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.
After frantically searching the store with my sister and stroller in tow and scanning the huge busy intersection outside, my mother goes to the hotel and alerts the staff. They search all the floors of the hotel, in case I’ve decided to come back and take a jaunt on the elevator. A four-year-old can, after all, reach most of the elevator buttons. But there is no sign of a little brown girl with curly hair wearing a red jacket, and so my mother is directed to the police station. The Sydney police put the word out immediately. There has been a recent spate of kidnappings, so this disappearance is taken seriously. They ask my mother if she wants to contact my father. He’s presenting his paper that afternoon. What would she tell him? That she’s lost their daughter in a foreign country? She says “no” and sits there in rigid fear, my sister still in the stroller beside her.
My own memory of that day begins hours later, on a residential road two miles from the hotel. I’m running along the sidewalk because running is my normal mode at the time. There are lush English-style gardens in front of each of the houses, and one of the gardens has particularly beautiful flowers. I stop to look closer. An older woman is in the garden, tending to her plants. She notices me and asks if I am lost. I don’t remember what I say, but it’s probably clear I have no idea where I am or where I should be. She invites me into her house and gives me some chocolate while she calls the police.
Heavy velvet curtains are drawn across the windows, and her house is dark despite the sunny day. I find this curious, as well as the fact that the woman has a phone in her house. There are no personal telephones in the small town in Nigeria where I live. There’s a telegraph machine at the post office building. It once relayed the news that my grandmother had passed away in a village in Bangladesh. It remains the only time I have seen my father cry.
I have been taught to share everything with my sister, so I eat half the chocolate and carefully wrap and keep the rest for her. When the policemen come to get me, they grasp me by my wrists and don’t let go. They’ve been told I am possibly a runner. I am marched into the station like this, my arms held high in the air, one fist clutching half a chocolate. My mother cries out to me, “What happened? How did you get lost?” My memory cuts out again here, but my mother says I reply crossly: “I didn’t get lost. You did.”
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.
This feeling of pretense isn’t the only problem with photographs. It’s also what the photographs leave out: velvet curtains, half a chocolate, fear. A photograph isn’t necessarily a moment of truth, but what the photographer wants you to see. This is not just photography’s problem. It is a fundamental flaw of memory. We remember only a version of the story, and we tell only a fraction of that version. And sometimes, even that sliver will fail us.
the author’s father, 1978 / photo courtesy of the author
We leave Nigeria when I am in high school and move to Pittsburgh. Around the time I start college, my father stops taking photographs. Our family albums dwindle as mine begin. For years, I fill album after album with photographs of friends at parties and special occasions.
In the beginning, photography is a commemoration of moments I want to remember, and, even more, the ones I want to share. I print double, triple copies of all photos I take, so I can keep one and give the rest to friends. I use disposable cameras, and then a point-and-shoot.
When I take photographs of our family, my father instructs me about framing, lighting, background. He’s deliberate and didactic, ever the professor. Once he scolds me when I cut off the top of someone’s head in the picture. He lends me his ancient, still-functional Nikon, but I don’t know anything yet about aperture and shutter speed, so it mostly languishes.
In 2004, I get my first digital camera as a gift from a friend. It changes everything. I don’t have to save the film to preserve the memory. I can take photographs just because. And because of that, I become a photographer. Photography becomes not just a way to record, but a way to express. Hundreds of photographs tile my walls: cityscapes in motion, the silhouettes of objects, horizons.
My new camera has a lens that can swivel away from the screen, which allows me to hold it at my waist, Vivian Maier-style. People don’t realize I’m shooting, which is the kind of candid street photography and portraiture I prefer. Just as compellingly, the swivel lets me shoot up close, down low, off-kilter. It becomes my thing, the unfamiliar and intimate angles of the known. When I zoom in or shoot in low light, I discover that the details of the inanimate and hidden evoke as much as a portrait. The shadows and sideways angles let me point to what might go unnoticed.
photo by the author
I become obsessed with light and shadow, repetitions and patterns, ruin and decay, trees and sky. I don’t realize it at first, but I’m creating a context, providing a frame. What I choose to photograph and how is like what I choose to remember and why. And both can be far from the truth.
A colleague comments on how different he feels my photography is from my writing: how cool my writing, how warm my photographs. I think it’s because I don’t hedge in my photography the way I sometimes do in my writing. In my pictures, you will probably know how and what I feel. This is perhaps one of the reasons I take to photography so hard. In the moment, I don’t have to think or process, at least not consciously. I can just be and see and shoot. It feels natural, emotional, true. It’s only later that the dissonance comes in.
By the time I get an SLR camera, again a gift from generous friends, my father has started to lose his memory to Alzheimer’s Disease. We have long told the doctors his memory loss is no ordinary phenomenon, not an age-related forgetting as they claim. Here is a geologist whose entire career has been devoted to knowing where he is, what is under his own two feet. For the last thirty years, he has worked in the greater Pittsburgh area as a geological consultant. His job requires frequent field trips, topographical maps, and compasses. It means identifying rock strata, analyzing soil samples, and mapping streams. The earth itself is his area of expertise. His records are meticulously kept, his directions precise to the meter. Are we supposed to understand his forgetting the way to the mall as ordinary?
I start a short-lived project to interview my father, record his extraordinary globe-trotting scientist life. In his study in Pittsburgh, I set up my camera on a janky tripod hooked up to a borrowed mic. I know nothing about video, even less about editing. I figure, shoot now, figure it out later. I choose video because it feels like I can skip the interpretation part, even the subconscious bits. I can go straight to the experience, take myself and my angle out of the picture. Of course, any filmmaker and her mother would tell you that this isn’t quite possible.
Though it’s a plan that could have worked, I stop two summers in. The sitting down and setting up process seems to be a nuisance to my father, but I’m okay with that because it’s a new nuisance each time. He doesn’t remember that I already sat him down the day before, maybe even asked the same questions to get more details. So his annoyance isn’t compounded as such.
As he tells me about his life, the same stories start to change, from throwaway details to entire timelines. Which is the correct version? The earlier or the later, or somewhere in between? But even that doesn’t bother me. As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I’ve come to terms with the malleability of truth. Facts aren’t always as important to me as getting the emotion right. And even though things get left out, sometimes only photography points to the heart of things.
I think I stopped the project because I was overcome with the enormity of the task. How does one record a life? It’s an impossible thing. But if the result is necessarily inadequate, then shouldn’t I just do it because something is better than nothing, even if that something is badly done? Aren’t I losing my father’s time, each second or year that I delay? I have spent too many years researching memory loss to imagine the end isn’t coming, and I know it won’t be pretty.
Not long after the failed interview project, I stop taking photographs as obsessively. I am experiencing severe anxiety about my memories—a feeling that things don’t exist, haven’t happened, unless there’s photographic evidence: a chocolate hidden in my hand. I tell myself that if I don’t photograph something, I’ll be forced to remember it another way. It will exist outside of vision and record. I’ll live more in the moment instead of behind the lens, framing, filtering, forgetting.
photo by the author
If we’re said to be the sum of our memories, I would counter that we are the sum of everything we’ve felt—unspoken, intangible, elemental. And even that doesn’t keep. Research on feeling and memory shows that both suffering and pleasure are remembered not through their duration, but through two moments: the peak of said feeling and, even more critically, the ending. One could spend hours, years in joy (watching a favorite team, being in a relationship) and a minute or more (a defeat, a break up) could submerge it all.
Whether or not a photograph captures a peak moment, it is a kind of ending. Would not taking a picture help me remember the rest better, or at least focus on more than just the end? And what do I do about photography, my warm, large-hearted remembering art? For years, I’ve been photographing to save the scene in my mind, as a shortcut to the memory, to the feeling. But what if these two together might not bring me closer to the lived experience?
Either way, the old wry adage says that just because it’s important doesn’t mean you’ll remember any of it. It seems just as clear that if you don’t remember it, it doesn’t mean it’s disappeared. It’s somewhere, even if only in that seahorse-shaped part of your brain, the amygdala, the kingdom of your emotions. What’s forgotten settles into the sediment of your mind, your muscle memory. It lives on as an accretion of who you were, who you’ve become.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my parents, brother, and I have dinner with some old family friends at my sister’s place outside Philadelphia. The story of me getting lost in Australia makes the rounds. “Weren’t you afraid?” someone asks me.
I think back. “No, I wasn’t afraid,” I say. “To my mind, I was simply taking a walk. And frankly, I think I had forgotten about my family.”
My mother chimes in. “Your Nanu, your grandmother, asked me if I cried during this ordeal, and I said I couldn’t. I was too afraid. And your audacity in saying that I was the one who had gotten lost!” She laughs. “That’s when I bought the leash.” She’s talking about those cross-your-heart buckled-in-the-back child leashes. After the Australian incident, she put it on me whenever we went out and attached the end to my sister’s stroller. There is no photographic evidence of the leash in our family albums, because my mother hated it and took it off for photos.
My father says nothing during the retelling. I don’t know if it’s because he can’t follow the conversation or because he has nothing to add. I should draw him in, ask him if he remembers how he felt then. Or maybe I shouldn’t, in case he doesn’t remember, and my question reveals this to everyone, to himself. His memory often resets in a few minutes, and so if I ask anything, it has to be soon. Instead, my nephew throws a stuffed animal down the stairs and my father stands up unsteadily to throw it back. The chance is gone.
The next morning, we leave for Pittsburgh, my nieces and nephew madly, sadly waving as we drive off. My brother is driving my parents home, and I am coming along to spend a few more days with them before going back to New York. Along the way, my father occasionally speaks up about a mountain range or the traffic or why he’s so warm (he doesn’t realize he’s wearing his sweater and jacket in the car). I think about how he doesn’t speak much in groups anymore, despite a lifetime of orating to us, and I find myself grateful for his little interludes. I wonder what it means for someone to leave before they die, for their memories to stop including you, for their memories to disappear altogether.
We get stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident up ahead, and my father asks me to take a photograph of a tree on the side of the highway. It stands high and alone on a heathered embankment, its bare grey branches spiking out like a star against the cold blue sky. Behind it, the Blue Mountains carve up the horizon. 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.
Perhaps it’s enough that he saw something and wanted to share it. The photograph of the tree will become a memento of the ways Alzheimer’s hasn’t erased everything. And how an ordinary thing becomes extraordinary.
photo by the author