Last weekend I sent an old pal a picture of my boyfriend sitting outside a pub with our dog in his lap. He looked handsome, I thought: salt and pepper hair curling over his ears as he gazed into the pint glass which hovered, tantalisingly, beneath his nose. Eclipsed by this vision of canine perfection, my boyfriend – identifiable only by his beanie and a sweater-clad arm snaking around to keep the precious pint out of slobbering distance – had become merely an outline. Magritte's bowler-hatted Son of Man updated for the Instagram generation, a cute dog – rather than an apple – where his face should be.
Nevertheless, my pal was delighted to receive tangible (if not incontrovertible) proof that the man for whom I had fled the country between lockdowns and after just a handful of real-life encounters is a living, breathing person and not a figment of my imagination. "So that's him," she responded drily. "He exists!" I texted back, only half-joking. Eighteen months after we met, you see, there are still no photographs of my boyfriend and me together. Not a shred of pictorial evidence – in our camera rolls, on social media, framed above the fireplace – to confirm our presence in each other's life.
Pics or it didn't happen. When whoever is in charge of these things sits down, decades from now, to compose an epitaph for the 21st century, they could do a lot worse than those five little words. Equal parts threat and mantra, finished with a splash of scepticism, it might just be the perfect caption for an age of pathological documentation in which we record and file away our experiences even as they unfold around us. "Pics or it didn't happen!" we chant, rounding up the crew for a dance floor shot just as the beat drops and the crowd goes wild. "Pics or it didn't happen!" we reply to a message from our best friend happily announcing their engagement.
Inevitably, perhaps, given that social media is pure validation – and is there anything more validating than someone choosing to share their life with you? – Instagram has cultivated an offshoot of our compulsion to capture everything which is essentially a step-by-step procedure for declaring a new love interest to the world. In 2021 couples 'soft launch' their relationships online, unveiling a significant other square by square – a glimpse of an elbow here, a detail of a tattoo there – until, finally, once both parties have agreed it's the real deal, they make it 'Instagram official' and we get to see the complete picture. Think of it like Catchphrase, only your boyfriend is Mr Chips and there's no Roy Walker egging you on. ("It's good...but it's not right!")
Against this image-choked backdrop, should I be worried that my boyfriend and I aren't snapping away like everyone else? Relationship expert Cheryl Muir says: "Photographs together are a statement of solidarity and commitment. Some couples enjoy sharing in this way; others choose to keep it more private. The key is making sure both partners feel the same way about photographs and how they are shared." This, at least, sets my mind at rest. My boyfriend and I have a similar approach to social media in that we are both lurkers, rather than sharers. Alongside a mutual appreciation of pineapple on pizza, it may well be the glue that binds us together.
But consider this: the instant you step back from a moment in order to photograph it, that moment – for you, at least – ends, perhaps prematurely.
Social media notwithstanding, I can see how it might be nice to have a private record of our relationship to look back on as we age and our memories begin to fail us. Mid 30s and hard of hearing, we already spend most of our days yelling "What? What's that?" in each other's direction; it's only a matter of time before we're squinting at one another across the kitchen and screaming: "Intruder! Intruder! Get out!"
Yet there is something about this logic – a future-proofing mindset of the sort that underpins pensions and life insurance – which strikes me as deeply unsexy. Call me reckless but I'm just not sure I want to be leaning against my boyfriend's shoulder, enjoying a particularly romantic sunset, then all of a sudden think Dividends! and rush to find my camera.
There are plenty of people who feel differently of course and Cheryl says it all comes down to our individual 'love languages' as identified by Gary Chapman in his New York Times bestseller, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret To Love That Lasts. "For example," she explains, "if you have the love language of quality time, then a photograph captures the moment and that photograph becomes incredibly meaningful to you in remembering that quality time spent together."
But consider this: the instant you step back from a moment in order to photograph it, that moment – for you, at least – ends, perhaps prematurely. Any photo you subsequently take will be of a moment that has finished; or it will be a photo of an altogether different moment from the one you had intended to capture, a moment in which you are no longer a participant, merely an observer. It's like hitting pause on the videotape of your life, then pressing play and finding that the story has skipped ahead and you've been booted out of shot. Is that any kind of existence, a lifetime of unfinished scenes?
Susan Sontag described this conundrum in her 1973 essay, Photography. "A way of certifying experience," she wrote, "taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by converting experience into an image, a souvenir." Now, an angst-ridden thirtysomething raking over the finer points of her personal life is obviously not what Sontag had in mind when she set out to pen her defining work of criticism. But I suspect – and bear with me here – that our shared reluctance to commit ourselves to film is not a sign that my boyfriend and I can't stand the sight of one another but rather confirmation that we're doing pretty well, thanks for asking. Not to generalise but it seems to me that the vast majority of couples embracing the Instagram soft launch, for instance, are in their early to mid 20s. When you're that age, the future stretches endlessly before you, a new experience lying around every corner. Why not leap out of the frame to take a photograph? The next one will be along any minute. Maybe this (quite a lot older) couple's hesitation to pause whatever it is we're doing so that we can photograph it is an acknowledgement that the cupboard of new experiences isn't as well stocked as it once was. What's the use in having something to remember the good times if you don't savour the good times while they're happening?
Perhaps we're just a pair of self-centred airheads who don't like the way we look on camera.
Ultimately I wonder whether we are simply afraid of setting the bar for our relationship too high. There's a scene early on in When Harry Met Sally where Harry explains to Sally why he never gives his girlfriends a lift to the airport: "When you take someone to the airport it's clearly the beginning of a relationship [then] eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, 'How come you never take me to the airport anymore?'" True, it's a cynical stance and Harry eventually grasps the limitations of this way of thinking. Yet I believe it speaks to a very real fear, which many of us have, of losing the spark in our relationships once we exit the so-called honeymoon phase. When we photograph ourselves, we crystallise a moment in time. It will probably be a happy moment since we do not, generally speaking, record the unhappy occasions. Do we thereby sentence ourselves to a lifetime of trying to live up to that moment when we were perfectly happy? A lifetime of never taking each other to the airport anymore?
Then again, perhaps it's not that deep. Perhaps we're just a pair of self-centred airheads who don't like the way we look on camera. Perhaps we're lazy. Perhaps it's the end of a pandemic year and we simply haven't done anything worth photographing. Next time we go to the pub, perhaps we'll turn the camera on ourselves and find out. I wonder whether our dog knows how to work a smartphone...