When I was perhaps 12 years old, I checked out a book from the library on the interpretation of posed photographs. Specifically, the book addressed the interpretation of the relationships among the people depicted in the photographs. The book was filled with shared moments among families and couples and friends, and the author suggested that much could be read in the silenced frozen proof of these moments. A sidelong glance, a slight tilt of the upper body, a tightening of the lips, hands clasped in front of the body . . . all were ripe with meaning.
I was fascinated, because the people in the photographs looked like normal happy people to me. How did the author know to read such meaning into the distance on a couch between a small girl and the rest of her family? I stared into the eyes of the little girl and tried to see the loneliness and sense of isolation the author saw. I flipped a page and gazed down into the faces of a young married couple. How did the author know that a husband’s arm draped around his wife was an act of vaguely hostile claiming instead of fondness? I tried to gauge the tension in her neck and shoulders; how did the author see what I could not see?
I stared at the images and read the words, words that were presented without any supporting explanation from the people depicted.
How did the author know what he claimed to know?
Was he just making everything up as he went along?
I spent hours with this book, and a strange thing happened.
I discovered the power, not of images, but of words.
The photographs were bland to me. I saw people with the people in their lives. I saw people who had agreed to stop moving for a moment. I saw a moment. I saw a coming together of individuals for a moment.
I could not see what lay beneath and behind and around that moment.
The author claimed that he could, and the amazing thing was that as soon as I read the author’s thoughts, I could no longer see any interpretation but his. A woman’s hand half-concealing her face became a sign of shame and bitterness as she gazed sideways at the man standing on the far side of the photograph. How could I have thought she was looking at and whispering to the woman seated next to her? A father standing between his wife and his older son, his arms draped around both of them as his younger son leaned against his mother’s hip . . . how could I have missed the cold paternal rejection of this younger less-loved boy?
The images became what the author said they were.
There was a mystical transforming power in the author’s words.
I have photographs of my childhood, and I know what lies beneath and behind and around the silenced frozen moments.
I have shown these photos to others over the years, and they always fail to see what is there.
Until I use my words.
Transforming words from one who was there.
My words paint a picture that floats and settles in diaphanous form over the faces of the past.
The image unchanged.
Somewhere in the world is a photograph I took the other day.
I imagine this photo printed and placed in a scrapbook.
Remember that driving vacation we took to Oregon in 2011? Look at this photo of all of us! Remember how Dad stopped at the Vista House, and then he asked that woman to take our photo with the Columbia River Gorge sprawled out below us?
A happy smiling family.
What lies beneath and behind and around this moment . . .
Maj and I are walking toward a group of tourists. We are staring out at the panoramic view, but I hear a loud male voice in another language. I think I hear anger, but before I can tie the voice to an individual, a man smiles and approaches me, his hand outstretched, his voice heavily accented, “Will you take our picture, please?”
I discount my first impression, and I take the camera, “Sure.”
An older man in the group throws his hands up in the air and stalks away, refusing to be a part of the photograph. The man who has handed me the camera yells angry dismissive words I cannot understand at the man who has left. I hear now that the anger is real, and it belongs to the man who has asked me to take the photograph.
More words in a language I do not understand.
His large family gathers around him . . . a small dark-haired woman and six children ranging in age from perhaps 6 to 16. I take a few steps away from the group in order to capture the river and the valley and the lush green of the background. I raise the camera, eager to have this small task accomplished, eager to end my connection with this family.
Eager to end my obligation to this man.
As I raise the camera, one of the boys (perhaps 14 or 15 years old) spits out some angry words of his own and starts to walk out of frame. His father moves quickly, taking one long stride forward and bringing his fist hard into the upper back of his son. The boy stumbles forward a single awkward step and then turns and retakes his place next to his sister.
It all happens so quickly that I am not sure of what I have seen.
Nothing shows on the faces of any of the family members to suggest that anything out of the ordinary has happened.
I stare at them.
I glance over at Maj, who is off exploring on her own.
The father steps out of line to walk to where I am. “I want to see what you see,” he says to me. He stands next to me for a few seconds and then walks quickly back to his family, grabbing a smaller boy by the ear and dragging him to stand between himself and the small dark-haired woman. I see the boy’s ear folded and twisted within his father’s grasp. I see the boy lean and hurry into the pain to try to lessen its severity.
I know what I have seen this time.
But nothing shows on the faces of any of the family members to suggest that anything out of the ordinary has happened.
I stare at them.
I want to refuse to take this picture.
I want to refuse, but I do not.
A few more words from the father and the family smiles.
They all smile.
Like the photographs in that book from long ago.
I take a photo.
A happy family.
I wonder if there will come a day when someone in that photo runs a finger over the faces and tells the story of what lies beneath and behind and around that silenced frozen moment.
I wonder whether words will paint a picture that floats and settles in diaphanous form over the faces of the past.
The image unchanged.