I remember my father being a huge documentarist throughout my childhood. He was a history teacher for a good number of years and believed that documenting the past and present was of great benefit to the future. At home, he preserved a lot of memories, either by writing in his journal, recounting stories over and over again, or taking photographs with our family’s very cheap, basic 35mm film camera.
One time, when my mother was away, he gathered us children and suggested we did a major scrub down of our home so she could be pleasantly surprised when she got home. We grudgingly agreed and set out to work on different areas in the apartment. Naturally, my younger brother (who at the time was the youngest child and therefore constantly coerced/blackmailed/bullied into submission) was put in charge of the bathroom. His main task was to scrub away all the gross gunk around the sink and toilet and because he was always so pitifully eager to prove himself, he started doing it immediately and with much zest.
We were going on with our respective tasks when all of a sudden, we heard a very loud thud in the bathroom, followed by a blood-curdling scream. We got there in time to see my brother bawling on the bathroom floor, holding on to a humongous bump on the front of his head. He had apparently been scrubbing some hard-to-reach area and banged his head against the bottom of the sink while getting up. I remember being worried because the bump was huge. I mean, really huge, like the sort you see in cartoons.
“Someone… get the camera!” my father yelled, as if that was the most obvious #1 thing to do in such a situation. I don’t remember much of what happened after that but thanks to my father, we have that moment preserved forever in a single photograph. My poor brother with that disturbingly gigantic bump, tears streaming down his cheeks, looking right into the camera in disbelief (I can almost hear my father commanding him to “look here!”). For years after that, we always had a good story to tell guests whenever they came across that picture in our family photo album.
There have been many other incidents just like that, where I found my father’s decision to indulge in his “photo documentary” highly questionable at the time events were actually unfolding, but which I would later come to appreciate and marvel at. The photographs in our family album were not just posed portraits with happy smiling faces—they were real, raw happenings, both beautiful and ugly, that could be pieced together to encapsulate our daily lives, our personalities and our relationships with one another. It made me realize that my father was someone who was constantly invested in the process of shaping memories. Especially because we were still using film then, he had to have gone through the whole “Is this moment really worth remembering?” process in his head every single time. It was always intentional, purposeful. Every frame he shot was developed, printed out and allocated a space in our family album for fingers to lovingly and thoughtfully caress many years later.
My father set a great real-life example for me when I started out as a photographer myself. Going through the photographs he had taken and remembering the circumstances behind them taught me a lot about split-second decision-making as well as working around conditions that were less than ideal. Navigating light and emotions could be tricky and composition options were often limited when the camera had to be as unobtrusive as possible. More than that, though, I learnt from him that the camera was a powerful tool that could harness one specific moment to produce a certain energy in another. Image-making has allowed us to seal in, analyze or change certain associations we may have had with a person, a place, an event, almost anything that occupies our minds.
(Image credit: Lang Leav)