Recently I’ve had cause to dig out some old photos. If I’m honest it’s made me sad. Sadder than I was expecting. There’s a quote from Nan Goldin that once felt like a warning but now just sounds like a sad statement of ongoing affairs:
“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.”
Goldin took pictures of people in trouble. The people in her pictures were often in trouble, victims of circumstance who were in over their head. We saw an exhibition of her photos in the Tate Modern last year, they were windows into other lives that bordered on the uncomfortable: the viewer of a photograph is always in the privileged position of owning its narrative, no matter how well the photographer has framed it.
The people in the photos I looked through were often not in any kind of trouble. Most of the pictures on this occasion weren’t even taken by me. Some stretched back over a hundred years, snaking back up the branches of the family tree. Others contain friends and former lovers.
I guess in the present time and moment all these memories represent lost branches of a tree that has grown up through my life. Confronted with the leaves fallen on to various paths not taken, that same tree can seem somewhat diminished.
Of course, the tree survives. But there are still questions like “what if?” Remember that these are questions that can still be answered, even if the answers aren’t the same as you might have once wanted them to be. You can’t leap into bed with old lovers (well, you might be able to) but you can still say hello. People may have died, but you can still connect to people who knew and loved them, and they are likely to be grateful for the reminiscence.
If the photos that cause you regrets are of far off places, write about them. If they are of happier times, tell someone about them. Relive the feelings, the places and the people. Connect with people who would appreciate the memories. Tell the story. Reading these words now it might seem like a stupid idea, but it does help. You don’t have to be reminded of how much you have lost, more of how much you now have and will have because of what went before.