A boxful of old photographs almost fell into my lap from a closet where I have been keeping them – a surge of memories, moments from the past, frozen by camera. Instants fixed on paper, remnants of times when images still had a material form and feel against the hand. All shoved into a brown cartoon box, sealed with thick packing tape.
I spread the pictures on the floor and sit down amidst them. There is so much of everything – places, people, events, experiences, and feelings. Episodes that had already disappeared and gotten lost into the labyrinth of my memory.
In one of the photos there is a serious-looking girl of six or seven years old. She catches my attention, and I begin to follow how she changes in the photos.
In the first photo – which is black-and-white – the girl’s posture is slightly stooped and she is tilting her head to the left. There is an air of sadness around her. She is standing in front of a Sami style tepee somewhere in Lapland, with a group of people, one of who is dressed in a traditional Sami costume. Her father is not there, but her mother and elder teenage sister are present. Everyone is looking straight into the camera. Only the two dogs in the front have turned their backs to the photographer. It is summer and the sunlight is bright. The shadows on the ground are sharp, and everyone is squinting their eyes.
The next photo is taken a few years later. In a class photo the same girl is wearing her first eyeglasses, and that makes her look what she already was at that time – a bookworm. She has created a private world of her own, a place where she feels safe. The early signs of adolescence are visible in her greasy, straight hair, and the coat that she is wearing looks a bit too big for her.
More photos. The girl is growing and changing. Trips with schoolmates. Moments with friends during the years at the university. One photo is taken on her first trip abroad: three young women, the inseparable threesome, are standing in front of a cathedral in Florence.
In one of the photos she is floating in the water in the Dead Sea in Israel. It is a field trip of her theology class of the university. She has raised her arms up and her feet are sticking out of the water. She is demonstrating how well the salty water carries her.
Then there are a couple of photos of a mysterious Janus-faced young woman. She is already married. She is sitting on a basket chair, wearing hexagonal glasses and a classy dress. She has a plain short haircut. Her head is slightly turned to the side, but her eyes are looking straight into the camera. The look on her face is veiled, inscrutable, and her closed mouth looks like it is holding words inside. Is anger her shield, her protection against the world?
And then another photo, on the same basket chair, completely different. Again the young woman’s head is turned to her right side, but she is also looking up, past the camera. On her face she has a bright smile that reveals her teeth. Her glasses are reflecting the light that comes from the opposite direction. A careful inspection reveals a reflection of the photographer on her glasses.
In the next photo she is 23 years old, and she is standing at a railway station. A railcar and people are standing right behind her. Her old father is next to her, looking down. He is wearing a leather hat with a brim, and a brown winter coat. The coat is slightly open and reveals a striped tie. The young woman is keeping her hands in her pockets. Her head is covered with a green woven cap that does not quite match with her winter coat. Her shoulders are slouched, and her eyes are down. She looks sad and depressed. There is snow on the ground, and the afternoon shadows behind the father and the daughter are long and distinct, like the seventeen years that have elapsed since their previous encounter.
Next photo. She is already a mother expecting her first child. She is sitting on a bed in a light blue night-dress. She has had her hair permed to get herself curls that nature did not give her. She is leaning against a bed head, and a pillow is supporting her back. Her tummy is big and heavy-looking. Her arms are resting on the sides of her tummy, both hands meeting in front of it. She is pursing her lips and tilting her head forward. She does not look into the camera. What is she thinking, that serious young mother, behind the thin curtains through which the light filters into a quiet bedroom?
Next photo. The turbulent years of divorce are behind, but there is still a shadow of sadness in the woman’s eyes. She is on her first trip to Africa, under the brilliant sunshine, on the shore of Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Right behind her back there is a huge flock of birds, hundreds of pink flamingos. On the left side of the woman stands a man with blonde curly hair, tangled by the wind. They both have a very straight posture, as if they had decided to defy whatever life throws at them.
Then there is a very different photo. The woman has come to Nicaragua to pick coffee. In the photo she is laughing with her mouth wide open, and tilting her body backwards. It looks like the laughter is coming out of her whole being. She is standing on a dirt road with another woman – and a guerrilla. A machine gun is hanging from the guerrilla’s neck, and he is holding his arms on both women’s shoulders. It has just stopped raining.
… And so the stream of the photos goes on, and over the years the images begin to disappear into the hard drive of the computer, and they become more ethereal and intangible. The sadness of the little girl in the first black-and-white photos gradually begins to fade in later photos, and the veil in front of the eyes of a young woman disappears, for most of the time. There are more and more photos with a smile and laughter on her face, but even in the later photos, that are now stored on the computer, there are still moments when she does not look into the camera, but into a quiet place inside herself.
There I sit on the floor looking at the story of my life unfolding in the old photos. It comes into my mind that in everyone’s photos there are those fleeting moments when the camera has captured the instant of a sad child peeking through the armour of an adult person.
I sit and think that actually my story is not so unique, that we all share the same story; the story in which a defenseless and helpless child faces something overwhelming, something that she cannot deal with. It is the same story for everyone, experienced in myriad versions and in varied quantities. The story in which we all experience our bigger or smaller share of human suffering.
And as I look at my old photos I think of the lesson that I’ve been studying during the past years. It is the lesson of acceptance, compassion and love, not only for other people, but above all else, for myself. For me it has meant meeting the little girl inside, feeling her feelings – and then embracing her with all my love and warmth. She is part of me, part of my life and my history.