A life seen through the lens

May 3, 2007

At the age of nine, I became acutely aware of the passage of time. Unable to sleep, I watched the numbers on my digital clock change in the dark and felt 10:35 p.m. on October 27, 1996 slip away from me. When I woke up on the 28th, I began to try to capture the details of everything I saw before they could change. I saw colorful electrical wires cascading out of the second floor window of an apartment building being renovated down my block and knew they would be gone by evening.

I noticed the view of the city I could only capture at the end of the arch of the swing set at school, when I was up so high I thought I would fall out. I observed myself growing up and wondered whether every moment I lived, I lost the self that I had been the moment before.

For Christmas, my parents bought me a camera. A point-and-shoot, zoomless, gray, bare bones Olympus whose battery compartment door promptly fell off. I took it to Austria when we visited our family and suddenly, I could hold on to snow falling on the ruins of Dürnstein castle outside my father’s hometown and my uncle Wolfgang’s face when he cracked bad jokes. I brought those moments home.

When I think back to my life since then, I see a collection of scenes, some of which made it onto 35mm film, some of which didn’t. My mother’s work suits hanging in dry-cleaning plastic next to me in the backseat of our red Toyota Corolla, as droplets of slow winter-long rain slid down the window, represent the last years of elementary school. Lazy dust illuminated by the sideways after-school sunlight, particles drifting below lockers bright with the acrylic designs dreamed up by my classmates in my Arts Magnet Middle School, mean I’m beginning to see myself as a real person.

The print sitting on my desk at college of the impossible golden light that turned the Champs Élysées sepia on my first visit to Paris means my first love and the angst of being 15. The streaked circle of the flames swung by a female dancer illuminating the faces of the crowds on a Barcelona beach against the 3 a.m. darkness means post-high school, pre-college, and the freest I have ever felt. I have only to pull out those pictures and I can become the person I was at each of those times.

When I was 17 and waking up from a surgery no one was certain I’d survive, my father raised my duct-taped Olympus to his eyes and hit the shutter. It is the first thing I remember after I woke up and we have never talked about it. I was the one who brought the neglected film to the developer two months later, so I was the first one to lay eyes on that picture. A wave of shock washed over me, seeing myself through my father’s eyes, helpless and attached to the sterile, blinking machines. It threw me right back into those emotions.

I slid the print back into the envelope and tried to forget about it. When I was ready for another glimpse a few weeks later, I dug the envelope out of a box in the basement and sorted through the mundane images of a family friend’s visit and a neighbor’s birthday party, but the unsettling photo I sought had vanished. I can only imagine that it was pulled by its photographer, to shuffle the hard times more quickly into the past.

Photographs are the standard against which we can measure our eroding memories. We take them for all kinds of reasons: to remember a pertinent time, to make an unbelievable moment real, or maybe to give a piece of our lives to someone far away. We destroy photos for similar reasons: to forget, to try to make days we’d like to disown into a dream, to keep the moments to ourselves.

It is the impulse we feel to capture something unfolding before us, arising from a desire to freeze and remember. A moment’s light once made itself immortal, whether it glinted off a scrap of glossy paper or appeared on the back of our closed eyelids. These are the flashes that illuminate our lives. These are the chronicles of the seconds we lose.

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