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Through another lens
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Through another lens
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Through another lens
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
4 November 2019

Through another lens

Photographs are evidence of moments in time, otherwise banished forever. They don’t always tell the truth.

Written by Emma Hardy

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

If you could define a generation by its photographs, my siblings and I span three.

My baby photos are gathered in hard-bound photo albums in my parents’ house. The better of them framed and placed in a sprawling gallery in mum’s study. They’re glossy, sturdy. My brother’s photos were never caught on film. He was a digital baby. His photos are stuck on memory sticks and the occasional rotating screen saver on an old computer. Mum printed some out (she loves us both, after all), but the resolution is comparatively low, the paper flimsy.

My sister, on the other hand, is an iPhone baby. While a few choice shots have been framed, her photographic footprint exists largely on the cloud. Dad sends me photos of her laughing and, when I press my thumb against the screen, her giggles burst into motion, the frame shaky with movement.

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Photographs contain distance. Distance in space and time between the photographer and the subject. My dad lives in Sydney, I grew up in Melbourne. Our relationship has always had distance; my parents were never together in my lifetime. I’m not proud of my relationship with my dad. I come to him with defences up, bristling for a fight.

When my sister was born, I started visiting more often. The last time, she pulled out a faded photograph of me at her age.

“She looks similar to you, doesn’t she?” said dad.

I was a white, blonde child. My sister is half-Taiwanese. She has dark hair, tan skin. We looked the same only in the way all babies do: thick rosy cheeks, startled eyes and a tuft of hair. But dad was on a mission to find my face in hers, to find himself in both of us. Upstairs, in the guest room, the bed was littered with photos of me. Hundreds of them: unfamiliar clothes, moments I can’t recall, places I don’t recognise. He’d scattered them across the doona, searching with my sister for some resemblance of her, some resemblance of him.

One photo caught me. Dad and I in a garden, in front of a bush of wild pink flowers. I’m wearing a blue, mid-length dress that’s neater, primmer, than anything my four-year-old self would have picked out. My smile is a half-question, half-squint to the sun. Dad’s got me under his arm. His smile is as big as a laugh.

The space between a photograph and the present can stretch so far, it’s as though the moment photographed never even existed.

Back in those days, ones that are too far away to recall, mum would drop me at dad’s, or his mum’s place, then pick me up in the evening. Months later, she’d see photos of my time with dad. I’d be dressed in outfits she’d never seen before: long dresses, frills. Mum jokes it off, saying: “If my clothes weren’t good enough, they could have at least sent you home with theirs.”

I’m less gracious than she is. Looking at the photo, I felt intruded on. He’d laid claim to a past that wasn’t mine. I touched the matt gloss of the photo. It happened, didn’t it?

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In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she writes: “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that’s unreal, they also help people to take possession of a space in which they feel insecure.”

After my sister was born, dad developed a sense of nostalgia and regret around my childhood, too.

“You were walking by this age, weren’t you,” he’d say to himself—to me—as though we’d remember. You were big at this age. You were talking at this age. Eating solid food. He spoke with confidence but shifted through photographs with an earnestness that betrayed his vulnerability.

Through photographs, I saw my dad’s insecurities thrust front and centre: Did he know how to be a father? Would another childhood slip by? Once, on a walk through the park, dad mentioned that he regretted not being around more when I was little. Then he looked absently up at the trees, said the jacarandas dropped their flowers too fast to keep up with.

Missing my childhood is a truth dad struggles to live with more than I do. And if he has to take claim to that through photos, so be it. I hope that when my sister’s my age, he’s able to leave her photos to rest.

Emma Hardy

Emma Hardy is a writer and creative working in Naarm (Melbourne). She’s interested in feminism, activism and the environment. You can find her online or on Twitter

Photo by César Abner Martínez Aguilar on Unsplash

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