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IN DEFENSE OF DOCUMENTING LIFE
on taking the photo & collecting keepsakes
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I’ve always documented my life. I remember early elementary school days of diaries with locks, old composition books filled with crayon drawings, and sticker collections in journals–almost as if they’d one day be worth something.
In our modern world, photographing moments and taking videos is commonplace, but it’s still seen as something that takes us out of the moment. Despite this, documentation has always deeply mattered to me. In fact, I think it often brings me back to myself.
My parents moved and, in the process, unearthed a chest that I once painted with nail polish and Mod Podged magazine cutouts of collage-like relics that say, “Be Alarmed,” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… BEHOLD THIS,” a shirt with the classic I <3 NY logo on it, and handwritten band names of all my favorites like Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy. It is truly an artifact of the inner workings of my teenage self.
When my mom handed it to me, my stomach dropped. I was nervous if its contents. One of the most vivid memories of this chest was the police cracking open its lock when I ran away from home, only for them to read my journals to find some hint of where I may have gone. It felt like such an invasion of privacy then to come back and see it cracked open, and there’s still evidence of the break-in—all broken wood and no way to secure it shut anymore.
When I finally dove in, I was struck by the visceral stench of my childhood—an accumulation of cigarette smoke so potent it was almost as if my parents were sitting in the room with me. As I excavated its contents, I was greeted with old journals, diaries, t-shirts, and photos that surprisingly brought up the rare happy childhood memory. The photos of me in my full-on weirdo kid self alongside a scrapbook journal from high school and even a plastic bag of a cast from when I broke my arm in high school—all brought me back to moments in time when I knew my younger self was both hurting and trying to survive–but was also so committed to being myself and dreaming outside of the world I was living in.
These days, I whip out my phone to take a photo whenever possible. Sure, I post on Instagram and have found myself as someone who “creates content,” but I’ve always seen Instagram as a digital journal. It’s a big reason I still have the same account since Instagram’s Android inception in 2012. If you scroll far back enough, you’ll see photos of my high school journalism classroom, where I worked on the yearbook staff as a photo editor—more documentation.
I was nervous to open that chest. It is stained with memory. But it is a time capsule—evidence from a time when survival seemed impossible. It’s where I kept a pack of cigarettes to smoke in secret and stored journals I shared with my best friends before texting existed. I had to emotionally prepare myself to open this chest, and when I finally did, I instead felt a sense of relief that there was evidence of a childhood that I was committed to scavenging.
Even now, there are photos I look back on in my phone where I wasn’t sure I’d make it out alive. I scroll through the years and see photos of old apartments, people I’m no longer friends with, and moments from trips where I was the most depressed I’d ever been. But I scroll between now and every photo between it and see the life that’s been lived–the memories that have been made.
When my grandmother died, I was given scrapbooks she had stored in her closet for years. In it, there are childhood photos of my father, photos of trip she took around the world, and love notes my grandfather would send her while he was stationed in Korea in the 50s. They had been divorced for at least 40 years by the time she died, but there were memories of a love that was very much alive. Now, they live in my basement alongside my own photo albums of childhood photos and high school dance photos with a past romance. I see them sitting next to one another and am in awe at the generations of memory that have been preserved.
I know some people are not so lucky, and photos certainly aren’t the only way to document things. That’s so much of why I’m a writer, after all. I have always had a deep desire to write a history different from the one handed down to me. As a people, we see the damage that can be done when certain memories are retained and others are scrapped. It’s what we see in our history books–whiteness is preserved while people of color’s histories are erased. However, while often used against people, documentation can also be a reclamation.
I’ve been returning to my photo albums a lot lately. There are photos of myself that exist during times I don’t remember. I am always in awe of how trauma strips away memory, and it’s nice to have proof of joy–even if it was just for a quick snapshot. I can look at the photos and corroborate with my inner child that I had moments of reprieve.
So yes, I will always take the photo. I will record a moment in time–even if sometimes I look back with grief or embarrassment. I want proof of the life I lived. I want to celebrate and remind myself about the wonders of being alive and all its messy beauty. I will take a photo of the food before I take the first bite. I will ask my friends to smile or aim for the perfect candid. When I look at Polaroids of people I am no longer friends with, I think of the lessons I learned. When I take an outfit of the day photo, I commemorate the feeling of confidence and adornment. When I come across a childhood photo, I relish girlhood and innocence.
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