For my senior thesis I created a book, The Time We Spent, exploring the relationships between photography, grief and memory. Narrated by my grandma’s own words, I use photographs to construct a trace of my grandparents’ lives from both the past and present. I curate archival photographs, new photographs I’ve captured, handwriting, stories and physical memorabilia in order to highlight their increased social value and fragility in a time of personal grief. Through multiple interviews with my grandma, I’ve strived to cultivate a culture of listening and storytelling in the wake of my grandpa’s absence. Activating photography as a form of social practice has allowed me to engage with and understand my grandparents’ lives and memories both photographically and orally.
My hope for this book is to allow others to re-experience a past that is not their own. I welcome viewers to seek out reflections of themselves, their own families and stories in my book. The pandemic restrictions called my social habits and sense of familial bonds into question. It stirred in me an urgency to archive the past and document the present. I found both healing in the observation of the past and catharsis in the creation of the new. What follows is a small selection of text and images from the book.
In the ongoing struggle with chronic illness in my family, photographs are often the only pieces of lost family members I have left. In the wake of the death of both my dad and grandpa, I revelled in curating the photo boards and slideshows to be displayed at their funerals. The act of collecting photographs and creating a compendium of their lives through images gave me temporary relief amid all the grief I was experiencing. These old photographs served as clues to memories and stories of the past that were previously unknown to me. I found comfort in this role and appreciated its ability to bring my grieving family together in order to collectively reflect on the lives of my dad and grandpa by way of storytelling photographs.
My dad died on August 10, 2011. It was a Wednesday in Flushing, Mich. It must have been around five in the morning; my mom woke me up and brought me to my sister’s bed. We all sat there in the twilight as she told us the dreadful news. The sun had yet to rise, and it would go on to be the longest day of my life. I was only twelve years old. Middle school was coming in less than a month. His death was sudden but it is always looming.
While the passing years allowed this grief to fester, more was added without my consent. My grandpa died on February 20, 2019. Also on a Wednesday. Grief has a cruelly funny way of severing my weeks into two separate entities from which that moment on I will remember as the time before the death and the time after. My grandpa had the same genetic disorder my dad died of, MEN 1. My grandpa was the one to pass the genetic mutation from his mom to my dad and ultimately from my dad to my older sister.
I remember photographing my grandpa the last time I saw him in January 2019. He seemed to not mind or not notice the presence of my camera. His hair had turned white in a matter of months. He was using a walker to get around. He had lost so much weight his pants were falling off, only clinging to his frail body by his suspenders. He was sleepy and not talkative. But he always used to be talkative. He would always tell me a story. Until he couldn’t. He couldn’t that day. He died less than a month later.
The grief I felt following his death was all too familiar. It was my dad’s father. The same illness had claimed another one of my dear family members. Meanwhile, I am able to sit idly by because I do not have the genetic mutation they did. It was a 50/50 chance and my sister was the unlucky one. I am left riddled with survivor’s guilt and the strange phenomena of experiencing so much chronic illness, albeit by proxy.
My dad and grandpa’s lives are now suspended in images. Photographs allow me to continue to cultivate a relationship with them, even after they have died. They act as containers of memories, of time, of places, of experiences; they are living. Despite my fondness and fascination, I sometimes can’t bring myself to look. They often bring me too close to reality; they feel too raw. These photographs remain frozen in my mind.
Death and grief are unavoidable, but photographs and stories of the dead create a castle of memories to go to in waves of grief. They preserve life and allow it to be reviewed and reflected upon; they hold the potential for healing. Photography, for me, is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving those who have died. What was captured is captured forever. Photography remembers everything, even if you have forgotten.
“Photography remembers everything, even if you have forgotten.”
When people die, their whole compendium of stories are gone. I cannot bear losing my grandparents’ compendium of stories as I watch my dad’s wither away from my own mind.
View the full book online at the Stamps Senior Exhibition site, launching Monday April 26.
Assistant Photo Editor Maddie Fox can be reached at email@example.com.