Kerry Alys Robinson

Snapshot of humanity

Thursday, January 25, 2018

“Excuse me, would you take a picture of us?”

All over the world this request is made, to strangers by strangers, and I have never witnessed the request denied.

Many of us have experienced both roles, that of impromptu photographer and requisite subject. The background varies: famous landmarks, exquisite vistas, personally meaningful locations. Time is often a factor: the setting sun, a celebration, a family vacation.

For the photographer enlisted, the acquiescence is pure altruism. It is a simple, kind act of service solely benefiting others. It happens so often across time and place that we forget how uniquely, endearingly human this is.

And the one who requests the photograph? If it were merely a matter of documenting the landmark, a passerby would not be needed. The motivation is often precious: to record a moment in time, shared with others, of a special place and occasion. It is a way to communicate to those with whom one is present, “You matter. Being here, with you, matters. I cherish you.” 

The photograph helps to circumvent the limits of time and space and memory. It captures and preserves in an instant all that is made up of our complicated, loving, seemingly transient and deeply human relationships and documents the messy, joyful experiences of life we share.
That this happens with such frequency is beautiful. It is a testament to our love and gratitude for one another, to selfless acts of kindness and to our capacity to marvel at creation, be that Millennium Park or the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls or the Taj Mahal. It is a reason for one’s hope in our shared humanity.

My own family was at Rockefeller Center in New York City on the evening of Dec. 29, dazzled by the sparkling tree, ice skaters and languages from across the globe. Merriment and wonder were palpable. In an instant, as I observed an elderly man ask a stranger in the crowd to take a photo of his companions with the tree in the background, the immediate willingness of the stranger to do so and the happy, grateful result, I wanted to write about this. 

Excitedly I began to explain to my husband why I found the common encounter so captivating. No sooner had he responded with encouragement then a young couple approached us and said, “Excuse me, would you take a picture of us?” We laughed and eagerly agreed. The young man handed over his camera, posed with his arm around his beautiful girlfriend, framed by the tree, and I watched my husband take the digital photos. I saw their shared delight and approval of the images. Then the young man said, “Would you take one more? This is important.”

There we were, strangers to this couple, happy to be taking their photo one more time in the middle of an ebullient, busy crowd, when the man knelt by his girlfriend’s side, proffered a diamond ring and asked her if she would marry him. She was completely surprised and visibly happy to say yes. 

Astonished to be witnesses to the moment, aware of the heightened responsibility of the role, we took as many pictures as was possible, while an enormous circle formed around the lovers and us, offering their spontaneous, heartfelt applause and congratulations. They were grateful for the photographs as we returned their camera and wished them every blessing in their new life together, and just as quickly as they had entered into our lives, they were gone.

Life is beautiful in ordinary and extraordinary ways. What a blessing to be any part of it at all.