When the Subject Date-Stamps the Image

I love it when a subject date-stamps one of my street photos — when it mentions the day of the week, or the name of the month, or tells us the year in which the shot was taken.

The art of street photography and the concept of time are irrevocably intertwined. In all photography, time is embedded in the still image: a passing moment fixed forever in the representation of the subject. If you want to know exactly when that moment occurred you can look up the EXIF file and find out the time and date of origination, unless processing has stripped away the details and consigned them to the unrecorded past.

Yet I find it surprising that so few street photographs carry any visual information to indicate time of day, day of month, or even a reference to the current year. I guess it’s because everyone now has a mobile phone and wristwatch so there’s no longer a practical need for clocks in public spaces.

I’m not suggesting that every street photo needs to refer directly to the date. That would be absurd. But it’s good, occasionally, to remind ourselves that our images are located precisely in the flow of time, even when many of them may look deceptively timeless — at least for now.

I say “for now” because although street photos don’t look dated for the first year or two after they are taken, they do assume their place in time once a decade or two have passed. Fashions, car designs, buildings and street furniture change quite rapidly, making our photos a record of the past in less time than we care to imagine.

Landscape photographers can play with the concept of time more easily: balancing the ephemerality of changing seasons against the relative permanence of geological features such as rivers and mountains. Only when something really dramatic occurs — as it did recently with the complete collapse of Malta’s famous Azure Window — can we locate a photo of such a feature in the flow of time. Pre-2017 the Azure Window existed. Post-2017 it did not.

So if time is inextricably bound up with the photo, regardless of the subject, why is it good when the subject declares the time overtly? Why do I sometimes like to see “2017,” “Tuesday,” or “March” — or other such specific, time-related reference — within the image?

I’m not sure if I can answer that question. It just feels right.

What Day Is It?
The best way I can explain my feeling about this topic is to look at a specific example. My featured image (above) shows a girl wearing a tee-shirt that says: “Sunday, Funday.” The photo is one of my personal favourites, although I think some viewers will find it rather ordinary. I took it on a Sunday when not much was happening. The streets of Bangkok were quiet and everyone seemed a bit hung over from the night before.

Thai people are very aware of the days of the week. My partner and her friends always exchange “virtual flowers” in specific colours to mark Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc., on Line (the oriental equivalent of WhatsApp). In case you’re interested, the “lucky colours” are red for Sunday; yellow for Monday; pink for Tuesday; green for Wednesday (day); grey for Wednesday (night); orange for Thursday; light blue for Friday; and purple for Saturday.

My photo has a prevailing atmosphere of “ennui,” evoked by the anxious gesture of the girl on the left and the downright miserable expression of the man who is entering the frame from the right. Only the figure in lucky Sunday red seems cheerful. The central figure, the girl with the “Sunday, Funday” tee-shirt, is neither sad nor happy but just stares dreamily into the distance. She hopes for the best although her day could go one way or the other.

I’ve checked the EXIF and I can confirm I took the photo on a Sunday. In fact, I remember it well. The photo captures my own mood at that moment as well as the collective mood of the subjects. Up to that point my day hadn’t been very successful and could have gone downhill even further. But getting this shot turned everything around. Maybe those lucky colours really do work!

What Year Is It?
Time seems to pass slowly for young people but all too quickly for older people. This is mostly because we fall into regular habits as we get older and the days become less memorable as a result.

My next photo (below) shows an elderly man standing in front of a poster of four young children and looking at something which has attracted his curiosity beyond the frame. Whatever can it be?

I guess the clue is in the bubbles. A child was blowing some huge bubbles from inside a pram — it was definitely worth stopping to look. Meanwhile, my camera snaps the moment before the bubbles burst (at eight minutes to two in the afternoon). The EXIF doesn’t tell me the exact second but at least the image gives a big clue as to the year. “Opening 2017” places the photo in either 2016 or early 2017. The man’s light jacket tells us it’s summertime: hence 2016.

The photo of the man and the bubbles is not nearly as good as “Sunday, Funday” but it still has internal tensions which raise it above the ordinary. The overt mention of time — the statement of a proposed opening date the following year — is a factor that plays well when the theme is old age versus youth. But there is also the dignified expression of the man with the bag, which contrasts sharply with the cheeky attitudes of the children in the poster.

There is something disturbing about the Primark poster kids. I think some of them have been photographed separately then photoshopped together. Moreover, the girl with the long hair seems to have a huge left hand. It’s bigger than the boy’s hand in front. Can that be right? When I look at the poster I feel as bemused as the old gentlemen himself.

Time passes quickly for people, posters, shops and bubbles; slowly — but no less inexorably — for stones and mountains. With the progression of time, disorder in the universe increases. Stones and mountains eventually crumble; we’ve seen it with the Azure Window. As Professor Stephen Hawking says in “A Brief History of Time”: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

Photographers swim against the flow of time, bringing order by representing people and places in ordered compositions. Surely it’s worthwhile to give this activity a seal of approval, now and again, by allowing the subject to place a date-stamp somewhere in the image? It can’t do any harm.

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