Don't Speak

Silence as photography

What is "the quietest picture" you've ever taken? Not "first memory," "favorite vacation," or "one where you most look like your mother," but the one that conveys silence. A lack of crowds, sirens, children, witnesses. The one that makes no noise. When you look at it, you hear nothing. Not shouting, barking, even cars passing in the street. No noise. No echo.

This past week, one Twitter user posed this very question, sending users scrolling backwards through albums, photo rolls, Instagram feeds. It was a rare prompt. An opportunity. A counter to a truth universally recognized:

There is a moment on a hike, a trip, a journey to somewhere when you ask yourself or someone asks you, “what will you do with that picture?” You will have been snapping sleeping cats and views from atop tourist attractions for days, weeks. Constantly reaching into your designated phone pocket. Or removing your lens cap. You will have hundreds, hopefully not thousands of tropical flowers, funny signs in foreign languages, dishes of food you ordered on description alone. You will Instagram one, text another to the group chat. The rest will move eventually from photo folder to Butt, potentially never to be seen again. Given the rarity of printed albums, scrapbooks, places, or opportunities to share ALL the sunsets and moments of your far-flung-distant-present, “what will you do with this” is a valid question. The answer may be nothing. You will rarely if not never show it to someone. Until a coworker asks how your summer went. Until a friend traveling to the same region wonders if you have a suggestion. Until Google dredges it up and presents the still as a memory from years back and playfully compiling a slideshow. Until then, it will stay buried under increasing layers of similar photos from future expeditions.

Be it a trip to a new coffee spot in the opposite direction you usually walk or a footpath truly not on any map, it will end up on the same sluiceway. Bound to be forgotten if not covered in dust regardless of why it was taken. Despite the importance of that moment. Maybe you took a picture from that bench in the depths of the park for yourself. To remember. Later. As a memento of a particularly hard day when you wandered to be alone and cry in adjacent public. Or maybe it’s a snap from the spot you found on your lunch break that you weren’t certain you’d ever be able to locate again. A picture of the last night in your apartment. A picture of an insect in the center of the sidewalk that you almost stepped on that everyone else walked past. Proof. Perhaps grounding. A moment to be present. A ripple in the mundane.

Of the excavated, responses to the tweet included: Remote cabins. Cemeteries. A few sleeping infants. Lone cyclists down thin, red dirt roads. Empty cafes, shuttered businesses. Paths that led over the horizon, parting the grass. Single trees growing in a clearing. Beaches in cold months or bad weather. Shorelines. Sprawling bodies of water. The streets at night. Strays napping in ruins. Steppes. Temples. Railways under snow. The view from an airplane window.

The majority capture the opposite of ordinary. Unless you’re a landscape photographer, these are not places you find yourself daily. Many could be hashtagged “wanderlust.” They are international geographic. There are fjords, dolphins, desert flowers, sled dogs. These are spaces beyond backyards. Places that seem like you must walk until you lose any discernable path in order to reach. There is remoteness. Unbroken spiderwebs

Many give the sense that their viewer slipped away from civilization. To where there aren’t roads. Or cellphone signals or presumably reasons to check your watch. Peaceful corners where the sun rises to the sound of birds. There is more driftwood than there are people. It is largely uninhabited, this quietness. No motorbikes, jetliners, ringtones. But, animals. Surely. Obviously. Flocks taking off over a still river. Certain bugs. Large herds. Grazing, passing. A sense of coexistence. Of nature going on around us. The earth and its everyday business.

And the order of it all captured by an iPhone. The person behind the lens seizing the chance to immortalize the scene. And now share it. The entirety of their audience now crowded onto that bench. That mountain ledge. All of us onlookers, peering out, listening. The humming of a computer falls away. The washer, the fridge, the radiator, whatever it is is stifled by the named serenity of red rocks, fog coated valleys, blooming meadows.

We crowd together. Wondering while also knowing with confidence that that forest, that ridge, that very twig is quiet. It looks like it. We trust our eyes to decipher sound. Having been asked to infer another sense from an image, we look upon dunes, rockfaces, open ocean and decide what it must sound like. There is consensus. In listening to a visual and determining what noises are held in that moment.

Only the viewer knows for certain what could be heard in the moment. Perhaps in memory, they can recall the specifics of wind. The babbling of the creek. Snow crunching underfoot. Small animals moving in the undergrowth. Perhaps there isn’t much but the sound of one’s own breathing. Or the unmistakable click of a camera lens.