Sunday, December 6, 2009

Photographs as Family Story

Sheldon Hess at grave of Alfred Park, France, 1946

The past few winters I’ve been chipping away at a project of organizing my family photographs by scanning old negatives and prints into a digital format. This grew into the bigger task of archiving them to share with other family members, and trying to document the names of people, dates, and places, so that my nieces and nephews will be able to identify them when they become of an age where it may matter to them. I’m not sure why this project took on such importance for me. Perhaps it’s because those images are rooted in story, and I didn’t want the story of these people to be lost. I wanted their story to be handed down to the generations after me. While working on the project and trying to figure out the story behind some of the images, I couldn’t help thinking about the role of reminiscent narrators in literature.

The camera sometimes captures what the eye immediately does not. There may be subtle things happening in the background which add meaning when discovered. Or, it may be something right up front, but not what the eye is first drawn toward. These little details or discoveries work in the same way that memory functions. What we see is part fact and part inference based on our personal perspective and experience. This is not unlike the first-person reminiscent narrator (sometimes known as the “unreliable narrator”) in a story.

I’d grown up looking at and loving the black-and-white photographs in the family albums, to the point where I’m not sure whether I remember the actual event in some of the images or if I’m just remembering the photograph and projecting my own meaning onto it. This fascinates me in itself since memory is such a visual mechanism. The act of writing a story, at least for me, is also a visual process – of imagining scenes and characters.

I’m still discovering new things in those family snapshots. In a picture of my grandmother and grandfather in their backyard garden, the shadowy figures of two children playing on a swing set under the apple tree can be discerned in the background. It’s very likely that I am one of those children since that swing set was put there for me as their first grandchild. I can clearly make out a girl with a black ponytail seated on the glider, and I believe she is my childhood playmate Lauree. The other figure is deeper in the shadows, not seated on the opposite side of the glider but seems instead to be hanging upside down with her knees hooked over the side cross brace, using it as a monkey bar. I would wager money that girl is me.

That’s pure speculation on my part about the background. All I know for sure is that the photograph is of my grandparents and their vegetable garden. From there I can launch into dozens of stories about grandparents, about childhood, about small towns, and about backyards divided by fences and connected by alleys. Some of those stories are true, some are fiction, and some are both. In my role as family photo archivist, I’m trying to be as accurate as possible, to stick to the facts on that project. But, in my role as a fiction writer, I use whatever makes the best story.

Working on the photo project, I realized that my own knowledge of some of the images is faulty. For instance, my Great-Uncle Alfred was killed in World War II. This I’ve always known, partly because when I’d walk to Sunday school as a young girl with my grandfather, we’d pass a memorial to local war veterans on the town green, and Grandpap would sometimes stop to show me his brother’s name on it. So, I was confused by a photograph dated 1946 of a relative wearing a soldier’s uniform placing flowers on Uncle Alfred’s grave in France, when I knew his grave was in the local cemetery where many of my maternal relatives are buried. His is the grave that I carried roses to on Decoration Day each May 30th, roses cut by my grandfather from the bush in his front yard. I asked my mom about this discrepancy, and she remembered that my great-grandfather had not been at peace with his son’s body buried so far from home, so he’d had his remains returned to the States to be buried in the family plot. A newspaper clipping saved in a family Bible confirmed that Uncle Alfred’s body had been shipped home for burial from the military cemetery at St. Juan, France and that he’d been killed in action on September 14, 1944.

When an aunt, the last of my dad’s siblings, died a few years ago, I was given her photographs. She and my uncle, who had no children, spent their lives traveling the world with careers in the military. I haven’t even begun the job of scanning and organizing their collection of snapshots and slides yet. The emotions of looking through those boxes of photos are a mix of pleasure and sadness, and the pictures provide a glimpse into the professional and private lives they lived apart from us. There are places and people in the photographs that we will never be able to identify and stories that are forever lost, but my goal is to get those images converted to digital format so that all of my cousins can have copies.

It strikes me that there’s a military thread running through these examples, and I wonder what sets those stories apart from the rest. Is it because war has been a constant across generations? Recently at a family reunion, an older relative to whom my great-grandfather’s family Bible had been handed down, shared Xeroxed copies of a letter found in it that was written by my great-grandfather’s great-uncle during the Civil War (I think this would be my great-great-great-great uncle, but this is too much like a math problem for me to have any confidence in figuring out). In that letter, he writes of his brother being killed in a battle in Virginia, tells his family that he’d buried him on the battlefield as best he could. The brothers had joined the army together and served in the same unit. The brother who’d written the letter later died in a Confederate prison, most likely Libby Prison in Richmond, and the whereabouts of his grave is not known. Since that letter was tucked into my great-grandfather’s Bible, I have to wonder if he was so haunted by that story that he had to make sure that his own son’s remains were returned home.

This photo archive is one of those projects that will never be totally completed because the story is ongoing. In fact, it keeps expanding as new items shared by other family members are added. What do I want my nieces and nephews to remember? The places we lived. The people we loved. Where we came from.

The value of family photographs is not simply that they are images of our loved ones. It’s about their story. The importance of story runs deep – even if it’s just the story of our routine days.

Photo: Sheldon Hess at Alfred Park’s grave in France, 1946, copyright © of the Park Family Archives

1 comment:

laura didyk said...

Hi Dory! Hope you're reading the curator of the week in the Blogger's group on She Writes. For this week (Dec. 6) I highlighted In This Light as one of my chosen blogs... honoring you as the very first member of the Blogger's Group (besides me). :)