What is a photo if only a myth?

Let me begin by stating that I have a horrendous memory. I can barely remember what happened last weekend much less my life when I was a child, and no I didn’t get super wasted last weekend. My interpretation of this photograph will not understand it within the context of when or where it was taken or what my life was like then, but in the context of present day, only because I can only understand it from the context I’m in right at this very moment. Thus, the significance of this photo when it was taken differs significantly from how it did ten years ago, or now.

I don’t remember anything about this photograph. All I can assume that it was more or less the 8th of May, 1991, judging by the fact that I am a newborn and it appears to be at a hospital. Clearly it was the 90s judging by my father’s sweater. The people in the photograph form left to right are: my brother, infant me, my mother, and my father. I was born in Burnsville, Minnesota where I would live until I was two years old and my parents would divorce. In fact, I chose this photograph more for what it hides and conceals than for what it truthfully shows. This is one of the only photographs I have with my mother, my father, and me all together, and only one of a few photos I have with my brother at all. (I also have two older sisters, 40 and 42 years old, from my father).

This photograph assumes I had a cohesive family unit, at least when I was born, and if someone only saw this, they may assume that I always have. But that is not the case. When my parents divorced I lived with my mother and we migrated from Minnesota to Southern California. However I can’t even recognize my mother in this photograph, because she has since lost the baby weight, and she dyed her hair blonde and it’s how I’ve always known her. Somehow her facial expression also seems alien and I can’t figure out why. My brother is 18 years older than me, my mother had him when she was 17, and he has always lived in Minnesota so I haven’t ever really gotten to know him. He’s also extremely timid and was at one point xenophobic, so we don’t have much of a relationship, especially on a generational level. In fact, the first two years of my life were the only two where I lived in the same house as my mother, my father, and most of my siblings (my oldest sister had moved out by the time I was born). And it almost doesn’t even exist because I have absolutely no recollection of it and minimal photographic evidence to prove it.

It is my father in this photo that is so unusual. I didn’t know him until I was in 6th grade when I was forced to move in with him. He looks basically the same, and it’s weird to see him smile at me. I’ve always been so detached from my father that I never felt he was my father, not to mention I look nothing like him. We don’t get along and have just about conflicting opinions about everything. And as soon as I had a job and made my own money, I was completely on my own. I like to say I raised myself, but that wouldn’t be giving enough credit to my mother, probably the most influential person in my life. Then I discovered this year that he really isn’t my father, which is why this photo makes me so uneasy. Literally nothing about this photograph is as it appears. It represents a myth that I ever had a family, a cohesive one at that, when I’ve never really had the feeling. I’ve only ever known my mom, and even she is unrecognizable. The entire thing is fiction, it is entirely myth, depicting a family portrait that never existed in reality. My brother hated my father, my mother hated my father, and it took me until I was 12 to know that I do too. On the other side, he hated us too.

Yet, like Bechdel, it really isn’t fake. The boy in the photo really is my brother, the woman really is my mother, and the man has always been understood to be my father for most of my life. Moreover, the baby in the picture has virtually always been a brother and a son to the others. But it doesn’t seem like that to me. It’s strange to see all of these people in one picture because it confirms that there was a point when we all were together. It is so foreign to me in every way. The concept of family has always evaded me, I feel like I’ve never really had one. The fact that my siblings are all approximately 20 years older than me reiterates that; I didn’t even have siblings to share my experiences with. I literally cannot comprehend what it’s like to have a family function, even when my mother’s side of the family is enormous. I was further alienated from family because they all lived in Minnesota, and I in California. My father’s side is tiny and disconnected. Because of this, I’ve always defined and created my own version of kin through friendships. I have always found the idea of a family really unusual, how you have to live with these people your entire life, no matter what conflicts occur or what your relationship is like. That’s why I find my relationship with my father so strange too. He is no doubt a major person who I will know, and have known, for a long time, yet I don’t relate and have a terrible relationship with. This is extrapolated by the thought that he never even had to be a part of my life because he’s not my biological father, something he may be very pleased about. This is especially interesting because what I am saying assumes that to be a “father,” one must be the “biological father,” when the entire concept of fatherhood is culturally constructed; just like I said before, I’ve created my own notions of family through non-blood relation to some extent.

What does this photograph reveal about my family or my life? Nothing. What does it conceal? Everything. Yet these are messy and complicated answers, because they don’t accurately represent every dynamic. The most unreal by far is my father smiling at me. It represents a false image of what never really was a stable family unit. I would prefer it be my mother looking at me, because it would be more accurate. And although I like that my brother is in the photo, if this were to be fully accurate, both he and my father would have to be missing. However, this is only how I am interpreting the photograph right now. My interpretation of it would have been different years ago, and will undoubtedly be different ten years from now. And I cannot comment on the family dynamics of the moment this photograph was taken based on the fact that I can’t remember it. I don’t even know who took it, maybe an aunt or a nurse? Everything I can understand about the specific time in which this was taken is only through how I interpret what my mom says about it. It is highly subjective and contextual, which adds to the fiction. The photograph is both real and fake, representing a particular fraction of a second in time that happened about 20 years ago, and a strange collection of people that I’ve never known to be in the same room at one time. The metaphor of a photograph functions particularly well here. All social, cultural, historical analyses aside, the photograph itself is a lie because it is only an oversimplified and muddied reproduction of the three-dimensional dynamics that actually were present that day, influenced by the past. No photograph can be separated from its context, but no photograph is ever being read from the context in which it was taken, only in the present day context of the person reading it.

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1 Response to “What is a photo if only a myth?”


  1. 1 Cindy Lepore Hart 7 July 2014 at 6:16 pm

    What interesting insights you have about your family, your life. Very personal information you’ve shared, thanks.


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