I came across an interesting fact recently. Erik Kessels, the Dutch curator and editor often best known for his work with the advertising agency KesselsKramer, created a photo exhibition in France some years ago where he observed the lost art of the family photo album. He commented that during the heyday of the photo album, a person would create only about six or seven photo albums over the course of their life. The first one typically focused on the budding relationship of a man with his future wife. Photos in this album were most commonly the man taking pictures of his partner-to-be, in which she was close up in the frame. It reflected that he admired her.
The subsequent albums followed a logical course. There was the wedding album. The first child album. The family vacations, with more children (oddly photoed less than the first child), and the memorable events like graduations, awards, or life milestones.
However, the final photo album typically contained pictures after the kids were grown and out of the house when the aging couple were empty nesters. Kessels observed that the man once again took pictures of his wife. But in these pictures, she was usually smaller in the frame with more background. Kessels suggested this indicated either the man had lost some of his admiration for his wife or that she no longer enjoyed being photographed.
I glanced at my phone and thought about my camera. I had not thought of the pictures I take as an indication of what I admire, who I admire, or how much I admire them. What do I consider worthy of focus? I realized that there is meaning behind my lens, not just in front of it.
Focus is important for everybody. But its significance is magnified in the life of a leader. Leaders tend to be upfront and public, so crowds observe their actions. And it comes with the territory that those decisions are celebrated or critiqued, depending on the circumstances. And the character of one's leadership is reflected in where one places consistent focus.
However, people who do not live in the public eye may miss the opportunity to reflect on their own focus to the same degree that leaders reflect on it. Public response to a leader’s decisions keeps their actions at the surface of their observation. A leader worth his salt will think about their priorities often. But most people live without thinking about what they give their time and attention to. From day to day, moment to moment, people focus on what they prioritize between the more memorable events. And those priorities are not often evaluated.
So, in light of Kessels’s observation of photo album history, here’s an exercise for you. I’d like to challenge you to look at your pictures in your phone’s photo album and your social media posted photos – all filtered and smoothed. If you did not know who is behind the camera lens and why you chose to take each picture, what conclusion would you come to about your focus? If the premise is true that a picture reflects the photographer’s admiration and values, ask yourself: Am I enamored with real beauty or superficial aesthetics? Are there more pics of my family, my children, and my friends than there are of strangers? What events do my pictures imply that I think should be cherished? Who does my camera indicate I admire?
If this exercise did for you what it did for me, perhaps you are sobered. You may be encouraged when you see what your favorite photo subjects reflect. And maybe you’d like to re-evaluate your priorities. You know, delete some pictures and take some new ones.
Our phones have made cameras easily accessible at all times. Taking pictures wasn’t always as convenient as it is now. Perhaps it is easier than ever to document our life history. But it’s certainly easy to recognize what our cameras say about our priorities.