What the Picture Contains: Family Photos and the Essence of the Soul

Last Thursday night, long after the family had gathered and shared a meal, long after the lights in all of the neighboring houses had gone out, my grandmother and her children sat down to discuss the future. My grandfather’s funeral. His burial. His estate. Well into the early hours of Friday they discussed the things we’ve all been avoiding, and came to the hard but necessary decisions.

Each family member will have his or her own role, but when I spoke with my father about mine, he told me it was simple: deliver Pop’s eulogy and make the video memorial for Pop’s funeral service. I’d already taken my grandmother’s photo albums, in the hopes of scanning in some pictures for a book I’m working on, so adding in photos from other family members isn’t such a big deal. And, if you’ve ever seen the cheesy way some funeral homes do those memorial videos, I’d much rather save the money and do it myself.

But that being said, it’s not easy to consolidate a lifetime. How do you take over 85 years of a person’s life and turn it into a meaningful 15-20 minutes?

Harder still, how do you consolidate that same 85-plus years as seen and experienced through different sets of eyes? It’s not like one photographer followed my grandfather around all of his days; everyone close to Pop has some sort of picture of him, and each of those pictures represents a moment in time that that person saw something unique to him or her. In that regard, every time I come across a new photo from a different source, I’m staggered by the reality that Pop’s life – and my own – is lived through one lens but viewed through multiple, so that our lives don’t belong merely to us, but to everyone we love.

In essence, our essence is born up in the hearts of those around us. We are fragmented people.

Think about it: a photograph isn’t just a generic memory – it’s encoded with the photographer’s mind, so that when the photographer looks at the picture, he or she can say, “This is what was going on at the time…”

Our lives are much the same way – when our relatives or friends look at us, they see something different from what we see. Thus, who we are is not merely what we think in our own heads, but also how other people see us.

It’s fascinating to think about, as I look through hundreds of old photographs and see my grandfather, or my aunt, or my late uncle. They exist one way in the picture, a separate way in their own consciousness, and yet another way in my mind. I’m not deep enough or skilled enough to really dig into the philosophy here, but there’s such beauty in realizing that we are trusted with part of what makes another person themselves. When you think about it, no one can claim to be an island, because the very circumstances of birth dictate that there is at least one other person on this planet who holds a piece of you. And if no one is an island, what could that do to our social values, or political process?

These are the things you think about when you spend hours scanning in and labeling specific seconds of a person’s life. The thoughts come unbidden, and ramble around like old-school tramps looking for a comfortable freight car headed west. I’ve seen so many different versions of my grandfather, each one distinct, many unfamiliar, and I don’t know whether to rejoice over discovering these things or cry because I’ve missed out on so much.

But of all the pictures I’ve scanned in today, only one really resonates with me. I knew I’d come across it sooner or later, and have been preparing myself for it’s appearance. Once I flipped it over, I felt my stomach sink. I apologize, but the image is startling and might be disturbing to some. If so I ask for your forgiveness.

My dad's older brother, Terry. He was killed three months after I was born.

I first saw the photo when I was seven or eight years old, and it made my heart seize. I thought it was my father, and for a split-second it felt like an alternate universe. I ran screaming to MawMaw’s side with it and asked her to explain.

“It’s your daddy’s brother, uncle Terry. It’s from when he died.”

I can’t remember if I’d known about Terry or not, and I guess it’s not really relevant. There, in black and white (the photo I saw was from a newspaper obituary) was a face so eerily familiar that it filled me with anxiety until I saw my dad that night. Once I was able to hug him, to put my hands on his face and know that he was all right, I was able to let the image fade from my mind.

But like all children, I had a curiosity that couldn’t be satisfied. MawMaw kept Terry’s picture tucked into the frame of her guest bedroom mirror, and when the family was over, or when I was spending time at her house, I would sneak into the guest bedroom and just stare at that picture. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to read the actual obituary (it was fairly standard), and even longer still to pick the picture up again and really study it. But the more often I stole away to look at it, the more it made me think about mortality and death and specifically just what I would do without my father.

In all those years, however, it never made me ask what it was like for my cousin to grow up without her dad. Today, I look at that photo and, while my initial reaction is still to freak out over the visual similarities between Terry and my dad (and now apparently, myself; Jonathan looked at this, turned to me and said, “Daddy?”), my main thoughts turn to my cousin, Chasity.

I look at this photo and think, I wish I could’ve known my uncle.

Chasity might look at it and think, I wish I could’ve known my dad.

I’m blessed that my father is still with me, that I see him every Sunday, that I can call and talk to him whenever I want, or solicit his advice when I need guidance. Chasity was blessed with a step-father who has been good to her, but it just tears me up to sit here today and actually realize just how empty and confusing it must be to never know your dad. To have to construct him out of other people’s memories.

Which brings me back to what I was saying at the beginning: Chasity knows what she knows about her dad because he lived on in the hearts and memories of other people. She knows something about him because she can sit and stare at a photograph taken when he was younger and discern things about him from what that captured moment reveals. She can see the kindness in his eyes, or the legendary sense of humor in his smile, or (in one of my other favorite photos) the way he kicked back against his father’s car, tilted up a bottle of Coke, and drank every last drop to his own satisfaction. She can, in some ways, interact with him, and get to know him a little more.

And all because someone pointed a camera at him in that moment and said, “That’s so Terry.”

All because someone loved him and carried him forward in their heart and photo album.

One day, my children will look back through all the photos I’ve scanned (and will soon scan) and they’ll be able to construct the people of their lineage out of what pictures I’ve assembled. Jonathan won’t be able to remember Pop Harold; what Ella will remember is no certain thing. So I am grateful that I will be able to introduce them to their grandfathers (both of my Pops), as well as the other people they may not have known, through pictures.

It’s funny, but once upon a time, some people were afraid to have their picture taken, believing that the photographed image would capture the subject’s soul. The first time I ever heard that, I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world.

Now, I think it might be one of the most beautiful.