People | Generations

The Version We Remember: On the Truth and Fiction of Photography

We remember only a version of the story, and we tell only a fraction of that version. And sometimes, even that will fail us.

these trees are strands of hair
the path a tar ribbon
threaded through

this tree brambles
all fairytale and moss

these trees are spokes
wheeling wheeling

and this one is a crown
of thorns and sky
kingdom without end


It’s 1977, and my family is flying from Nigeria, where we are living, to Australia. My father has been invited to a geology conference in Sydney and my mother, younger sister, and I are left to our own devices during the days. One morning, we go to the world-famous Sydney Zoo. It’s a fine day and we travel by ferry and bus and on foot and back, though I remember none of this. We are almost back at the hotel when my mother decides to get some cheese at the grocery store next door. This is when I disappear.

photo courtesy of the author

Our Australian adventure is distilled into a family album with photographs my father takes with his Nikon film camera. As per his organizational scheme, each page is neatly labeled with a date and place. Where my mother and sister smile wide easy smiles, I am unsmiling, frowning even, in most of the photos. I didn’t like being photographed when I was young. It felt at once exposed and pretend, and I wasn’t having it.

the author’s father, 1978 / photo courtesy of the author

photo by the author

photo by the author

I don’t know if he remembers I am a photographer, or if he’s just asking me because I’m closest to the tree. I don’t know why he wants me to take a picture because he’s not one for sentiment. I don’t know what about the tree is beautiful to him. This is something I could ask him, because I also find trees unbearably beautiful, but I don’t ask. In the same way that I only think of the question after it’s too late, in the same way I will regret the interviews I didn’t do after his memory, or he himself, is gone.

photo by the author