Why we need photographs
It is a perfectly square box, with diagonal wooden panels. On the top, there is a missing piece with jagged remains; never to be repaired but always holding the threat of administering splinters. A worn golden latch protects its contents, the photographs partially peeking through the broken slit.
I did not want to sift through the photographs. We tried to muster the energy in the blurry whirlwind of days. Grief had become an uninvited guest in our home. I didn’t want to think. I didn’t want to do anything. How in the world does any 24-year-old manage to plan a funeral?
I picked up a pile and tried to straighten the disjointed mix into a neat order. It had been years since these photographs had been looked at. The cool glossy prints rested against my fingers; the weight forming memories in my hands. We eventually procured enough photographs suitable for my mother’s viewing, but my heart ached because of them. The photographs were beautiful. They were candid. Authentic. But they were few.
The photographs stopped when I reached about age 12 when digital cameras were becoming more popular, and cell phones would soon begin adding cameras to their devices.
I had few, if any, printed photographs with my mother into adulthood, and this saddened me on a deeper level that was hard to fully grasp. I would never again have the chance to make those memories. Future generations will not have the opportunity to see how great of a mother she was to me, not just in my childhood, but also the few years we had together in my early twenties.
Months later, in my small apartment, I was looking at some of those same photographs.
I had an idea.
I wanted my mom to see life through my eyes. I don’t pretend to have the slightest answer to what happens after somebody dies — but this is what I wanted to believe, and this is what became my “why.”
Why I woke up each day, despite the fog of grief. Why I traveled where I did. Why I took the photographs. I wanted her to see mountaintops that she had never had the opportunity to see. I wanted her to see crystal clear blue lakes. I wanted her to see her favorite thing — snow, and lots of it.
I spent all my free time squeezing in trips, oftentimes leaving my bags packed by the door. About a year into this idea, an incident happened that hit hard and reiterated how the photographs had come to hold an important meaning for me. At the time, I was going to Colorado — my mom loved snow at Christmastime.
En route from Columbus to Denver, my phone was stolen.
It contained some of my most precious photographs from the previous year, ones that were only saved on that device. Blaming busyness, I was kicking myself for not having backed up the files before I left. As we continued to drive on, a pang of sadness lingered in the pit of my stomach knowing I had lost all those photographs.
When we had gone through my mother’s belongings, I didn’t take much. The material things mattered little. I wanted the photographs, and I wanted to somehow have more of them. When my phone was stolen that day, I didn’t want the device back. Ready to plea with the unknown thief, I just wanted those photographs back. The ones she was supposed to see through my eyes.
But there was a silver lining. Just a few days prior, I had uploaded 25 images to a database on a website for photographs I intended to print but forgot about. Mercifully, although I had lost hundreds of photographs, my account had saved these precious 25, and I immediately had them shipped.
When I returned home, I stared at the tiny cardboard box resting on my dark grey doormat. I found myself fighting back the tears as I peeled off the packaging. Printed on this beautiful stock paper was the only 25 photographs I had from the past year; a year that held an array of emotions and humble realizations.
To an outsider, the compact mixture held images of brief snapshots of nature or cities that would encourage anyone to travel. But more importantly, they contained an air of sadness and grief that only I knew. And they became a catalyst for healing. Because when those photographs became tangible, and I could hold their weight in my hand, it awoke a sleeping bear within me — one that had asleep for far too long and was now hungry.
Hungry to see more, to capture more. It proved to me that physical photographs have the ability to tell stories, to connect generations, to ease grief, to recall memories, to push us to see more before we close our eyes forever.
Yvon Chouinard said, “The more you know, the less you need.”
We know that when we are hurting, lost, or grieving, a drive towards material things is not what we need. We need the memories of the summer spent in the ocean, the precariously built tree house, the cake and candles at our birthday party. We need the place where we can still feel our loved ones’ embrace or hear their laughter. We need the photographs.
One day I too will be gone from this world. I want future generations to be able to pull photographs from a wooden box and hold them in their hands.
They will know without hesitation, that we too, lived and loved the best we could.