I often wonder whether a single picture may triumph words in the long run of things. Like if I were to see a photo of your grandfather rather than read some form of text document he may have written, would I have gotten a better sense of his time?
If pictures were to transcribe a thousand words, then I suppose the fact that our memory ever so subtly reconstructs each time we relive an instant can compose of several million in a life time. That’s certainly a lot more environmentally friendly than text. But then what about the validity of the memory? That we so subconsciously and involuntarily change the way we perceive, like one would of an old font; suddenly find this sun bleached photo a quaint charm, though your mother at the time may have told you they had lived rather poorly. Could we be excused of that, or would it be that the subjects in the pictures would not mind if we were to square on a piece of rose colored glasses. So much so that they might come to believe it the same as well.
“Oh, it wasn’t so bad.”
This romantic fondness, we, or at least I come to find of bygone times makes me wonder if photos were taken at first to not only capture the first light, but to ultimately expose an unfathomable secret. That in a time of confusion we may call out to our cherished loved ones in these old photographs and ask them to guide us. Whereas while choked in anger, we might thin our lips and clamp back the wave of nausea instead. The precedent clarity vanished in the same sense as our present humanity. It only but takes a moment. A single photograph taken the same way 20 something years ago can evoke so much.
I came across some old photographs my mother took of the apartment building we used to live in in Hong Kong. It was a number of complex buildings built on top of a mall, and we carried our lives in a sort of maze open hallway, representing only another pinnacle in the sky defying gravity. Everyday we descended the elevators, and then the escalators into the mall and I remember the bright orange lights. The sales woman standing in front of McDonald’s with very long slender nails that I had wanted, but instead I took a pack of ketchup everyday.
When I was 14, I had my all girls sexual education and self defense class. Among other mental exercises, we were asked to think of a certain place in our mind. The instructor probably hadn’t meant it so, but I told my best friend that afternoon that I thought of the metal bars across my apartment door – very frequent there – and how it would slam shut in that blue lit hall way. At that moment, I cried because I feared abandonment, but I never recalled that while I grew up there. But funny I recall now again when I see a photograph I never really remembered seeing. I recall instead truthfully, and my sister and mother still recounts today, how much I loved to stay at home and play with my Barbies. But how would you have known with just a photograph?
Like this one.
So deceivingly ominous, even to me now, but behind that door were my childhood memories. It was where you would have found a 5 year old self of me placing plastic barn yard animals on the living room floor while she waited impatiently for her Cinderella tape to rewind over and over again on the TV.
Which is why when I came across my father’s parents’ photo on my sister’s cabinet I was quite taken.
In fact, my grandmother was stunning in a refined, mature way. I admired the photographer for having blurred out the surroundings so that they stood emphasized. She sat in a cafe of sorts with her husband behind her. But the more I stared, the more I had wished the photograph were more clear in their environment. I had wished I would be able to take a peek into the time period they lived in. Like what were their glassware like?
I could already feel the imaginations begin of their life. How they had existed, from this one single photograph that is so orchestrated. I almost forget the real facts that my mother had told me. How much livelier and strict she was with her two sons. My father. How they mixed the fats of pork and chicken in their rice because they had no money to afford meat. How much of a meal that was to them. I almost forget all of that because without thinking, these thousands undeliverable words appear to renew themselves with the image of the photograph. And with each time these photos are reflected in my eyes, reversed upside down into my brain, it will trigger the composition of all the stories and words I have seen in my time and tell me a brand new one.
So would it have been better instead if my grandparents had written more letters. Not that I would truthfully be able to dissect any of it to this degree with my lacking Chinese, but would it have been better still? For the current me to use my type writer as a source of comfort in typing out pieces I believe carry a strange piece of me. Who knows if anyone will ever come across them again. But would those few thousands words suffice for them to surface a picture in their memories, the same way a photograph lures a story?
I find in the moment I configured to write this sort of redundant argument, I thought it funny to juxtapose the contradictory ideas. Well, I’ll just simply take a photograph of my words, I said. Would the black and white clarity of the crisp new photo fade and become grainy one day and take effect onto those old words further, to a point where my physical self can no longer manipulate my words to mean what I had meant. Is that better than than the delicate crinkle of yellowed pages? – Well, the writer in me digresses. But could you in fact, imagine the silly typist that decided against better judgement to play a fool’s game with a future generation like that?
How would you have known though, in those thousand words that comes across your mind, that her first nickname at a job was by a 45 year old gay man who called her ‘Charlie Brown’. That my sister and I had crashed a mini remote controlled helicopter our father bought in the apartment lobby at night. I suppose he might have wished he had boys in that moment, and it makes me smile.
So many things I want to ask that girl because I don’t even know. And I might venture to say many people might not know themselves either. It’s like all these words and pictures were to only hold the promise to deliver but answers nothing.
Gosh, was I happy here? Arrogant? Being a smart turtle necked fool so that my current future self who holds these warm butterflies may hopes that I was indeed, because it just simply makes everything so much better that way. To just let yourself be charmed by another thousand words, when you have no more words to say. Perhaps, that is why we take photos. And we will write, when we can.