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I don't know about you, but there is a part of my memory reserved for the shots that I have chanced upon but never taken. Perhaps it should be labeled "photographic regrets." Pausing as I survey these, I remember the stories behind them and the reasons for missing the moment. All the photos I have never taken, in sum, provide an interesting commentary on my photographic aspirations an album's worth of blank squares that tell me a great deal about myself.

We had spent a beautiful day on a sunny beach and were just heading out for our last paddle in the fast ebbing sea, a girl walked by me, looking purposefully towards her destination. In her hand she held the shortened string of a butterfly-shaped kite. It reared up behind her, lifted by the wind and dragged in her wake. Kite and girl were bathed in a golden light. By the time I'd registered the scene it was already over and the girl had walked on. Had I been carrying a camera I might have foreseen the image that seared itself into my brain, perhaps not. But, as I walked down the beach, I wanted to have captured that shot. I felt it as a physical pang, almost painful. To have taken the photo would have meant that I possessed the moment which I had let pass by. I wanted to hold a token of the scene in my hand and reassure myself that it had been magical. Doubtless, this reaction is the motivation for a great many people, one of the reasons there is an excess of glorious sunsets and cute kittens caught on film. We all like to feel that we are able to recognize and capture beauty. Knowing that we can stop time and reproduce a scene at a moment's notice gives us a power over that world that is hugely gratifying. It is as though the photograph allows us to defy time. To have missed that opportunity left me with a sense of loss.

By contrast, each time I descend my stairs from the bright landing lights into the darkness of the hall below, I am reminded of the photograph that I intend to take someday soon. As my foot stretches to find the next step, I see an image that speaks to me of many things: death, a loss of memory, of health, sanity - maybe it's a fear of the unknown. Night after night, I am confronted by the same scene, and yet I do not take it. I can see the photograph perfectly. The brightness from above would light my foot harshly then softly fall away, leaving simply a trace of a door at the bottom of the stairs, leading into the darkness. It is a shot, above all, that needs to be technically perfect, subtle. But it isn't impossible to take, so why haven't I done so? Just to describe the image to others brings no satisfaction, the picture in my head is worth a thousand words. So, photography, at first glance, seems a wonderful intermediary; capable of capturing and communicating complexity. Sadly, it is not quite so straightforward. Stripped of its context, any photo I take is in danger of losing the meaning I've attached to it. My personal experiences shape the way I see each image, they are the triggers of the emotions that make me frame and click. Because photography is, in John Berger's words, a half-language, it is ideally placed to translate the inner language of memory but is equally likely to be re-interpreted by each audience. Despite my passion for image-making, I often feel that there are some photographs I could not bear to be misunderstood.

I feel much the same way about a recent vivid memory. I sit at the dinner table across from my son, watching him enjoy eating a cherry. He punctures its skin with his small sharp teeth and the juices burst out. He reaches into his mouth, extracts the cherry pit and smiles an open mouthed smile. Blood red juice runs down his chin and drips onto his white t-shirt, spreading quickly into ominous stains. I see two things: the simple pleasure of a young boy, and the menacing sight of what looks like a punched mouth. I am confronted at once by the evidence of my son's youth and of his inevitable growing up. I imagine a situation where the red is not cherry juice, where my protection is gone and my control relinquished. Could I take a photo of his mouth, chin and t-shirt, flesh pink, blood red and pure white, to remind myself of this moment? I'm not brave enough to do it. The reasons for my cowardice are manifold, the foremost being: what would I do with the shot once it was taken? It is hardly one for the family album. As an artwork it would make an interesting image, a bold statement about the pleasure or loss of innocence. As a mother, I shy away from this exposure, I cannot detach myself from emotions that I am half-afraid of, nor can I use them to inform my image-making. Perhaps it is something I will learn to do in time. Until then, I can only regret that I didn't take the shot.

You may be surprised to learn that I do manage to take some photographs. For all those times I let something pass, there are just as many that I have caught as I hoped. I have plenty of glorious sunsets, a variety of shots that I cannot put in the family album and even one or two that speak both to me and a wider audience. Yet I often return to the photo album in my head as a reminder of the ways in which I would like to grow as a photographer and as a person; and I hope that in the future some of those blank squares will be filled with silver gelatine.


Janet Penny works for a music company in London, in her spare time she takes photos with her favourite plastic camera. You can visit her online at: www.mymonthinplastic.com




 
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