Monday, January 18, 2010

Don't Let Those Photos Out of My Sight

Photographs are unique. They capture our best moments in perpetuity, if we save them. We have gone from tin-type, to film, to digital. Our photographs fill cardboard boxes and photo albums, external hard drives and hosted websites. Photographs taken these days are usually digital, although a few diehard film enthusiasts still walk among us. Digital allows even the least naturally talented photographer (that would be me) to take a few decent photographs at little cost.

Photographs are memories captured. They are intensely personal. They mark the special events in our lives -- newborns, graduations, anniversaries and weddings. They are the first item people think of grabbing, after the family pet, when there is a house fire. They are irreplaceable if lost or destroyed. They are precious as gems and more treasured than gold.

We wear them in lockets close to our hearts, keep them in our wallets or on our desks at work, hang them in our bedroom hallways, display them in our high school yearbooks. Family photos adorn holiday greeting cards; professionally taken photos of our children earn treasured spots on the mantle. They are reminders of our historical past, capturing the Dust Bowl days, the Great Depression, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the tragedy at Kent State, unbridled youthfulness at Woodstock, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Apollo landing on the moon, the Kennedy assisination, a naked young girl running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam. They capture both our triumphs and our tragedies, national and personal. While videos now record major events, it is specific photos I remember long after the event has passed.

What will I remember from today? The faces of despair of the unemployed, or the miraculous landing of an airplane on the Hudson River? The images of a jet plane plowing into the World Trade Center, or the birth of a newborn child? The destruction of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or the promise of building schools in Afganistan and Pakistan from "Three Books of Tea"? I will probably remember it all, the still images seared into my memory banks.

When my realtor in California wanted to borrow my precious framed photos of my son for a special project, at first I said no, and hugged them to my chest and literally would not, could not, let them out of my sight. I had lost my job and my house, and could not bear to part with my few precious photos of my long dead child, even for a short trip to her office to copy them. She finally talked me into it (ie, pried them from my clawed fngers) and promised to return them, intact, the next day. She kept her promise. A few weeks later I received a most wonderful gift from her, a gorgeous quilt, with cloth photos of my son sewn into it. But I almost could not give up those precious photos for a few hours, they were so dear to my heart, the only vestiges of my son that I have left.

Why are we so irrational when it comes to photos? I don't know the answer. It is an emotional response, not a rational one, which we have to these tangible images of ourselves.

My aunt is the keeper of the family photos on my dad's side of the family, photos of my dad's relatives, most long since dead. All of these family photographs, some handed down from her own mother and father, others taken by my aunt herself, are in her possession. I'd like to be able to go through them and pick out a few to take to Kinkos' and make copies. But for some unknown reason, she is reluctant to let them out of her sight. I should understand this phenomonen by now, but I don't. I am thinking rationally about borrowing a few photos, driving a few blocks down the street to Kinkos, making some copies, and taking the the photos back to my aunt, in probably under an hour. She is reacting emotionally. I have been on the other side of this debate; I should understand her reaction. But right now, I don't.

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