A family album is a precious thing. A collection of photographs, it is a record of our past preserved for the posterity -- so we believe.

But a moment of thought reveals a phenomenon far from our assumption.

A photograph of me from my childhood, for example, shows what I looked like, say when I was seven. Anyone who knew me then will recognize me and remember what I then looked like; anyone old enough to have lived those years in the same milieu will also recognize the style of my clothes then in currency, the objects surrounding me, and perhaps even the particular place where the picture was taken. When I look at it, I, too, remember what I was like and also recognize the setting. The photograph, furthermore, brings back to mind the circumstances in which the photograph was taken -- those bygone days and various events related to the picture -- a weekend picnic, a day in the country visiting a grandmother, a New Years Day, or even just another day. Not only that, an old photograph may trigger a memory of a series of events far beyond what it shows. Nostalgia is what a family album elicits, and it is always pleasant. Sometimes the picture shows me at my worst; sometimes it records an unhappy moment -- like when our car got stuck in the mud out in nowhere in torrential rainstorm and Mother with that funny hairdo which was so fashionable then. Whatever the event, the picture evokes a feeling of longing because it alludes to what is no longer here.

I came across recently a wonderful website by Wes Clark () that lovingly comments on his family album from 1970s and substantiates my point. But here is a curious thing. When we look at a picture in a family album, we are not looking at a record of the past. The picture does not bring back the past. Rather, we recreate the past from the vantage point of the present. We relive a past event looking at a picture but reliving it is never the same as the actual living of the event that had taken place in the past. When we look at our childhood picture at fifty, it is different still from we saw in it at thirty. When we reread a book at fifty that we had read previously, say, in our youth, it is often a different book, or, I dare say, always a different book. And so it is with photographs. Even a photographs from a trip taken a few weeks ago is no longer the same as the actual experience because we are here and no longer there and that event is no longer here.

Nowadays, families are more likely to make videos rather than still photographs. We may hastily think that videos reproduce the past more faithfully because the image captures movement and therefore events as they happened -- life as it was lived. But video images are also photographs which, when we view them, force us to recreate the events rather than merely observe them as though we were innocent bystanders just looking. Even if the pictures were not our own, even if they were pictures of total strangers, like Wes Clark's photographs, we develop our own stories and recreate the photographed event in our own way from our vantage point.

It is not realism but nostalgia, so it seems, wherein lies the special power of photography.

20 August 1998

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