Another column I’m posting a little belatedly from my weekly ‘Her Say‘ column in The National.
On the top shelf of an old cupboard in my parents’ spare room is a collection of aged, fraying bags that hold the memories of our family. I have to stand on a stool and stretch into the cupboard’s dark corners, feeling my way with my fingertips to grasp the tatty plastic filled with decades of old photographs.
As the winter holidays approach, nostalgia percolates the family conversations, and inevitably someone will wonder about a distant relative, a half-forgotten baby photo, or a snap from a wedding. I will fly upstairs to retrieve the bags, returning triumphantly to the conversation and spilling out our collective memory across the carpet.
We’ve seen the photos a hundred times, but each one elicits a gasp of excitement, as though greeting the old relatives themselves. “Look, it’s granny! She’s so pretty.” “This is me when I was younger. I’ve become so old!” “Here you are at your graduation!”
The most exciting pictures are in black and white, fragments of an earlier time when photographs were rare, usually formal, marking special occasions. “This one,” says my mother, “was sent by your uncle after he proposed to your aunt”. He looks like Cary Grant. “And this,” she carries on, pointing to a grainy picture “is my grandfather”. He is serious, almost stern.
Our family archive lives on in these four bags. Everything else is lost and therefore forgotten. What remains defines what came before us, and therefore what we are now. The camera has preserved and thus shaped our family history.
This was on my mind this week as I faced up to the growing mountain of photographs of my baby. Although not even a year old, I already possess more than 5,000 pictures of her.
I have been creating a photobook for her. Websites offer software in the format of a book, which you populate with your own choice of photographs, in any layout and with any captions you choose. Once completed, the online creation is sent to be printed, arriving a few days later in the form of a glossy publication like a coffee-table book, entirely to your specification. At the cost of about $40, it is a modern marvel. Your photographs become official. Viewing them becomes slick and manicured. Family and friends flick easily through the edited highlights, enjoying the best moments, avoiding polite boredom.
I spent hours, probably days, selecting pictures to chart Baby’s progress from tiny newborn through each of her milestones. I decided who would feature in her life story. I selected which pictures would make the cut, and therefore how she would be remembered.
My editorial process says as much about me as her. It reveals how I wish her to be seen. I am conscious that how we describe babies affects others’ perceptions of her for many years, even a lifetime. After all, what will remain after our memories have faded are these photographs. We will continue to discuss the photobook in the same way as the fragments of my parents’ haphazard photo collection. But this time, I’ve already consciously shaped the story and the collective memory.
The pleasurable act of photography is in fact a weighty responsibility. By creating her earliest account I have shaped how she begins her own story. In doing so I have shaped how she will carry on the family history, mine included.