I’ve been thinking about photographic representations of life lately. My daughter has been asking my partner and I to tell her and her sisters stories from our respective childhoods. I have discovered that I don’t have a lot of stories that are top of mind that I can easily recall. I’m not sure why since I’ve only been an adult for 10 years or so. It could be slightly more, but it is hard to keep track of things like age…
There are some memories that are strong and distinct and that are easy to pull out at the drop of a hat. Others require some context to draw them out and still others are triggered by photographs or smells.
I’ve been wondering how many of those memories that are associated with photographs are real memories and how many of them are visual representations that I have seen so many times that I think I remember the event or moment, when really the memory in my head is actually just a memory of the picture itself.
After my dad died I sorted through all the photos he had and he had quite a few of my childhood, many that I hadn’t seen before. Some of them triggered memories of the moment and others made me happy to see pictures of family like my grandparents who have long since passed away.
After sifting through all these pictures I realize that most of the memories that are currently top of mind about my dad are tied to those pictures. Most of my memories are more feelings and vague remembrances that are given shape by the images I now have. I am able to recall things related to many of those images, but not that specific moment.
What is True?
I remember seeing and discussing Rene Magritte’s piece – The Treachery of Images in university. If you don’t speak / read French, the text says ‘this is not a pipe.’ But, you say, of course it is a pipe. I am looking at a painting of a pipe. Which is the point. You are looking at an image of a pipe, not an actual pipe. The only way it can truly be a pipe is if you are looking at a pipe in front of you, not the image.
So when we look at images of ourselves in our childhood or a friend’s Instagram photo, we are only seeing the representation of that moment or thing, not the reality.
My step-sister wrote a blog post recently about how she feels about pictures of her before she transitioned. In my case I look at pictures of my childhood and might have some memory or emotional association with what the image portrays. In her case she is wrestling with the fact that those same photos may show a version of herself that does not ring true to who she is.
Presenting the Ideal
We take a lot of photos. Actually it might be more accurate to say that my nine year old takes a lot of photos. Whenever I am working through our photo storage I always come across dozens of photos and videos that my daughter(s) have created. Most of them are selfies of funny faces. Some are stop-motion videos and others are candid pictures she has taken of her sisters or us when we aren’t paying attention. I delete most of these photos.
These candid photos from sometimes awkward angles are accurate, if sometimes unattractive images. They show tired parents, overweight dad, etc. I often delete the pictures that show how tired and overweight I feel. I delete them because they challenge my self-image or show me in a way that I don’t want to remember. I don’t want others to see what the camera has seen.
I think this is true for most of us. We don’t want to keep or share versions of our life that don’t represent us in a way that is consistent with our identity. The digital and online version of ourselves is not necessarily the same as our daily lives. We share and only see the curated images of life, whether it is ours or someone else’s life.
Ceci n’est pas un pipe.
When I look through the photos from my past generally and childhood specifically I generally only see positive images. I don’t have any photos of school yard fights, broken bones, days when I felt isolated or the day my parents told us they were splitting up. We don’t generally capture images of these moments or if we do, they often get deleted or in the olden days – thrown out when after we picked up our developed film.
So now as I try to distinguish between actual memories and memories of seeing a photo of a point in my life, I realize that my perception of aspects of my life has shifted.
Remaking a Relationship
I have previously written about my dad and how he lived far away from us for the last 20 years of his life. The photos I have from this period tend to be of him without us, us without him or of the limited number of times that we were together.
He had many copies of photos from the same events. Initially when I was sorting photos I thought we had seen him more frequently than we did. Then I realized that there were lots of pictures taken on those once or twice a year visits. I also realized he had many photos from family events that he had been sent and that he himself had not attended.
The photos, which included quite a few of us laughing or goofing around together, helped to remind me that we had good times together when we were together. The childhood photos reminded me of vacations together and adventures on weekends with dad.
I have recently realized that when I think of my dad now the image of him in my head is almost always of a younger version of my dad. The memories that are fresh are memories of those times captured in the photos. I no longer think about my dad in terms of the last decade of a frustrating relationship. I now think about a fuller scope of our relationship over time and predominantly skip over the rough bits.
Seeing the Positive
Remembering the positive is a healthier way to view ourselves, our relationships and life in general. Photos of our lives may not provide a full representation of our lives, relationships and ourselves. They do present snapshots of moments that when stitched together in our memories will shape how we perceive ourselves and our lives.