As a child, on family holidays, I would watch in awe as my grandad ran around recording every second of our holiday that he could on a camcorder. It was huge, hardly something that you could call handheld, but he lugged it around everywhere we went. We would all half-heartedly complain about our one-band paparazzi crew but on the flip-side, upon returning home from our holiday, we would all pile onto the sofas at my grandparents’ house to watch the rerun of our holiday. First on tapes. And then on DVDs. And we never grew bored of watching the moments that my grandad had managed to capture. Sometimes we sat and watched clips that we had been aware were being filmed. But more often than not, we sat and watched snippets of our holiday that we had not known were being recorded at the time. And yet, it was in those moments that he captured the real us - a family that is undoubtedly loyal, somewhat hilarious and painfully clumsy. In those snippets, we witnessed ourselves exactly as we were in those moments - a family who was simply enjoying a holiday together.
In the same breath, on our holidays, my mum would be snapping away with a camera. She started off, way-back-when with a disposable camera and then (eventually) moved onto a digital one. Her sole focus? To capture freeze-frames of the movements that my grandad was catching at the same time. We had the usual posed family photos but most of the photos we got back were what most people would call ‘candid’ now. Photos of someone’s hair blowing in the wind at the front of the boat, everyone howling with laughter at something unknown to the onlooker, someone watching the sunset, someone stroking a stray dog. Looking back, it is easy to see that it was always those little moments that came together to make the holiday so special. And what was even more special was that my mum had managed to capture them for us. And, just like with the videos, once we were home we would eagerly anticipate the arrival of the printed photos. After my mum had picked them up we would then spend an evening watching her meticulously place them into an album that we all then treasured.
As my brother and I grew up, we were given the opportunity to create our own memories. Armed with disposable cameras of our own, we learned to cope with the disappointment of receiving back a wad of photos that were tainted with light leaks and ones that were simply too dark as we’d (yet again) forgotten to turn the flash on. But we also experienced the joy that came from (finally) getting back a set of photos that had come out properly. Photos that captured the holiday the way that we, the children, had experienced it. We would sit and flick through them all, amazed at the way that our memories, our adventures, our stories, were frozen in time on a piece of glossy paper that we held in our hands.
And, thankfully, we never lost that love for photography. We might have slightly fewer big family holidays but when I catch up with my brother now, we will often still sit together as we flick through our phones exclaiming “have I shown you this one yet?” or “take a look at this sunset photo I took last week!”. We might not print our photos out quite as much as would like to, but we still value the pricelessness that comes from seeing a moment and catching it for all of eternity.
Until recently, I had never questioned my love for photography. But thinking back now, it’s quite clear why my brother and I are so entranced by the opportunities that a camera can provide you. My need to document my life, be it in words or photos, runs through my family. It is a part of who I am.
And that became even clearer than ever to me last year. Towards the end of 2017, my great-grandmother passed away. It still feels like a stab in the gut to write that but a few weeks after we lost the heart and soul of our family, we began going through her belongings. We found items that she had collected and deemed worthy of clinging to across the course of her 92 years on this planet. There were, of course, clothes, a few bits of prized jewellery, a shiny ‘save for best’ cutlery set (that was saved so well none of us even knew about it until the day we stumbled across it in the cupboard). But what stood out to me above all else were the hundreds of photos we found. Some were in albums similar to the ones that I had watched my mum carefully put together when I was a child. And some were just loose photographs, hidden in the bottom of a bedside cabinet or a drawer in the lounge.
And it was then that I knew. It was in that moment, as I picked up yet another wad of carefully bound photographs, complete with my grandmother’s inscription on the back, that photography was always going to be something that I was drawn to. I grew up watching my grandad’s and my mum’s love for photography, and here I was staring at a collection of photographs that my Great Grandma had taken and saved over the course of her life.
But there were two photos that stood out to me above all the others. And those two did not come from the large collections of holiday photos, or from the posed family portraits (as much as I loved those ones too). They were two single photos of my grandmother. One was of her sitting on a chair in her lounge, reading a book. And the other was of her riding her bike. They stood out to me because, in them, I saw myself. I saw someone who wanted the mundane moments of life captured, alongside the more exciting ones. And I saw in those photos, an uncanny resemblance to two photos that I have of myself, that I had taken before I even had knowledge that my grandmother’s ones existed.
A picture is worth a thousand words. But the memory behind each photo is worth so much more than that.
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