Below is a short memory from my senior thesis that I wrote back in 2013. As I re-read the words that I had penned two years ago, memories came flooding in and tears started to form. I included this memory in my thesis to remind me why I photograph life. Though the memory is filled with sadness and loss, it gave me purpose and illustrates why life inspired moments matter.
There is a time to weep. And there’s a time to laugh. There is a time to be sad. And there’s a time to dance. – Ecclesiastes 3:4
Life is filled with joy and sadness, without both we can not live a full life. Or truly appreciate seasons of joy.
My phone awakens me as I roll over, I instinctively glance at my clock perched on my dresser. Even without my glasses on I can see the greenish yellow led numbers; 5:53am my clock reads.
I still have an hour before I need to get going, I think.
Grabbing at my Iphone, I yank it from where it lay by my bed charging. There on the home screen staring me in the face is a text from my dad, three words that still hang in the air.
“Nana passed away.”
Even though I had been expecting this, she had been in the hospital on a weekly basis it seemed this last month. My breath still caught in my throat as it tightened in the knowledge that my Nana, my great-grandma was gone. She had gone home.
I snap back to conscious thought and focus on getting home. My car a blur on the asphalt it flies over, inside I sit still lost in the reality that Nana’s funeral is tomorrow. In the midst of the busyness of school, I hadn’t taken the time to visit her like I should have. I was to concentrated on getting my degree at San Diego Christian. I had turned twenty four this year, and with all my friends graduating or already having graduated. It was time I focused, and graduated as well. But this reality, stopped me in my tracks. It forced me to consider something I knew had been coming. I brushed away a tear as the memories came flooding in.
My uncle and aunt had just left, my immediate family was on the way. I stood by her bedside looking down. She lay small and helpless curled up on the hospital bed, a shell of her former self. Though she did not complain the pain was etched in her face. That was Nana, I don’t think I had ever heard her complain. Not when her husband passed away, not when she lost drivers license because she was ninety-five and the family didn’t want her driving anymore. Not even when her home was sold, and she moved to an assisted living facility. I held her hand tightly, wanting her to know I was there for her. She had always been there for me, and I wanted to be there for her.
I focused on the road again making sure I didn’t miss the exit for the 215 freeway. Nana was still with me, but that was not how I wanted to remember her. I had wanted to take a portrait of her. I had seen a collection of centenarian portraiture on fstoppers.com. A photography blog I check religiously at least once a day. Nana had turned one hundred and three last October, so she was well qualified. As a photographer I felt I should document that achievement, but in the busyness of life I hadn’t found the time. Her heart problems had reminded me of that idea, but she had been a ghost of herself. That was not how she should be remembered, how I had imagined her portrait. Now she was home, I would never get the chance.
That realization jolted me. I was driving home like a had done a hundred times before. Yet on that lonely stretch of the fifteen freeway somewhere between San Diego and Riverside, I finally got it. I finally understood why I take photographs. It took for my precious Nana to pass away for me to get it. The reason I take photographs is to remember the ones I love and the times we have had together. I have said that in the past but I lacked the conviction that I do now. Now I know without a doubt. After seeing bride and grooms say “I do” again and again as I photographed their weddings I had become immune to their humanity and forgotten what it meant to truly remember. The moments had become fake, posed. Yet as a human I still wanted hope. I want memories to be real, and my job as a photographer to be purposeful.
I don’t want to remember an old lady pain as she suffered out here last few weeks here on earth. I want to remember my Nana who would welcome me with her open arms on Christmas eve, and let me eat as much ice cream as I wanted. That memory can be captured by a photograph, even if it just be a portrait of her as I want to remember. It can because it captures her life, my memories, our hope. It takes me back to a time that I know was real and meaningful. I drifted back to her bedside remembering my last words to her. I had taken her hand and leaning over whispered, “Nana I love you” Though she hadn’t responded her grip had on my hand had tightened. I had returned her grasp not wanting to let go. Yet I didn’t want this picture to be how I remembered my Nana. I wish I had had the foresight to take a portrait of her when she was still full of vim and vigor. Though that might be a skewed view of reality, of her right now. I don’t care. My view of humanity chooses to remember the good in people and overlook their lesser moments as I choose to shape my reality of them. Photography offers a mechanism to do just that. It allows one to document the defining moments in life and present them how we want them to be remembered. Suffering is real and pain is not easily forgotten but by creating a hopeful future we can transcend this earth if just for a time and reach heavenward. This is what had drawn me to wedding photography in the first place. Its ability to transcend the moment, and capture memories for a lifetime. This reality shook me free from my apathy as I realized I needed to truly experience those in my life and create meaningful moments.
To read the ethnography thesis that this story is but a section of visit my Thesis page.