capturing it. You tend not to imagine the photographer. And unless the photo is especially unusual, you don’t tend to think about the circumstances in which the photo was taken.

Most of the photos I saw people post on Bebo or Facebook back then (the late 2000s) fell broadly into three categories: selfies, group photos, and action shots. And by action shots, I don’t mean anything too exciting, I just mean a photo taken to capture someone in the act of something. Usually this meant someone undertaking a dare, an impromptu wrestling match, or evidence of someone in a drunken stupor. Almost all of these photos would usually be taken at school, at someone’s house, or on the streets somewhere. Back then Facebook didn’t feel so universal. It felt more like an online hangout for young people. So there were very few, if any, family photos. Old people hadn’t really descended on Facebook by that point- at least in my area. Most people took photos of themselves and their friends, usually while at a house party, a summer barbeque, or perhaps just posing together in bathroom mirrors. The more popular kids tended to be the most prolific uploaders, but I guess that’s just because they were the most socially active and the most confident.

Hand gestures and ironic poses were very common. At that age we tended not to question the trends, but follow them as quickly as possible. Pointing your fingers like a gun was a popular choice, especially for boys. Sometimes this was accompanied with an expression of mock-anger toward the camera or cupping your ball-sack with your other hand. Duck Faces were quite popular among girls. Sticking your tongue out was pretty universal. A sideways V-sign, with the back of the hand facing the observer and the palm facing the signer, was another popular one. It was a favorite of mine, and in many of my prom photos, I can be seen doing it. One that I always found amusing, especially looking back years later, was the trend of placing your hand on your chin and making an inquisitive L-shape with your thumb and forefinger. This could be accompanied with narrow eyes to look suspicious, a furrowed brow to look contemplative, or a small, closed-mouth smile to look cheeky. There’s something about it that I find kind of adorable in retrospect. I’d wager that a lot of people would cringe at the poses they made as teenagers, and a few years ago I think I would have been embarrassed too. But now I look at the posed photos fondly.

The photos I took at school included ones of this kind. Friends would group together in class or on lunch break to strike these types of poses. Folks would also volunteer to take pictures of me too, since I was quite keen to get photos of me alongside my friends. One time, our P.E. Theory class was divided into small groups and left free to roam about unsupervised while we worked on developing our personal fitness experiments. However, for me and a couple of my friends, the allotted time turned into an impromptu photoshoot. Although we made the same gestures and poses as everyone else our age, the photos have a slightly different vibe on account of the fact they were taken with a camera. They feel semi-formal. I think the presence of a camera rather than a phone changed how people felt and behaved in front of the lens. People got creative, asking me to try out different angles or distances. Just knowing that the camera was in my coat pocket made people think of ideas for photographs. They wanted to take advantage of the fact a camera was on hand, even though it wasn’t a powerful camera and everyone had cell phones anyway.

One thing I love about the old photos is the way some of them captured the way we did things as teenagers just for the hell of it. Or as we said back then, “for the lulz”. There was this reckless free spirit that I can’t imagine having now. Both myself and others would do embarrassing things just to get a laugh. I have a group photo outside the math building where the guy in the center is lifting up his shirt to display his belly. He knew he would get teased for it, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t let down an audience, and I just love that. There’s another photo of a guy standing with his back to the camera while holding open his coat, as if wearing nothing underneath, and two people facing him making expressions of pretend shock. But aside from these posed photos, there were also candid ones, and these were the most difficult ones to take. I had no experience as a photographer and often struggled with knowing when the right time to take a photo was. I wasn’t confident with people and tuned to what they did or didn’t want. The instinct to know when it was appropriate to take a photo and vice versa wasn’t there. I didn’t know when to be assertive with the camera and when to keep it in my coat pocket. All of my photos at the time were made with future-benefit in mind, and I sometimes thought of myself as a documentarian of our school memories.

I got some good candid photos of my friends playing football on the field at lunch break, or chatting with each other by the art block. But there are also photos where I obviously picked the wrong moment, and you can see my friends ducking out of the frame or covering their faces with their hands. These blunders would result in a few people hissing “Paedo-Camera!” at me, sometimes in jest and other times in genuine hostility. Regardless of the intent behind such feedback, I started to become very self-conscious about using the camera. I never wanted to make anyone uncomfortable, and the idea that I had left me quite distressed. At the time, I figured people would want photos of their school memories as much as I did, so I was caught off-guard when I learned that not everyone saw my record-keeping as a favor. I think it was an important lesson to learn, and ever since I’ve tried to approach people-photography with as much sensitivity as possible in order to avoid causing offense. But in general I’ve become very uncertain and indecisive. There have been moments where I’ve been unsure whether my friends would want a picture or not, and I’ve either taken a gamble or abandoned the flicker of inspiration bouncing around my head.

One such gamble resulted in my all-time favorite photo from my school days. I could picture exactly how it would look in my head, and the impulse to make it a reality and seize the opportunity was too great to resist. I weighed the possibility of annoying my friends in the moment against my belief that they would appreciate it in the future. It was February 2009 and Nailsea had a rare case of snowfall. My friends and I were walking to school together in the same way we always had since Secondary School began in 2004: a convoy. One friend would knock on the door of another, and they would go to the next person, and so on, until everyone that wanted to walk together was there. I was the last stop, since my house was the closest to the school. The number varied year by year and day by day, but on that day in February there were 7 of us. Me, being the photographer, meant that they would be an even number as a convoy, which due to the width of the sidewalk always went two-by-two. After a few moments of agonizing over whether I should take the candid or not, I suddenly marched ahead of the convoy, turned around, and took a picture. My friends were a little surprised but had half a second or so to look at the camera; too short a window to pose but just long enough to avoid being photographed while blinking, looking away, or caught in an unflattering light. The photo was able to capture a typical scene of our school life, with the added bonus of a wintry backdrop. What I love about the photo is the way it perfectly preserves the memory of that convoy, especially since the arrangement of the pairs was almost always the same. The same two people always walked at the front, the same two always took up the middle, and the same two always brought in the rear. I would sometimes float in between if the number was odd. Otherwise, I would walk at the front since the guy who always walked there was in my class, as well as being my closest friend. The two guys that always walked at the back were also in the same class. The two guys in the middle, while not in the same class, were longtime friends and quite close. Each pair usually had its own vibe. For example, the guy and the girl at the front were very sporty, so my memories of walking at the front involve discussions of football transfer gossip or the previous evening’s game. The morning convoy is something I’m extremely nostalgic about, so I hope that the people in the photo find it as endearing as I do.

The camera could also take videos (in glorious 240p). I tended not to use this feature, but there is one infamous exception. As I said earlier, the sudden desire to start taking photos during the latter half of my last year of school was born out of a sense that everything was about to change. I wasn’t the only one who felt nostalgic now that things were coming to an end. School was all we had ever known. At the time we used to talk about the beginning of Secondary School as “the good old days” or “the golden era”. It felt like a long time ago, and we also felt that life was simpler and more fun back then. My friends and I specifically singled out the years of 2005 and 2006 as being the period most densely-packed with good memories. Those years felt wild. People would do crazy things. We were less self-conscious and more energetic. From 2007 onwards, we not only started to gradually mature and mellow out, but we were made to think about the future. Schoolwork actually started to count for something. We had to study for exams in preparation for life afterwards. And so it was in the context of yearning for the carefree days of 2005-2006 that some people tried to tap into their younger selves as a kind of last hurrah before adulthood definitively took over. There was still enough of our childish nature within us to create a few more wild anecdotes before it was no longer possible.

So one lunch break in the spring of 2009, some friends of mine got a hold of some crutches. Don’t worry, they didn’t steal them from someone. I think the person they belonged to allowed these lads to play with them. We were gathered on a grassy area between the math building and the art block, and these four guys decided to try and joust each other with the crutches. They split into pairs, and one partner gave a piggy-back to the other as they held up the crutch like a jousting lance. Once everyone got wind of what was happening, a large crowd gathered. I was tasked with recording the thing on my camera, and the two pairs lined up opposite one another on the grass. Someone else was given the role of announcing the countdown. When he roared “GO!”, the two pairs charged straight for each other with the crutches pointed firmly ahead. One rider struck the other right in the throat, but neither lost their balance. They formed up to charge again, and the jousting resumed. Eventually the two riders were parrying each other with the crutches like swords, before dropping them entirely and proceeding to punch each other. The contest came to an end when one of the guys giving a piggyback dropped his partner and rugby-tackled the other pair into the mud. All around the crowd was cheering and laughing at the spectacle, with kids of all ages and all social circles coming to check out the action. Afterwards I got a photo of the four guys posing together, grinning at the camera and pointing to the rider who had taken the opening blow. Already, just moments after the joust had ended, he had a massive red bruise on his throat. In that moment we were kids again, the way we had been in the first years of Secondary School. Both the photo and the video mean a lot to me, and I think they will only get more fun to look back on as the years go by. At the time, I was instantly imagining what I might think of the jousting video when I’m in my old age. I imagined it being found a hundred years after my death, and what future archeologists would infer about school life in the early 21st century. I think it’s a nice record to have. I’d love to see that kind of thing from previous decades, like a little glimpse of the 1930s or something. I’d wonder what became of those involved, which is what I imagine viewers might wonder about my video in years to come.

I also took plenty of photos of my friends outside of school, where there was generally more enthusiasm to be photographed. Not only were we all in our own clothes instead of the school uniform, but we were doing fun things that most people wanted to be documented. In fact, it was pretty normal for people to bluntly tell me “Bring your camera” when asking me to meet up. I took action shots of us playing football and I documented our early experiences of getting drunk at house parties. I got some good shots of our local hangout- The Park– including when it was covered in snow during the same few days as the convoy photograph. There’s even a picture of me sat on a swing that I don’t hate. I like it because- like the convoy photo- it preserves a very typical scene from my youth. Me sitting on those swings, probably going over old stories with my friends.

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