Mumblety-odd years ago, my first museum job was in a photograph and print collection, working as a photo researcher both finding and processing collections. There was a voyeuristic quality to the work, sometimes when going through a photographer’s more personal images, but especially when working on a family collection.
As I continued to work in the field, I started meeting with donors, and learned to talk them into giving their collections to the museum. It was easy enough to talk to them about making their memories tangible, creating and preserving a legacy of their lives so that others could understand the past and the contribution they, in particular, had made. How they typified an important part of a state or region’s history.
Sporadically, I organized my own photos and ask my mother for images of our family. I certainly took plenty of photos of my own son, but as time went on– and whether this is due to smartphones or trying to live in the moment, or not wanting to break the magical spell of an experience– I stopped taking pictures. I could still talk people into donations, and still enjoyed going through their family albums, but recording my own life didn’t make much sense to me, and I began to consider pitching images and letters and postcards, especially as I packed to move south. Keeping photographs for myself didn’t make sense.
Sitting in bed on Friday night, Drunk Tailor and I looked through a box of snapshots my mother keeps in a fabric-covered box. He said, “Photographs are what you use to show people what you used to look like,” and to a degree that’s true. They are also proof that you had a life before this moment (think Blade Runner) and proof– perhaps– that you are who you think you are (think Blade Runner 2049). But even more like the Blade Runner movies, photographs of your past, or your family’s past, tell you where you come from, and where you might belong. Love them or leave them, you fit in somewhere in a larger story of people, and that shapes your identity, what you do, who you love, and how you live.
As every year ends, I look back with some sadness at things I wish I had done differently, people I wish I had not hurt, people I wish I’d hugged more. The box of snapshots reminds me that I’m all too common, all too normal. Everyone has those pangs of nostalgia, the words they wish they’d said, the loss they feel as they lose the people they love.
And that’s the point, I suppose: love one another. Be excellent to each other. Take the photos, label them (in pencil, on the back, listen to your archivist), and look at them when you can’t remember who you are, where you came from, or why you matter.