I’ve taken 263 photos since arriving in Venice, my husband has taken five | Emma Beddington

Men don’t take pictures like women do. But memory is an unreliable thing and I want to mark our past selves

‘I think you should take a picture of me,” I say to my husband, with slightly gruff embarrassment. We are on a long-planned, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Venice, undertaking a self-devised initiation rite for the empty nest stage of our lives: working and living in a single room for a month with our mildly demented dog.

I can’t stop taking pictures – 263 so far, and counting. Everything is beautiful: the luminous green water against faded yellow and terracotta, the bridges topped with smart Venetians looking at their phones, the glitter of sun or low-lying morning mist on water. I have to capture the joyful decorative flourishes: a stone camel here, a brass lion there, the five-tiered Murano glass chandelier surrounded by plaster daisies in the library where I’m working. My phone is packed with boats, a woman walking nine chihuahuas and countless gulls.

My husband is not taking pictures. When he does, it’s an event, not a habit: I think he has taken five since we arrived. But we are walking along a particularly fetching canal in the sun and the dog, falling apart but still elegant, like the city, is at my side. I have lots of my husband (OK, more of gulls); wouldn’t it be nice to have a few of me? He obliges happily, but I look self-conscious and awkward. It shows I had to ask.

Men don’t take photos. There are countless talented male photographers, but most men don’t seem to take phone pictures the way women do: candid, constant ones of their partners and families. I am in hardly any family pictures, except posed ones taken by friends or relatives. A social media post I saw recently of a sunlit, laughing woman captioned “filming myself for my funeral since my husband never takes photos or videos of me” was followed by a string of “so true” and “can relate” comments. We were already talking about this “image inequity” in my 00s blogging days, but it has been thoughtfully analysed in recent years. Are women taking on another responsibility, as family archivist and chronicler of daily life?

A rare snap …Emma Beddington with the family dog photographed in Venice by her husband.
A rare snap …Emma Beddington with the family dog photographed in Venice by her husband. Photograph: Courtesy of Emma Beddington

I wonder what role social media plays. Instagram, particularly, feels like a female space to me, though actually the platform has only a slight bias towards female users: maybe it is just that my friends are mainly female. I do put pictures up there, and I am uncomfortably aware of sometimes seeing experiences as photo ops. But most of my pictures are not for public consumption. I mainly want to mark our past selves – what we did and where we went. I don’t even print any out, though I should: if we have learned anything recently, it is don’t entrust anything precious to grandiloquent tech bros.

On one level, my husband is right. Holding up your phone is an imperfect and inelegant way of capturing a place or a feeling. That is the classic criticism of the digital age: we are recording, not living. He is good at being in the moment and that is exactly what he is doing here. He loves the people-in-boats-watching and the shifting magic of the light as much as I do, but he is happy to simply enjoy it.

But I’m right too. Memory is unreliable: it is a story we construct for ourselves, not an objective truth. If I think about 2020, my chest tightens and I remember dread, grief and sitting at my desk seven days a week. But if I scroll through my pictures, it is all stupid family games, terrible haircuts and weird but lovely socially distant drinks and breakfasts. There is one son proudly holding a carrot he grew; the other sledging with his dad and the dog during an unexpected snowstorm.

My phone’s camera roll is a powerful corrective to my natural pessimism. My brain will probably frame 2022 as the permacrisis, a time of global grief and fear. But my pictures will tell a different, also-true story: that perfectly spherical aubergine I grew; the sons I also grew. And now, a really good-looking gull or my husband enjoying an espresso. That is why I do it (and why I will keep asking him to do it). If happiness doesn’t come naturally, sometimes you need to take its picture.

  • Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

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