In Search of Lost Time
Rooms once decorated and occupied; albums and torn up photos found in a nursing home bin, an indication of a life documented.
Odette was born in the outskirts of Paris on the day The Great War broke out. Her mother died a few years later, and her father married his brother’s widow, as was customary in those days. As a young woman Odette moved to Copenhagen where she met and married a Jewish businessman from Poland. In 1942 they had a daughter, my mother. In 1944 they fled to Sweden, where they lived till the war was over. In 1960 Odette was widowed, and she spent the second half of her life living as a wealthy, independent woman, travelling the world.
In the final years of her life Odette lost her memory, leaving her oblivious to who the people around her were, but still remembering the time in the 1960s when she bought the fabric that decorated her room; curtains, pillows and bed cover. She died in a nursing home, July 2006, on my 30th birthday. I am not sure exactly what story I am telling, except it is one of conflict and loss.
The history of my involvement with photography starts with the family album. Many of the family photographs that fascinated me as a child show people I have never met in real life. Handwritten scribbles on the back reveal their identity. These images link me to the past, my roots, even if I only have my parents’ testimony to confirm this. There is something very haunting about old family photographs. I love the stories they imply. Somehow the stories are mine, because they are part of my family history, and I would not exist without these people. I have part of their DNA in me.
Perhaps I find these photographs haunting because so many of these people died so long ago – but somehow they remain present in the images, captured and immortalized, staring from the past into the present. The photograph holds a secret, and I hope that staring at it hard enough will reveal it. A lot of the work I do is based on family snapshots, and it is often about narrating life and how our identity is partly shaped by images.
People take photos to remember. Something to look at and show, when they want to revisit the past, the time they were pregnant, the time their child was a baby, the first school day. People take photos to remember. And to share.
People imagine that what is in the image has some level of truth to it. They may even feel the images are more true than their memory. If a photo of them is attractive, they feel more attractive. If a photo makes them look fat, they think they must be fatter than they realized. If a photo shows them smiling during a rainy vacation, they think, after all, it was a good vacation.
The reality of images, is more real to us, than our memories. We trust the photos more. As we move away from past reality, images take over that reality and become more real. We base so much of our evaluation of reality on the images we see. It is how we learned how a horse moves when it gallops. It is how we discovered what facial expressions are really like.
Sometimes it is easier to understand the reality of a moment, when we step away from it a little bit, by putting a camera between it and us. It becomes neatly organized within a frame. We gain some level of control over it.
The face of my
grandmother, shot by Man Ray, blended with her curtains. I’m
pregnant and wearing her night dress.
When I was little, my father often photographed me. I got my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic 77x, when I was 9. I think picking up that camera was my way of coming into existence, creating my own story, as well a continuing the one already being told. I started pointing the camera at myself when I was very young. Partly because I was the subject closest at hand, but also because I wanted to see what I looked like from the point of view of others. I soon discovered that the camera’s point of view could be manipulated, and could help me represent the ideal me. It helped me see myself as beautiful. About the same time I also realized I did not like other people to photograph me anymore. I felt vulnerable in front of the camera, and preferred having control of it.
As I have grown older, I have continued to experiment with representing myself, recording physical and mental changes I have gone through. When I was pregnant I photographed myself and my growing belly every few weeks, and uploaded many of the images to my Flickr stream. I feel shy about putting myself out there, in cyberspace, but I also wanted to share the images. It is a game of hide and seek, playing with the boundaries of what can be shown.
When my grandmother became senile and lost much of her memory, she started tearing photos up. My mother discovered a waste basket full of torn up photographs, some dating back to the 40s, some from more recent years, most of them portraits of family members, some old friends too. All these torn up pieces were mixed together, black and white and colour, all mixed up in the waste basket. Mixed up and lost, like her memory. Tearing up photographs is almost sacrilege.
Imagine piercing the eyes of your mother in a photograph. Its just a piece of paper. Or is it a piece of her?
You keep the photos of loved ones close to you. If they hurt you, you can take it out on the photo. It is an frightening act of destruction. The photograph represents the person. Thus it is apparent that my grandmother must have felt hateful and resentful towards all these faces staring at her from the old photos. She must have known they were related to her somehow – but she didn’t remember! The photos had lost their meaning, because they had lost their anchoring in reality, their grounding in her memory.
Memory is also our grounding in reality. It is our horizon of experience and our understanding of our own bodies, which gives us our ability to interpret the world around us.
Photographs have a life of their own. When we look back at old photos, we may discover something new, based on things we have come to learn. We may realize a photo of our parents was taken when they were in fact breaking apart, and we may suddenly see some hint of sadness in the corner of an eye.
Photos tell stories. Stories that only matter if we feel some connection to them, if we recognize something, if they make us think.