Stored away in one corner of my house is a chestnut drawer full of memories. It contains old and dusty photo albums of varied sizes and thicknesses. The yellowing pages preserve a melange of memories of four generations of my family.
Every now and then, I open these albums at random and smile. There are countless photos of weddings, celebrations, mundane everyday life, of children growing up, of people long gone and of course, us posing in front of the Taj Mahal. These images document happiness, togetherness, love and life. Everyone is smiling looking at the camera. Even if they are not, the context is a happy one. My aunt is crying in some of her wedding photographs but they, nevertheless, record a joyous moment in her life. The word “album” is derived from Latin “albus’” meaning white and most people choose to fill up this white with myriad colours of joyful memories.
Next, I open my mobile phone’s photo gallery and the colourful mundanity continues to pour out in abundance. The collection becomes larger and more absurd, portraying my various foibles. There are images of places I visited and food I ate and friends and family I spent time with, of library books and lecture notes, of brewing coffee, wildflowers, cottony clouds, and things which I consider “aesthetic”…things which constitute me and my life. These are photos that I like looking at on gloomy days to remind myself of the better aspects of my life. They are solace, they are comfort.
As I keep scrolling, things take a turn, and suddenly I freeze. On my screen are photos of my dead grandpa who succumbed to the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. This set of images are his last photographs. There is a serene calm on his face and he seems to be peacefully sleeping. But I know he isn’t. There is no aesthetic aspect to these images. They are not pretty. Rather, they bring a stabbing pain to me every time I look at them. Captured to console the family members who couldn’t be with him at his departure due to pandemic restrictions, these photos are significant for me not because of what they depict but because they symbolise an end. They remind me of the horrors of the pandemic and the unimaginable sorrow that people went through.
Why am I writing about this? Perhaps because having an image of a dead loved one in my photo gallery is incongruent with my conception of what photographs are supposed to be–something that records things or moments I like(d) or need. My photo gallery has to be a happy space where I go for comfort, not a space that agitates and unsettles me. This incongruence unnerves me and I can’t quite make sense of it. Is my grandpa supposed to live amidst a jumble of ludicrous “Good Morning” images? Is it reducing the dignity of the dead? Would he eventually go away with my discarded phone? Or become a byte on my hard disk? What if one day, whilst in agony, I delete those pictures? Would his last memory fade away?
I vaguely remember reading cultural critics like Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag who believed that photography has always had a special relationship to death. True, photographs show what has been and is no more. To capture the transience of life and experiences for eternity, the Victorians, for example, proudly displayed the daguerreotypes of their dead loved ones in their home, with love and respect. Grieving relatives often posed with the deceased who was dressed and made ready to look more “alive” before the photo session. The images acted as symbols of mourning and as objects which kept alive the illusion of life and the reality of death.
But then, such images exist in obscure history and in Archives with capital A, don’t they? Surely not in our personal photo galleries? Surely not in our phones which we carry around everywhere and sleep with?
How naive of me!
Perhaps, the Victorians knew better!
Perhaps one day, I will create polaroid prints and prepare another family album–our Book of the Dead. I wonder what opening the chestnut drawer in the corner of my house and peering at those old and dusty albums would then feel like. Perhaps the materiality of the printed image would create for me a meaning and an illusion of permanence which the digital world fails to evoke. Instead of being an inconvenient truth that should remain conveniently hidden away, perhaps death would then become another memory, another part of life.
Featured image: Pexels