For most of us, a photograph is a way of holding the past in our hands—seeing what happened, when, with whom. Photos are a testimony to a time now gone, and to our intimate connection with people who may no longer be alive. They are a way of "seeing double"—recalling past events and reliving them in the present. For those of us who want to write about our lives, photographs can be a fine resource.
Using Photos to Remember
Here today, gone tomorrow—the past is as slippery and hard to hold as a wet fish. But when we have a photo to write from, our memory of the past may become much clearer—or we may find something new to notice, some new discovery about the past that has eluded us.
Try this: find a favorite photo of yourself with someone who has influenced you—your mother, your father, a much-loved aunt, a husband or lover. Look at it for a moment, thinking about your relationship with the person and putting yourself back into the perspective of the girl or woman you were at that time. Then write. Who were you, back then? Who was this person? Why was he or she important to you then? What lessons did you learn, at that time, from him or her?
A Later Perspective
As you wrote the passage above, you were seeing the photograph from the point of view of the person you were at the time it was taken. Now, let's try a different perspective, take a later point of view. We know that nfluential relationships are often double-edged: that is, we may be influenced to change in ways that might not be altogether right for us. Look at the photo again, but this time from the point of view of the woman you are now. How might your life have been different if the person in the photo had not been there? What did you learn from this person that you now wish you hadn't? Is there something in the photo that gives you a clue to this more problematic aspect of the relationship? Perhaps there is something in the posture, in the facial expression, in the setting, that helps you see something different. Viewing the past from your present perspective may help you to uncover a different understanding of the events and relationships you have experienced.
Seeing Double: Finding the Truth
We've all heard the old saying, "Photographs don't lie." But this isn't always true. In a workshop a few years ago, an older woman named Pearl brought a photo of herself as a small child, sitting on her mother's lap. Both were smiling, both looked happy. "But those smiles were lies," Pearl wrote. "My father had abandoned both of us. We had no money and we were afraid. But Mother didn't want her parents to know how bad it was, so she sent them the photo to show that we were doing fine. 'Just keep smiling,' she would say, 'and nobody will know the difference.' Deception was the first lesson I had to unlearn," Pearl adds, "when I began to search for my real self."
If you look through your photograph collection, you may find one that you can "see double"—that is, one you can see with the eyes of the person you were then, and with the eyes of the person you are now. What truth can you find in this photo? What new thing does it show you about the past through which you have lived?
If you have lots of photos, you might consider assembling a memoir album: a book of photos and your interpretations of the people and the events depicted—together with your own history, of course. You may be surprised by what you learn from this. Photographs can be a key to the treasures, and the traumas, of the deeply buried past. —Susan Albert
The Past in Pictures
You can learn a great deal about your past by studying the photos you have collected, particularly those of the family you grew up in. Use these questions to help you get started writing.
Who are the people in the photographs? If you know them, write a paragraph or two about them: who they are, where they lived, how they were connected to you. If you don't know them, ask family members to help with identification. Pay attention to the details of dress, posture, facial expression: these silent messages often speak very loudly.
Where and When?
Where were these photographs taken? What scenes are depicted? What do these tell you about the people? What years were the photos made? How old were you? What details of the period are evident in dress, vehicles, furniture, etc.? What can you write about the time and the place?
Photographs often commenorate important family occasions: weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays. What are the occasions of the photos you have collected? What family rituals are being celebrated? What does this tell you about your family's ethnic background, religious beliefs, economic and social class? How do you feel about these occasions now, as you look back on them? Write about the events, including not just the details of the event, but your feelings, as well.