The rain fell in short light bursts on the dock in Portofino. It was like any other drippy day in a quaint town on the Italian Riviera. And for that matter, I can’t even say for sure if being in Portofino had anything to do with my epiphany, or if it was just mere coincidence that what I heard and what I saw changed forever the way I looked at holiday cards boasting family vacation photos.
We traveled a lot when I grew up and my Pop always asked strangers to take our family vacation photo, which often became the annual Christmas card. To complicate matters, he liked us to be walking in the photos. Asking a stranger to snap a photo of what would live in the family album to mark that specific year is one thing. Asking a stranger to snap a photo of your family walking is a far more complicated request.
Tourists milled around the dock waiting for the next ferry. “Let’s stand over here against the wall,” says the father of four to his wife. I watch as he approaches a man explaining camera settings to his son. “Hello,” he says holding his arm out, red digital camera dangling from a tie dye strap around his wrist. “Will you take our picture?” He says opening his mouth wide to form perfect English words and adding eye motions and pleading face gestures as he hands the camera to the stranger. He holds the index finger and thumb of his left hand in front of his face as if grabbing a king size bar of ivory soap as his right index finger moves up and down as if pushing the trigger button on the camera. The stranger nods. He understands from the pantomime that he is being asked to take a photo.
“No please, please, a few more,” the mother says in rapid voice, unaffected by the fact that the stranger does not speak her language. The stranger tries to hand the camera back to the husband a second time, but the husband makes the trigger finger motion again, this time more rapidly. “Tell him to leave extra room at the top or bottom so we’ll have space to write Happy Holidays from the Jasper Family, Portofino 2011.”
The husband acknowledges her, full well knowing he will not try to use hand signals to interpret his wife’s holiday inscription as she will surely change it several times before the card is printed. “Another day in paradise” it might read if it weren’t raining, or “Celebrating our 20th with the kids in Portofino where we honeymooned. WooHoo!” Whatever the message, there is no need to attempt a verbatim translation. In sign language, the father has no idea how to say leave more space at the top or bottom. He instinctively reaches above his head as if picking apples from a tree, then makes a back and forth waving motion, next with both hands at waist level he pushes his hands downward in a motion that’s a cross between air sit-ups and rinsing a bed sheet in a stream. He repeats the motions indicating to leave room at the top or bottom, but his movements are misinterpreted by the on-looking crowd.
Apple picking, window washing, sheet rinsing, trigger finger, >repeat<, apple picking, window washing, sheet rinsing, trigger finger – the gestures take on a rhythm that are accompanied by a local teenage boy slapping his open palms against the sides of a tin garbage can. First to step out of the staged photo is the oldest son, then the daughter joins in, next a buzz-cut tourist in shorts and his tattooed girlfriend, then the ticket taker by the gang plank – soon everyone on the dock is in syncopated motion: fingers high - reach the sky, fingers spread proud – wipe the cloud, hands down - push the ground, wiggle the tip - snap the pic, and with that, the new vacation photo Macarena hits the cobbles of Portofino like American Bandstand come home to roost. The crowd is in motion, young and old moving, twisting and gyrating in unison as if under a spell. When the ferry boat horn sounds, the crowd, just having participated in an Italian style unrehearsed flash mob, stops as quickly as it started and cues up for the voyage to the next port of call.
On many occasions I push myself on traveling families if I recognize a setting that will serve as a good keepsake image. I do the finger trigger pantomime and reach for their camera. It makes tourists smile and I feel good knowing they will have at least one happy snapshot to share on their holiday card… like the 1958 Christmas card memory I hold dear of my beret-clad family snapped by a stranger with my Pop’s camera on a Paris tarmac in August of 1958.So, as I said in the beginning, while waiting on the dock in Portofino, I had an epiphany and adopted the role of stranger/photographer taking my own curious photographs of tourists posing for their family photos – those all-telling potentially incomplete photos snapped in an instant by a stranger that, back home, might make you think… that’s not exactly how I remembered it. As for these taken-by-a-stranger vacation photos, maybe I saw something interesting in their pose that would be better enlarged and displayed on an art gallery wall than short lived on a holiday card. My faux vacation photos were never intended to be used as holiday cards… unless you are from California where the norm is abstractly translated or you happen to be a stranger who photographed my family on vacation or you plan to bring a briefcase when you visit relatives at the beach in Santa Cruz.