Photography: Creative Acts of Remembrance and Belonging
The soft bodies of humans are brief. Our heartbeats, our breaths, are measured in decades, not in millennia. Everything is impermanent. Even mountains disappear under time’s scythe.
Through photographs we create the illusion and comfort of a kind of permanence. For families and friends, photographs are a shared visual language of belonging. They preserve what we hold dear against future loss and connect us when we’re apart. They extend memory beyond what we hold in our minds, capturing and exteriorising treasured and vanished moments for ourselves and for eyes beyond the present generation—the creamy cheek of a drowsing infant, the snowy softness of a grandmother’s hair, the delight of a child unwrapping a birthday present, a beloved family house now long gone.
The sense of future loss of our selves and of the people and the places we know and love, and the yearning to hold that loss at bay aren’t new. Hidden deep in the earth, the voices of our ancestors speak from vibrant images carved and painted on cave walls all over the world. These ancient peoples memory-mapped their survival wisdom in art that tells of their relationships with the animals, plants, people, places and practices that supported them and gave their lives meaning. Made with mouth-blown pigments, their stencilled handprints—some almost 50,000 years old—are prehistoric selfies potent with presence. They are intentional images, made to last, poignant visual biographies of unknown people. They say, ‘I was here. In this place. This is how I was. This is what I saw. These were my people. Remember me.’
Our deepest, most vital stories change so little.
Photography, or ‘light drawing’—that early 19th century miracle—took over from tomb painting, religious iconography and the portraiture affordable only by the rich. It democratised complex image-making. Ordinary people—crossing seas to leave behind persecution, poverty or lack of opportunity; sons and daughters leaving for work elsewhere or for marriage; men and women going to war—could now leave behind their images on black and white paper, and could take with them images of those left behind. Consolation for all.
Photographs create highways into time, virtual roads we can travel to find out more about the people closest to us in time. The resemblances in family faces give reassuring evidence of identity, of belonging. An American friend once showed me a mid-19th century photo of his great-great-grandfather—a uniformed man of First-Nation and European ancestry, weapon in hand, giving an approximate appearance of readiness for soldiering in the Civil War. He survived to marry and raise a family, but now that his body has returned to the earth, his life belongs forever in the past. Yet the formal studio portrait taken more than a century and a half ago continues to speak to his living descendants through its details, in ways that words printed on a family tree never could. I saw a very young man still not comfortable in his buttoned Union blue, his innocent face fixed in an expression simulating bravery. Most powerful for me though, was the striking genetic legacy to his descendants—his unusual slanting eyes and the shape of his face appearing unmistakably in the faces of the living great-great-grandson and the two great-great-great-grand daughters sitting at the table with me. They belong, beyond doubt, to his line.
The young man in an Australian army slouch hat—pictured above in a photo taken before he boarded a troop ship that carried him over oceans to the other side of the world—is my grandfather. Just eighteen, he experienced the horrors of war for three years in Turkey, France and Belgium. He endured another year in a German prisoner-of-war camp after being treated in an ill-equipped field hospital for a shrapnel wound to his left shoulder. Its puckered scar drew my child’s eye whenever he worked in his vegetable garden without a shirt. We know a few of his war stories and many of his peacetime stories, but without this photo, younger family members may not have known that their blue eyes were also his.
What’s interesting about photographs and paintings is that unlike forms of storytelling that unspool over time, with beginnings and ends—conversations, books, films and music—the whole of every story is available at one time on the flat plane of each static image. Our eyes travel around a photo, making meaning according to the templates of our own experience. We add more meaning the longer we look. And each time we look in later years, we see fresh things through the perspective of our own changes. Photos catalyse memory—we unpack entire suitcases of recollections when looking at familiar photos, or at the people or places we know in less familiar ones. When we gather to explore photos, each person weaves forgotten details into a story’s fabric, tells a different version, asks interesting, sometimes unanswerable questions. Why was she looking so pleased with herself? Who was that guy with the weird hair? Photos become agents for the thickening of thin stories.
Photos can deceive, too. An apparently happy family photo where everyone is smiling—taken perhaps at a wedding, at Christmas, or at a birthday party—can hide the simmering rage between two recently fighting cousins in the front row, the rivalry between grown yet smiling sisters standing side by side, the rift between a hand-holding husband and wife that will lead to divorce, the unease about a grandparent who spouts inflammatory or embarrassing opinions, the boredom of teenagers who’d rather be anywhere else. But family is important to us in principle even if in reality it is not as harmonious as we’d wish for. And so, we override private misgivings for the sake of a photo that radiates cohesion. We smile—we’ve all been there. Families are rarely ideal, but there’s often great tolerance and love that transcends differences. The desire to unite and to belong is strong.
Families photographed in public contexts can provide social documentary of particular eras. Dorothea Lange was among photographers who travelled the America of the late 1930s and early 1940s for the Farm Security Administration photography project commissioned by the US government to record life in the recovery period after the Great Depression. She took the internationally famous photo now known as Migrant Mother, one of six from a ten-minute shoot of Florence Owens and two of her seven children who were camped by the road in Nipomo, California. En route to pick lettuces in the Pajaro Valley, their car had broken down. This photograph became the iconic image representing the era, revealing the poverty and precarious existence of an itinerant working family profoundly affected by global economic circumstances. The uncaptioned power of its millions of copies has carried it through multiple contexts for nearly eight decades.
Fast forward to the 21st century. We live in the time of almost no waiting. Digital images are instant. In iPad-equipped classrooms, teachers need eyes in the backs of their heads if they’re to keep kids from taking and sending Snapchat images that last just ten seconds before disappearing. On overseas adventures—soon after we board a boat slipping gently through Kerala’s warm, palm-fringed waterways, or when we find ourselves in gastronomic heaven in a crowded Barcelona tapas bar—thanks to zippy smartphone shots, our Facebook friends are enjoying and ‘liking’ what we experienced just moments before.
Speed is what it’s about in this era of selfies. We document our lives as never before, sending and receiving images to and from family and friends with a frequency and swiftness undreamt of only ten years ago, before Mark Zuckerberg and his friends had the bright idea that soaks up so much of our time, but which provides us with the cosy comfort of instant connection over distance, with the pleasure of seeing absent faces we miss and care for.
And let’s not forget convenience. Two hundred years ago cameras were bulky and heavy, and had to be lugged about by more than one person. Today’s cameras are portable, lightweight, and inexpensive, opening creative expression to all. We’re in love with photography, and our visual literacy has soared—we’ve all become documentary photographers and photographic artists.
Now, it’s in pixels that we say, ‘I was here. In this place. This is how I was. This is what I saw. These were my people. Remember me’.
Essay and photographs by and courtesy of Susie Surtees © 2014