In this day and age of Snapchat, Instagram, and whatever the other ones are, the humble photograph has become something of a burden on us all. These days we take photos with the ease and regularity of the act of breathing. Photographs are after all quite nice, in my humble opinion, but this tsunami of selfies and salad shots has diluted what was once a fine art.
Take the once-humble vacation snap. You can go back to your mom's house and rifle through photo albums to see hundreds of halcyon memories from your various trips to blurry coastal towns. These days we take dozens of selfies with some kind of monument in the background and they sit on our phones until we delete them three months later to make room for more selfies.
Flytographer is a travel photography service that sends you out to do tourism with a professional photographer, rather than your cracked-screen iPhone that keeps running out of battery every three hours. According to founder Nicole Smith, "memories are the best souvenirs and some trips deserve more than selfies." Nicole says it's a chance to "hang with a cool, creative local, capture amazing photos that showcase the best of your destination, learn some insider tips, and put your selfie stick away and just enjoy the rest of your trip."
As you can imagine, the main kinds of people who buy this kind of service are either having a big life event or are on their honeymoon, which sounds quite lovely, to be honest. But since I don't have a girlfriend to propose to, I thought I'd give this vacation photography service a crack, but just in London, and all by myself.
I met my photographer Jackie, who told me that she was, like many of the Flytographers, a freelancer hired on a shoot-by-shoot basis. Think of her as an Uber driver for capturing sentimentality as opposed to transporting inebriation. Jackie told me she specialized in marriage proposals and the more unusual kinds of requests that the company got, and that her main client base was American, whom, she said, were "more natural at posing that us Brits." On the basis of what happened next, I think she may be right.
I quickly realized how well she'd mastered the art of laughing at her customers' terrible jokes. It's a beautiful, life-affirming skill. She began by talking me through the locations of our hour-long session which basically ran: Big Ben, Big Ben from another angle, the London Eye, Leake Street, and then Southbank. All the while I dropped conversational clangers that ran in quick succession from my opinions on Brexit to my failures with Tinder, to expertly finishing with a brief discussion of how sweaty I was feeling after the long walk I'd done to get there. Jackie was so breezy in the face of all this that it gave me a slither of hope. I was optimistic, just for a second, that one whole hour of posing in the hive of London's top tourist destinations might not be so awkward after all. Then again, looking at this photo, I might have been wrong.
The thing is about professional photography is that unlike a selfie, it requires a bit of thought and effort. You may look at this shot and think, 'Yes, very natural, very spontaneous, so wacky.' But, in fact, I had to hold this shot for about three to four excruciating seconds while a throng of people walked past and looked at me with varying levels of disdain.
What a shambles. Unhinged, nonsensical, and downright offensive to look at. No, not me! I'm talking of course about the state of British politics today! This was where Jackie had taken me so that we could get a second angle of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. I wanted to have a picture of me swearing at them but Jackie refused. Maybe she wasn't a fan of my biting political commentary. So instead I just kind of pointed at them and shouted something ridiculous which, using all her expertise as a photographer she managed to capture mid-flow, skilfully making me look like the teenage son of Rab C Nesbitt.
To the London Eye, the go-to place to watch the meat of London's tourism slowly rotating like a giant human rotisserie chicken. I'd never been on the London Eye, but it seems similar to Madame Tussauds, Oxford Street and getting public transport, in that no one actually wants to do it but they just force themselves to. Look at me, already starting to get into the London spirit.
Having a professional photographer with me meant I got the benefit of looking at the world through her trained eye. Not only is it really clever that I am standing next to the cartoon of the policeman and copying how he is standing, but the wonderful way the colours of the carousel dance behind me adds to the profound aesthetic appeal of the picture, and for that reason it will be one I will treasure for many years to come. Also, they wouldn't let me ride on the carousel.
We traipsed along the Southbank. Holy shit, this was awkward. I mean, look at the state of me in this picture. Look upon the grimace, and feel all the jangling nerves of strangers discussing you in your presence. Feast upon the clasped hands and weird body shape and remember all the times you had to get up in front of everyone in school and recite a poem or some shit. Leer at the deflected gaze, and relive all those times you couldn't look someone in the eye because you knew it would eat you alive.
As we sauntered down Leake Street, Jackie relayed a touching story from one of her clients. She told me that a groom-to-be had hired her to take photos at some romantic public garden, where his bride-to-be was waiting with a family member. The groom had pretended he was away watching the Euros in France and wasn't going to be back for another week. His fiancee entered the garden location. A violinist started playing the couple's favourite song. The groom appeared out of nowhere to to get down on one knee and propose among the wild and exotic smells of the gardens, while Jackie snapped the raw emotion unfolding right in front of her. Any way here is me doing a wicked cool jumping kick-in like the raccoon out of Kung Fu Panda.
We had reached our final destination, the Hungerford Bridge. It was time for contemplation. Nah not really but I was knackered from having to pose like a dickhead for an hour straight so I guess this photo finally captures me at a time when I'm not being horribly contrived.
What did I take from my photoshoot with Jackie? Although it felt crushingly embarrassing at the time, I seem to be doing some kind of version of a smile in most of the pictures, so I guess I was having fun. And although it didn't really teach me anything new about Southbank and Waterloo, it was weirdly enjoyable to feel like a tourist, being guided around to do only exactly what I was told what to do. I imagine it's what being famous must feel like. And if we're talking about replacing the selfie with something more meaningful, then to be honest, I'm not sure what is worse: an out-of-focus snapshot that you forget about immediately, or having a professional photographer order you to hold a gurn for five seconds straight in public.
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