x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The bonding ritual known as the family snapshot

The significance of family photographs

A soldier carries a crumpled and dog-eared one in the lapel pocket of his battle fatigues. A grandmother has one on a sun-dappled window sill in her home. I keep one in my wallet. It is a kitsch promo from a local shop and it pictures Astrid floating on a background of electric blue, framed in a pink and white heart. In all their various forms, family photographs are treasured objects that many people keep close.

The writer John Berger observed that the most popular use of photographs is as a "memento of the absent". Images spark emotion, evoke nostalgia and refresh memories. The family is one of photography's most potent domains. Family portraiture has a long history dating back to the Renaissance. In that era the family emerged as an independent institution for the first time. For hundreds of years, the conventions of family portraits changed very little. Formal dress, stilted poses, hierarchical arrangements of subjects: these common features survived immense social changes and even endured the invention of the camera by William Fox Talbot in 1839.

It was not until 1888, when George Eastman invented the Kodak, that photography was freed from centuries of artistic and historical baggage. In the last century the family snapshot became, and continues to be, the most common way in which families see themselves together as families. Time and again parents flick through photographs of their family and say, "That was the time when ..." It is a ritual, a way of composing the family's story and adding to the collective memory.

Lucy and I already browse our image hoard and comment on how Astrid looks or how much she has changed in her six months of life. As years pass, we will probably show Astrid some of these photographs and tell her what she was like when she was younger. She will probably be bored, but some stories will stick. In this way, family photographs become a source of identity. Much of the power of family photographs comes from the rapport between the subjects and the viewer. The gaze is two way: eyes look at a photograph and eyes look back. Often the gaze is reflective: viewer and subject are usually the same.

This visual traffic creates a complex web of perceptions within the structure of the family. It allows us to consider how we are looked upon as well as to fashion how we would like to be perceived. We can pick out our roles as father, mother or child and see which images fit our concept of that identity. It also presents a powerful reminder of how things are and how they used to be. Photographs cry out for comparisons to be made between past and present. They say: look upon this - how it was when the image was taken - and upon this - how it is now. One of the starkest evocations of a family that has split up is a torn photograph taken in happier times.

Yet other people's snapshots are mostly just anonymous collections of faces staring back at you. They hold no sway beyond curiosity or aesthetics. Family photographs are a private realm. Much of their meaning cannot transcend the limits of the family. That is why other people's family photographs are so dull. Seven thirty in the morning, and Astrid and I strike out from our flat in Abu Dhabi. Outside is warm and pleasant. Cars, parked in what must have been the last available patch of ground overnight, now jut out, seemingly abandoned by their owners.

Hugging the shadows of the buildings, our choice of routes is slim. Keeping to the pavements is tough going. Only people schooled in "le parkour" - the sport of free running across city rooftops which took off a few years ago - could cope for long with a pushchair, the giant-step curbs, the dead ends, the abrupt drops, the rubble and the sand. Sunlight peeps though a chink in the buildings and Astrid reacts vampirically. She shrinks back in her pushchair and screws up her eyes.

I opt for the road, motoring along for a while, revelling in the smooth ride until a four-wheel drive cuts us up as it reverses out of a parking space. The tarmac ahead is sticky with broken eggs. In the corner of my eye, I spot a cockroach scurrying behind a tyre. Don't get me wrong. Astrid and I are glad to be outside and not cooped up in the flat. But I must reconsider my route for the next time.