When my daughter’s father died, I recall feeling weird that I had taken photos of the open casket. When I became aware of the Victorian practice of commemorating the dead in daguerreotypes it made me feel less ashamed that I had needed to find a way to hold on to that moment. To be able to have something physical to ground my pain and also be able to contextualize it as my life moved on.
Images, photographs, and video are ways that we make meaning out of our world. In these static images or in the case of video, unchanging moving pictures, we are able to create space around the memories. By looking at them while in different moods; we can feel ourselves change in relationship to the image over the course of time. Perhaps something has shifted. Or deepened. Or perhaps, there is an understanding that we have become stuck.
Today, in contrast to even the late 90s (when his death occurred), we have an unprecedented access to imagery and moving pictures that track the course not only of a lifetime but for many of us, each day. As with any technology there is a danger of abuse—that these past images become more important than the current moment or that we use them to create and cling to a still image of ourselves and our relationships that no longer serve us.
I remember being acutely aware that I didn’t ever want my daughter to see the photos I’d taken at her father’s rosary. I didn’t ever want to cause her pain—seeing an image that she probably wouldn’t have remembered on her own (she was two-years-old when he died). More so though, I think, was that I didn’t want her to understand how deeply torn I was from the experience of his loss. I didn’t want her to see me that way, ever. What was it that I was trying to hide? Weakness? The deep vulnerability of loving? Or was it simply the recognition that my healing process had the potential to open her wound?
I realized recently that I have my own unique digital archive. No longer can a family return to one photo albulm to recontruct the past. My emails, photos, and videos constitute a singular strand of experience that do not duplicate the singular strands of those people I am most close to. My husband has his own archive, my adult daughter her own...Each of us with our own tiny pocket computers are documenting our lives in accordance to our own desires and values--the documentation and the sharing of that documentation becomes a unique form of communication. We choose to keep this documentation private or we curate it for public platforms. It is either deeply revealing or highly performative...sometimes both.
In contrast to documenting, tearing up photos or erasing them might be a ritual of healing too—a finality—but in our digital culture, pressing a button doesn’t quite hold the same power. There’s a pervasive sense that the image still lurks somewhere in the clouds—not quite gone. ‘Cancel culture’ has made us trigger happy to bury images and ideas that make us uncomfortable.
Sometimes, images spur within us a deep sense of shame. For myelf, this can be similar to the feeling I have when reading somehting I wrote in my youth. There can be an embarrassment when we resist the images and ideas of our past selves, even if we feel proud of where we managed to end up. (How many of us have "before" and "after" photos living on our phones that we would rather die than have publicly revealed.)
Because of this "cancel culture" impulse, I think that there is a great value in checking back in on the images of both our personal histories as well as our shared personal and cultural ones. Allowing ourselves to feel the passage of time through viewing can be healing and we should not deny ourselves the tools we need to reclaim stability when experiencing a loss—whether from a death or of a changing relationship (at home or in cultural space).
Perhaps, my most important take-away is that an image, as with any art--visual, experientially shared, or written--is a potential platform for communication about a person, an idea, or an era. The images we keep can be painful, but it is in the communication around them, even if the dialogue is only an internal one, that there is healing.