I have been scanning and digitally restoring a number of photos out of our family’s trove, a heap that resembles the disorganized and neglected stores of many other families. I make a small dent in the stack from time to time, then get distracted by everyday life and often don’t revisit the project for quite a while again. While many of us obsess over parting with beloved memorabilia of any kind, the truth is that the majority of us don’t do much with it when we have it.
All good things are that way, I suppose: love, joy, peace and happiness of both the material and the intangible sorts are seldom given their full respect when we have them, only mourned when we think they’re out of reach. And from what I’ve seen and heard from friends around the globe, this is a foolishness that transcends all sorts of differences and makes us more alike than not–no matter what our location or culture, our beliefs, hopes, and dreams, we all seem to wrestle with this forgetfulness about appreciating what we truly value that we have right in hand, and the minute that we suspect we’re about to lose our grip on those gifts, whether by our own decisions or perforce, we get panicked and become certain that it’s a sign of apocalypse. Surely the end of our own self and sanity, and very possibly, that of the universe as we know it.
I come across that box of yet-to-be-scanned photos from time to time and get a pang: what if I don’t get back to this project before I forget who’s in the photos, where the shots were taken, before the images are too faded or decayed to be rescued at all?
Well, what if?
Honestly, I know full well that it will not be the end of the world. Not even the end of my pleasurable revisiting of those memories–what’s more significant than retaining this flimsy physical repository of memories is whether I use the versions of them in my head and heart while they last (head, heart and memories, all three). Once gone from there, the data held in a picture is only cold, meaningless data after all, and it never contained the warmth and soul of anyone or anything depicted in it. It’s merely a shadow-play version of the husk that is my human form and will no longer be me when I die.
So I’ll keep leafing through these paper and binary mementos of mine as long as it pleases me to do so, remembering mostly that what is seen therein is always more beautifully carried inside me. Change is indeed the only constant, yet in the photograph my great-uncle took, probably in Johannesburg, around sixty years ago there is the ephemeral prototype of the photograph I took in New York less than a decade ago. Fifty years or fifty centuries, it matters little if we learn to respect and rejoice in what remains true and crosses the boundaries of place and time as long as we keep it alive inwardly.