Lightfast for 100 years. Failing some DNA-rejuvenating nanotechnology or interstellar round trip at lightspeed, the strip of photos would outlive us by several decades.
“Imagine if, in 2121, one of our great grandchildren inherits an old box of our possessions and finds this photostrip inside. And their parents tell them, “this was your great grandfather, or grandmother, one hundred years ago in Berlin.”
I heard a giant screech and a huge red train swept across the railway bridge over the street we were currently on.
“I’ve always thought that would be weird. I mean, we’re living in the past right now, from their perspective at least. Imagine them in the future talking about us. Like, “I can’t believe people used to travel by train.” That kind of thing.
Susana laughed. “How do you think people will get around a hundred years from now?”
“I don’t know, flying cars I guess? It just seems crazy to think about this futuristic city seeming outdated and old. You know?”
I tried to really visualise what it would be like looking back at this era. It was of course way beyond my comprehension.
“Anyway, time to send ourselves to the future! Do you have two fifties?”
Susana rummaged around her purse and dropped two fifties into my hand, joining the 2-euro coin that was already waiting patiently in my palm.
“We need a concept,” I said, quoting the wisdom of one of my photographic accomplices the first time I set foot in a Photoautomat six lightyears ago. I wonder where those photos are now.
“Yeah, you know, like… ‘happy, sad, surprised, angry’ or ‘awake, bored, yawning, asleep’. That kind of thing.”
“I see! Well I have some accessories. This hair thing. Some sunglasses. What do you have?”
“I have sunglasses too. And a mask obviously.”
“Nooo… you can’t wear that. We don’t want people in the future being reminded of the pandemic.”
“Hmm… good point. Hey, we could use my reading tablet.”
I unlocked the screen and adjusted the font size to 99. Swiping through, I found a suitably cryptic phrase: MACHINE. HOW CAN ANYONE KNOW SUCH AN IDENTIFICATION?
It didn’t really mean anything, but it fit the retrofuturistic aesthetic.
“Ok, great! Let’s go in!”
We crammed into the booth and set the worn metal stool spinning around and around, unsure after thirty turns whether it had adjusted the height or not. Whatever.
Close the curtain. Coins in. Sit down. Adjust hair.
“Fuck I wasn’t ready!”
“Oh god, me neither—quick put the sunglasses on!!”
I threw them onto my nose and even had a second to spare to touch the reading tablet in case it fell asleep mid-exposure.
Hold up the tablet. Wait, shit – Susana has removed her sunglasses this time. I can’t have sunglasses on in two photos in a row. In a flash of improvisation, I slid them down my nose a few centimetres to create intrigue.
“What’s our concept again?”
“We forgot to come up with one!”
Shock horror. Susana screamed. I placed my hands on her face from behind and screamed too. That ought to do it.
Relief washed over us; our minute of stress was fixed in time forever. Already on its journey to 100 years in the future at the precise speed of one hour per hour. We pulled back the curtain, and light and air streamed into the booth. Now for the boring part. Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It was a famous quote about what it was like being in a World War One trench – one hundred years ago. It applied equally to this photographic experience, albeit to a much lesser degree.
There was a small engraving beside the slot: Photo development in five minutes.
Five minutes was a long time when you were waiting. I crouched down and made myself comfortable on a breeze block, taking in the tangle of bikes and Sunday passersby at eye level. It was getting to the part of the year where you could reasonably describe it as cold. All the leaves were orange, but whether it was autumn or already just winter was more a matter of semantics. The sun was just readying itself for its dramatic and disgustingly early disappearance after the clocks went back for daylight wasting time. It’s just the sun’s way of making sure we appreciate her in summer. She does it because she loves us, I tell myself every year.
“Did we look at the time?”
“Hmm… no. I think it’s been about two minutes so far,” I answered.
“Time really crawls when you count every second,” noted Susana.
“Hmm… yeah. It’s like being a child again.”
“Exactly. Remember all those endless school days? A school year felt like an entire lifetime! It kinda makes sense though. I mean, imagine you’re seven. Another seven years brings you to fourteen. That represents a doubling of your lifetime. Whereas it would take over a quarter of a century to double our lives.”
A quarter of a century. So a seven-year-old’s school experience from seven to fourteen seems like what twenty-five years seem like to me. Sounds about right, if a little terrifying.
My gaze returned to the slot.
“It’s definitely been five minutes. I hope it’s not broken.”
“Well… there were some people here before us and their photos still haven’t appeared yet,” said Susana.
“I’m sure they’ll be there any moment now,” I answered, trying to reassure myself more than her. “I was thinking the other day. You know when you’re on the right street but at the wrong house number? You have to walk in a big straight line along the street. Well, waiting is kind of like that, except instead of being in the wrong place in one of the spatial dimensions, you’ve got all the coordinates correct. It’s the time dimension that’s wrong. So the act of waiting is like moving in a straight line through time. Just like walking up a long street to get to the right number.”
“Wow… That’s really cool! I’ve never thought of it like that before.”
“If you want to meet up with someone in the world, both things have to be correct – space and time. Otherwise you’ll miss each other. Perhaps by metres, perhaps by minutes.”
“Do you think the photos are in the wrong space or the wrong time?” Susana asked.
“Hmm… good question!” I said, pressing my ear against the machine. There was a definite hum. “I’d say a bit of both. Although, the machine is definitely doing something.”
“It might just be like, the background workings. The lights and stuff. Maybe it’s run out of paper. I can’t imagine they check them very often.”
“Hmm yeah… maybe,” I said. “Hey look, there’s a service number here! Should I call it?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Do you have German minutes?”
“Ha. Me neither. Their plans are so expensive. Ok never mind, I’ll dial it anyway. Oh, one, six, five…” I dialed the number with very low expectations. “It’s Sunday at 17:00, though. I can’t imagine anyone’s just sitting there waiting for our call––Oh! It’s ringing!” The phone rang. I turned on the speakerphone.
Oh, I thought. It must be the wrong number.
“Err… Hi. We’re trying to use the photobooth on Holzmarktstraße. We’ve waited ages and the photos haven’t appeared. It’s eaten our money.”
“Ah… sorry about that,” he replied.
I could hear people talking and laughing in the background. Not a huge number of people – probably around four to seven. It sounded like a casual Sunday gathering in somebody’s flat.
“I had a few people call earlier but then the calls stopped.”
Ok, so that means the machine might be working intermittently. Still, surely this was a joke and the other guy was just going along with what I was saying. I mean, fair enough. What else are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon?
“Listen, just email me your IBAN number and I’ll refund the money, okay?”
No way, I thought. He’d really do that?
“Wow! I mean… yeah… that would be great! Maybe you could put a sign up too so people know this one’s out of order? Or replace the film roll, or whatever.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that too. Thanks for letting me know.”
“No worries. Thanks for your help! Bye.” I hung up the phone, unsure whether to believe the brief exchange that had just taken place.
I didn’t feel as bad about losing the coins now. At least we had a funny story, and there was now a real chance we would get the money back. We left the scene, finally accepting that our pictures had been lost forever. It didn’t really matter though; we are losing moments all the time. Every second is one you will never see again. But they get replaced by new moments almost immediately, so it’s okay in the end.
Just as the experience had escaped our realm of immediate concern, something captured Susana’s attention while we were crossing the street.
“There’s another Photoautomat over there!”
Was this our lucky day, or merely another chapter of our misfortune?
“Hmm look, the sample pictures on this one are different. The people are different,” she said. “Maybe one day our lost photos will appear on the other one.”
“Maybe it’s even intentional,” I said. “Perhaps the machine holds back every hundredth strip. That might be where they get the sample images from. It would make them look more authentic. In fact they wouldn’t just look more authentic – they would actually be authentic.”
“Ok, let’s do it. I’ll get the tablet ready again. Do you have any coins?”
“I still have a few, yeah.”
I sat down on the stool and looked at the instructions. “It takes tens, twenties… anything really.”
Susana joined me and closed the curtain. This time we felt slightly more prepared. What’s more, we had a concept – recreating the lost photos. The inside of the booth was identical to the other one. That’s the thing about photo booths. You can never be quite sure where you will be when you open the curtain and return to the real world.
We put the coins into the machine and immediately noticed a red digital display indicating how much we had put in. This was missing from the previous one, and gave us confidence that it would work this time.
Ok. We wouldn’t be caught by surprise this time.
Normal and serious.
Hold up the tablet. Oh no! I’ve done it again. The sunglasses are still on. Better quickly slide them down my nose. Just like last time. Perfect.
Now time for the scream. Hands over face. It was something like this I think?
Thank god. All the poses were a fair simulacrum of the originals. Except for the first one of course: When the very first flash went off, we had no idea what position we were in due to our total lack of readiness.
“Ok now start the timer!”
I started the timer on my digital watch, checking back from time to time as it counted forwards in a straight line. This time, the five minutes went by quickly. Even waiting twenty minutes to get those pictures would have seemed like a good deal after being deprived of them the first time.
A few groups of people passed us on the way out of the club area in front of which the photobooth was located.
“You know, time travel is actually possible, but only forwards.”
“Well, if you could travel in a spaceship at close to the speed of light, and you traveled five light years away from the Earth, and then five light years back, you’d be right back here again. For you, the trip would only take a few hours, but when you got back, it would be 2031. You wouldn’t even have to eat. Imagine that. You could be back here in ten years’ time, having not eaten the entire time, yet be totally healthy and not a day older. And it’s not even science fiction. It’s not even debated anymore in the scientific community.”
“I can’t get my head around that.”
“No one can,” I replied, “but we know that’s what happens.”
Susana started unlocking her bike.
“I’ll get my bike ready to save time,” she said.
That’s a funny phrase, ‘save time’. What would happen to the saved time exactly. Where would it go?
I looked at my watch as the final few seconds counted down.
Six, five, four, three, two, one.
Almost as if by magic, the strip of photos dropped down into the slot, dead on time.
“Oh my god, it’s so punctual!” exclaimed Susana.
It really was. It must be on a timer; there’s no way developing these photos just happens to take exactly five minutes.
We looked at the photos.
And they were magnificent.
Worth every second of turmoil.
“I’m reading this book at the moment. It talks about our emotional reaction to things:
“We find a Photoautomat – excited.
“It takes ages to develop the photos – impatient.
“We find out it ate our money – angry.
“We realise the photos are gone forever – disappointed.
“We have a phone call with a stranger – amused.
“He tells us the money can be refunded – relieved.
“We find another one – hopeful.
“It works this time – grateful.”
“Exactly. It’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? We actually have more to show for our efforts than we would have had, had it worked properly the first time.”
“Indeed. You can never tell whether something is truly good or bad until you have all the information. Sometimes the reference frame changes. You might miss a train and meet the love of your life, or leave something behind and have to go back for it, only to narrowly avoid getting hit by a bus. So we shouldn’t take those moments too seriously. There is no such thing as loss. It’s just a story we tell ourselves.”
When I got home, I wrote an email to the stranger on the phone:
Dear Photoautomat Guy,
We spoke earlier on the phone when the Photoautomat on Holzmarktstraße gobbled our money. I would be most grateful to receive the promised refund. We later found the booth around the corner and the photos turned out superrrr.
My IBAN is: XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX.
Black and white regards,
Five minutes later, my phone pinged, and almost as if by magic, the three euros dropped into my account.