By JIM NICHOLS
The photographer was enthusiastic. “OK,” he said. “This is a lot of people so I will need you to cooperate with me. You all look so good today that I believe this will be a great memory picture for you. Who knows? Perhaps decades from now someone will see this shot and it will trigger wonderful memories for each of you. Even as you are now brothers and sisters and mom and dad and you argue sometimes, none of that will appear in the photo.” He laughs.
“Would the young lady on my far left please cock your head a bit? Just right. Great. Young lady in the middle, please put your arm around each of your parents. Great. Mom and Dad, just fold your hands in front of you. Nobody should be nervous about having a picture taken. Roy, you have taken lots of pictures yourself, so you know how important it is to look natural.”
“Wow, what handsome young men in the back row! I used to be young like you.” Laughing again.
The visitor in the patient room found it awkward. Sometimes there is chatter in the nursing home rooms, but often it does not make much sense. Even more often, the room is quiet and eliciting a verbal response from the patient is difficult, especially if you are a stranger or perceived as such. To generate some response from a patient, it is often helpful to refer to photos in the room or drawings (often from children) displayed. The visitor does not know who those people in the photos are, but the patient certainly does. “Tell me about this picture” can surface responses when few other questions or comments do.
Not only does the visitor receive identifications of the people in the picture, but also elaboration of where the photo was taken and when. That often leads to explanation as to why someone is wearing certain clothes (for example a military uniform) or why certain people are sitting and others are standing. Any missing individuals may be identified even in their absence. The people may not be randomly arranged and there may be a reason. There are stories wrapped up in those images.
With today’s camera-phones everyone has become a photographer. Those images become part of our daily business in many cases. These formal and posed photos of the past are in a different category, however. These photos were planned, and appointments were made. Clothing was chosen and schedules were arranged. The purpose was not just to capture something fun or interesting, but to display relationships. Perhaps it is a specific event to be memorialized, but it would not be remembered as well or as long if the official photographs did not exist. A later observer may not know or care about the event but might care very much about the people in the photo. When our lives today seem to consist so much of playing small ball, these photos draw us back to another time with people whose voices we can still hear and whose touch we can still feel.
If you want to listen to your life, remembering the people in these photos plays an important part. It also instructs us in one aspect of life that we inevitably must accept. There is a contrast for the people in the photo between what they hoped to do in life and what they actually accomplished. Another way of considering it is that they had no idea then of what blessings were ahead.
The photo at the top is of my maternal grandparents plus my aunts and uncles. The young lady on the far left with the cocked head is my mother. The young lady with arms around her parents was 13 years old the day I was born; we share a birthday. She is the only one of this group still living in this life. My mother and I lived with these grandparents until I was 14 months old when my father returned from the war in Italy.
I suspect you have your own photos like this. I also suspect that, when you gaze at them, it gives you pause. It is a good thing to have items in our lives that give us pause.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
I love family photos. I kept annotated photo albums of our son from my pregnancy through his first marriage and birth of our granddaughter. By then, phone photos had become the norm, so I stopped the hobby. I still enjoy going through the albums.
You didn’t say if one of these people in the photograph is you! Lovely article and photo.