What We Remember
- A Family That I Don't Remember
Aimee Fitzgerald, art student and photographer, finds a damaged photograph that triggers surprising insights.
This is what happens to a photograph after thirteen years in a flood-prone basement. It's a picture of my family, circa 1991. My mother, my father, my brother. Me, the baby. It is a family that I don't remember. I only know them from old stories, and from rare records like this photo.
It's a piece of my family's history, and a piece of my life before memory. It brings back bits and pieces – my mum's red suit, my dad's loud shirts. We had stickers on our bunk bed with cartoon characters like my brothers' shirt. I don't remember the photographer's studio, or my parents ever smiling together. And certainly, the stories I've been told about our family in those days don't involve any smiling. This photo exists as an artefact outside of my memory, apart from what I've been told and my memories of later years. At one time, four members of my family sat in a room together and smiled.
We smiled at a camera, at a photographer and a room full of equipment while sitting in front of a backdrop. While the picture exists as a record of a moment, if the moment was contrived can it have any real significance? It shows that our family wanted a portrait. That my parents saw a future where this picture would be a part of their lives, and that their lives would be together. It was only three years after this picture was taken that my dad left. My parents haven't been in the same room in over ten years. This picture was a hopeful plan for a life that only existed for a brief time.
And as my parents' marriage dissolved, and my father disappeared, the photo lay quietly in our basement, decaying. It's hard not to think of it as serendipitous, a dramatic retelling of events outside the frame. The paper's lurid chemical facade crackled with my parents' silence, and faces faded and distorted as we became distant. Time and nature accelerated the picture's breakdown to coincide with the familial decay. Like the picture of Dorian Grey changed to match his moral and physical decay, our family photo decayed to show the invisible internal damage the intervening years had on our family. Time seems to have made it into a far more accurate portrait than it was intended to be.
But beyond family history and memory, I look at this photo because there is loveliness in its fading colours, and its smiling faces, which seem so innocent, have been so brutally ravaged by time and nature. It has the mesmerising quality of all old and decayed things, added to the attachment to everything that once belonged to you. For me, it's like visiting an old home to find it in crumbling ruins. The ruins would be heartbreaking and lovelier than the house ever was.