December 18, 2018

Visit any art gallery where cameras are permitted and you will see one of the saddest – and most common – sights of the modern world: ranks of tourists standing in front of the gallery’s most famous painting, taking photos with their phone.

The moment they get close to the canvas, out comes the device. It will start with a set of snaps of the work itself. Then there will be a progression to a selfie with the painting in the background. This will often be accompanied by the defining look of the era: the open-mouthed, “Oh my God!” expression. It’s half ironic, half cutesy; wholly irritating.

The unnecessary nature of the act is obvious. If you want to gaze again at the painting outside the gallery, you can buy a postcard or download the image online. The best photograph taken on a phone in a crowded gallery will barely approximate the best well-lit photograph taken on behalf of the gallery. The cult of the ‘selfie with painting photo’ is even stranger – an effort to prove that you have actually seen the painting in question. What this says about belief and trust levels today between people and their friends might be explored another time.

The wider suggestion of the pose suggests a more important shift. From ‘How lucky am I to be in the presence of this work’ to ‘How lucky is this work of art to be in the presence of me?’ But the point is that in the blizzard of efforts at photography you cannot help but notice how rarely the photographers spend any time actually looking at the work. They walk up to it, ‘get it’ on their iPhone and move on, so missing perhaps the only chance they were ever going to get to spend time with the work face-to-face.

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In a church in Milan last week, I experienced an even more extreme version of the trend, and one that made me wonder whether, amid the amazing technological progress of us all having a hi-res camera and vast photo collection in our pocket, we are becoming paparazzi, rather than participants, in our own lives.

The occasion was the festival of St Lucia, a Swedish ceremony that traditionally takes place on 13th December. A Swedish friend who happened to be in Milan invited me to one of city’s major churches where the local Swedish community were celebrating.

Because the festival of St Lucia is a harmless and treasured tradition in Sweden it is – like every similar tradition in Europe – at the centre of a seemingly endless culture war. Should St Lucia be represented always by a girl, and a girl with blonde hair at that? Where does this leave minority racial and sexual communities? Why can St Lucia not be a boy? And so on. Everybody in Europe could write the script.

Mercifully, identity wars were not at play in our Milan commemoration. Seven or eight beautiful young women dressed in white processed in from the piazza outside. The lead girl, representing St Lucia, followed the tradition of processing with a hat, or crown, with flaming candles balanced on top of it. As they approached the church, the lights inside went off in readiness for their arrival. They then came in, singing Swedish and other beautiful, haunting songs to St Lucia and others. After half an hour of singing from memory – with often complex harmonies – they processed back out of the church and into the night.

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It is a deeply moving ceremony and you can see why it has been kept so carefully by the Swedes.  It is not only a festival of light in the darkest days of winter and a commemoration of a favoured local saint. It is also a ceremony which taps into some of the deepest and most important human stories. The ability of a single point of light to dispel the darkness of our lives. The beauty and un-reachability of virginity and chastity. The sacrifice – in this case martyrdom – of a vision of purity. It represents a visitation from another realm which we, having been allowed to treasure it for a moment, have it taken away from us. Not leaving us bereft, but leaving us brighter for having been able to welcome the vision.

Yet in the packed Milan church, we were left only mildly brighter than we could have been. Because from the moment St Lucia entered the darkened church, she was greeted by a horde of citizen paparazzi. Local Italians and others could not resist the opportunity to capture the sight of young girls wearing candles in their hair and hoard it among the thousands of other images on their phones.

Some people’s phones flash just once. Others point a great beam of light that only turns off once the best photo has been captured. Those who wished to video the whole procession could shine a constant light on the admirably professional – if dazzled – girls as they processed from one end of the church to the other, a swarm of photographers in tow.

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Nor did the dazzle die down. Once the girls were in position before the altar, people popped up intermittently to get their blurry, dark photo from a great distance. One Italian gentleman across the aisle from me spent most of the singing flicking through the photos he had taken so far, assessing the quality of his handiwork. Of course throughout this process his phone screen shone a great bright light into the air. The same light that shone out in countless other points of light across the church, making you wonder whether it wouldn’t have been darker if the church had left the lights on.

In the moments when I could focus on the singing, I enjoyed the ceremony immensely. But for most of it, I held my head in my hands. Not, as some neighbours may have imagined, because I was praying devoutly to a saint of my own. But because I was thinking the most violent thoughts about my neighbours and fellow men.

I wonder how many of the photographers in the church have spent any time at all looking over the grainy and distant photos from Milan that night. How many have deleted them as being no good? How many will look at the photos they did keep and show them to friends a week from now? Or a month, or a year from now. When they upgrade their phones, will they back their files up on a new computer, and will the St Lucia files be among them? For the light was not very good after all, and no one can quite recall what they were of.

Much of the technology we now take for granted has improved our lives for the better. We can stay in touch with friends and family across continents with an ease that would have made our ancestors cry with envy. We can find information at a tap of a button and solve puzzles with a swiftness that has made encyclopaedias go the way of the dodo.

And yet we have lost something too. We have lost the opportunity of the undefiled moment, the moment of visitation. We have lost what WH Auden captured at the end of his poem ‘Streams’ (1954), where he wished “The least of men their figures of splendour, their holy places.”