We had just moved into this house when I made this photograph. It was an exciting time — our first move as a family (and our last; my parents would remain in this house until they retired).
It’s startling now to see those overgrown bushes. The next spring Mom cut them way down and planted flowers around them. That’s how I remember that space.
That’s my brother. A tank top and patched jeans were just the kind of clothes we used to wear for play. We had nicer clothes for school, but Mom made us change into play clothes when we came home. When we wore a hole in a knee of school jeans, Mom patched it and they became play jeans. We lived in tank tops then, even into the early autumn days, which is when I made this photograph.
It’s easy to forget little details like these as one ages. I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve forgotten about that year, 1976, that I might remember if only I had made more photographs.
My allowance was a dollar then. It took me weeks to save enough for a roll of film and processing, even at 1976 prices. By the early 1980s several of our neighbors paid me to mow their lawns and shovel their driveways. I could afford more film and processing and so I have far more photographs from the 1980 than from the 1970s.
Today, pretty much every kid has a mobile phone and can photograph anything at any time. But there’s nothing physical — no negative, no print — to save. It’s just bits in the ether. My prints and negatives felt inherently valuable to nine-year-old me — they were a thing that I paid for. Of course I kept them.
I’ve loved time-travel fiction since I was a kid. I’ve read all of it that I’ve been able to find. I was captivated with the idea of a time continuum along which we could somehow move backward or forward. Today I know that now is all that exists. The past is gone and the future is yet to happen. But with a camera we can record our present, and instantly those photographs show our past. In time those photographs become artifacts of how things used to be. Those artifacts can become our memories, as our actual memories are unreliable.
Save your digital photos somehow. Download the JPEGs to your computer and have good backups, or send them into a cloud storage service. Or do the old-fashioned thing and print them. Write some notes as you go about the people and places you recorded.
Not long ago, late one night, my son texted me a selfie he’d just made of him and a longtime friend. That friend came from China to my son’s school when they were both in the fourth grade as his parents were spending a year studying at a local university. The young man spoke only a little English and most of the other kids either didn’t know how to interact with him or made fun of him. But my son, being true to himself, made it a point to make friends with the boy. Their friendship endures more than 15 years later.
“Dad, do you remember his birthday party in about 2007? Do you have any photos from it you can send me?” Of course I did, from my digital camera. Because I had them organized on my hard drive I was able to find them quickly and email them to him. Both of my sons were in them, as were this young man and another young Chinese boy. Most of the photos were of the boys trying to break open a piñata.
In that folder was a “readme” text file that I wrote at the time. It reads: “Damion and Garrett at Damion’s friend Michael’s apartment for Michael’s 10th birthday. Michael is from China. The other little boy’s name sounds like ‘shalom,’ but means ‘little dragon.’”
What a detail about the other young boy! It’s exactly the kind of detail that would have slipped entirely from my memory had I not taken thirty seconds to write that note to myself.
I guess time travel is possible after all! After a fashion, at least.