25 September, 2006


If you have never used Flickr, let me recommend it to you. It’s a website where people can display their photos – and they do, by the million. Just go to the site and browse around at random. Or, better still, get a widget to run on PageFlakes or Windows Live that will pick out random pictures from Flickr every few minutes and present them to you. Of course, if you don’t have broadband – like many of us living in Brisbane, Australia – the experience can be a little slow but it is still interesting.

When I first heard of the site, I expected it to be flooded with pictures of the kids and holiday snaps. There is certainly a lot of that in there but there is also a lot of material by serious amateur photographers – some of it quite wonderful. In fact, because everyone is able to comment on everyone else’s photos, set up their own collections of favourites and recommend them, a bit of a Flickr culture has emerged that values originality. The most interesting, beautiful and thought-provoking images tend to bubble up to the top of the popularity lists – if only for a brief period – and Joe’ new baby shots tend to stay buried where only Joe and his close relatives can easily find them.

I like to keep a random Flickr slideshow running in the background all day long and I’m often surprised and delighted by what turns up. Yet something else is happening as well. The more tiny glimpses I get into other people’s lives and passions, the more it come home to me how transitory everything is. I saw a photo of a part-demolished house just now with the bathroom fittings – hand-basin and shower – still attached to one wall. The wall behind the shower had been painted blue and the hand-basin had a tiled area behind it. I couldn’t help thinking of the person – perhaps the couple – who had carefully chosen that blue and those tiles, just as I have done with paints and tiles in the past. I imagined the pleasure they had taken in decorating their home and how much it had meant in their lives at that time. And now it was gone – and perhaps they were gone too.

It got me thinking about a school assembly one Armistice Day almost 40 years ago. The story was told of the Flanders fields, hideously churned up and devastated by the battles that had raged there for so long, suddenly erupting into beauty after the war as the poppies emerged that Spring. Whatever the moral I was meant to take away about the evils of war, what I remember thinking was how the human population had bounced back too after the war, that, like the poppies, people had sprung up like weeds in the wake of the destruction, more than replacing the fallen millions in just a couple of generations. Armistice Day from then on became a symbol for me of the cheapness and insignificance of human life. Cut us down and plough us back into the earth and we just pop up again like the poppies did.

And all the things that mean so much to us in our lives – like the tiles on our bathroom walls – mean nothing at all to the Universe and it cosmic wrecking ball.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

How aptly-named then is Flickr, suggesting as it does the blink-of-an-eye moments of pleasure, or insight, or curiosity our cameras capture in our blink-of-an-eye lives. Take a look and see what I mean.

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