We are a very well documented generation. I do not mean we are always documented very well. Case in point—about seventy-five percent of the pictures taken of me thus far in the Holy Land document me in one of fashion’s greatest atrocities: the fanny pack. (Upon seeing this questionable documentation, my loving sister-in-law asked, “How does he expect to get married like that?”) And another five percent of the pictures document me in a floppy-brimmed hat that stamps me American tourist all the way. I won’t even mention the ’90s headlamp with the orange-and-purple elastic head strap or the lime-green water bottle carrier. I certainly could have been documented in a little bit better of a light.
Rather I say we are a well-documented generation because we document our lives to the minutest degree. Really, though—it is insane the number of photos I see taken everyday here. I feel like I’m taking too many pictures, and I don’t take even a third as many as the average Jerusalem Center student. There are jumping pics, engagement pics. silhouette pics, band pics, Facebook pics, Gossip Girls pics. And they’re never “pictures”—always “pics.” Countless numbers of gigs dedicated to an even more innumerable number of pics. Everyone’s SD chips, Macs, and hard drives loaded down with visual documentation of everything.
I remember that when I visited my Grandpa Jernigan down in Tennessee I pored over his photos, absolutely eating up every picture I could find of my dad when he was younger—or even better, my dad with my mom when they were dating (I love and honor my father completely, but it’s hard to look at pictures of him and my mom without thinking, wow, he did really well for himself). The number of photos I found of Dad’s infancy, adolescence, or early adulthood totaled in the dozens maybe. Contrast that with my nephew Ben—within the first week of his life, I’m sure the photos were up in the hundreds.
My children will never have to wonder what I looked like at any point in my life. When I tell a story about my freshman year of college, they will be able to pull up a photo and see exactly how my hair was cut, exactly how prominent my gnome-nose and eyebrows were (and learn the great lesson that some things just don’t change), and exactly how I dressed.
At times I’m a little bothered by all this documentation. That’s probably because I’m a little neurotic about stuff. I don’t like to have a lot of it. And I’m not talking only about physical, tangible possessions; digital stuff is included. It stresses me out to have a lot of stuff that’s unaccounted for. I don’t like to think about all the photos I’ve got on my computer that have never been organized, some of which I’ve never even looked at. Once a file is on my computer, I feel responsible for it, and I don’t like to neglect it. So when I look at those who snap photos of everything I wonder why they’re so eager to take all these pictures, why they’re in such a mad dash to visually preserve their comings and goings.
But this isn’t an unusual thing to wonder, not for me at least. I spend a great deal of my time wondering what’s going on in other people’s heads, trying to figure out what it is that people really want. People are all the time doing things that I don’t understand. (Side note: a close friend of mine recently reprimanded me a little for saying that "I don’t understand why people do this or that" when what I really meant was that other people were stupid for not doing things like me. She was absolutely right about what I was doing, but right now as I am writing this blog, I’m actually wondering, not trying to insult.) My brother Zack once asked me and my sister, “Do you guys ever feel like you’re talking to an alien?” I think what he meant by that was that sometimes people’s motivations are so different from our own that they might as well be from a different planet. These people with all their pictures: aliens.
Sometimes I think that way.
But in my more honest moments, I realize that I’m no different from everyone else. It takes no real mental effort for me to figure out my friends’ motives for taking pictures—because I share them. I happen to act on those motives in different ways than some people, but they are there all the same.
For example: A couple weeks ago a group of us went out to the Old City of Jerusalem in the morning and walked on the rampart walls. The morning was beautiful, and everyone in the group was taking pictures, me included. I’m a social photographer—when I see every person’s camera out, I feel like maybe I’d be silly not to have mine out too. So out it comes, and I snap photos. But I’m thinking: am I ever going to look at this? And the stress begins.
But the morning rampart walk is not the important point of this story. We soon descended from the wall and walked to West Jerusalem, where we witnessed the playing of the carillon bells—Israel’s largest instrument—up in the YMCA tower. Fun times but still not the salient point of the story. It’s when we were on our way back from all this that it started to rain. And then it started to rain harder. Some of us had raincoats, and some of us didn’t, but it didn’t make a whole lot of difference in the end. We were all cold, we were all wet, and some of us were miserable.
I sort of liked it. Yes, it was cold and wet and I wanted to be inside a building very badly and I wasn’t at all happy with the huge buses that drove by and soaked us with rainwater streams running down the hill as we trudged up Mount Scopus to the Center. But it was memorable. I won’t likely forget that trip back, and
I love that. In fact, as we were leaving the city, I bought a falafel from a street vendor—not because I was particularly hungry but because I knew that eating a hot falafel with close friends in the Old City in the rain would be something I would never forget. It was silly, I know—rushing along watching the falling rain hit the French fries stuffed in my falafel and soak the paper wrapper I held it in. Taking a bite, I saw a splash of white chickpea sauce fall onto my black raincoat and get rinsed down my front by the rain. I, like my camera-happy friends, just wanted to not forget.
Sometimes I would do anything to relive—to stand with my friends in the hallway of Mingus Union High School and not say anything at all, just look at my torn up Vans and stuff my hands in my pockets; to open the door to that apartment in Florencia Varela, Argentina, the one with the black spiral stair case to the second floor; to pull into the driveway of the Gunnarsson home in River Vale, New Jersey, step out of my Toyota Matrix work car, and join my boss and his family for dinner, maybe Swedish meatballs and fresh bakery bread. Let me go back and smell and feel and taste the air of any one of those places—so I know that it was real, that all of it happened, that my life doesn’t actually disappear like I know it does.
I know I can’t go back, so I hold on—with pictures and journal entries and late night reminiscing with friends I’ve known for years. I hold on and watch my life turn into images of Disney World in the rain and dead cows swinging in carnicería windows, into names like Chase Barnes and dates like December 16, 2004—and maybe even into wet French fries in a falafel on a rainy day in Jerusalem.
These aliens snapping pictures all around me—they’re all just holding on. We’re all just holding on.