Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Your Lives In My Tiny Little Hands

This one guy, every couple weeks it's these amazing places you can't even believe, mountains, usually, and he's standing in water or strung up on a cliff and hanging from ropes. He'll bring in ten or twenty rolls of film at a time, and it's gotten so that I look forward to seeing him come through the door. You see the whole world, is how my boss put it when he was training me in. This job is a privilege, he'd say. These people are trusting us with their most private moments.

I've always been one of those guys who isn't much for going places --going places, actually, doesn't bother me; it's the being there that I have a problem with. But it is interesting for me to see these other places and to imagine, you know, my own versions of the stories these pictures might be trying to tell. One time this guy brought in a roll of film and it was nothing but pictures of dead cows --seven dead cows sprawled around in the dirt. There wasn't a single person in any of the photos, just the dead cows, and somebody had taken pink paint and outlined their bodies in the dirt, just like they'd been murdered in the movies.

Of course you get the pictures of women in bathing suits, and people on the toilet --I've seen hundreds of those-- and occasionally actual bare breasts or even some full frontal, although we're not supposed to develop anything that's "too far over the line," as my boss says. But I have to admit that in five years we've never refused to process a single roll of film that I'm aware of.

My own family never took photographs. I don't think I ever saw a camera in either of my parents' hands. These people would come around at school to take photos of the students and I remember bringing home a little packet of those every year but I'm not even sure what my mother would do with them. They didn't go up on the refrigerator like they did at other kids' houses, I know that much. My mother didn't put anything on the refrigerator.

I'm sure people would be horrified to think that we look through their photos, but they must know. It's human nature, my boss says. I think one thing that happens so often is that people will find an old roll of film still in a camera or laying around the house somewhere --in a kitchen drawer or in the glove compartment of their car-- and they'll have completely forgotten what's on there and curiosity gets the best of them so they bring them in to be developed. They bring them in because they want to know, and I think that's when you get some surprises.

People always ask, what's the strangest thing you've ever seen looking at all these photos day after day? And, to be honest with you, that's not an easy question to answer. I've seen so many strange and I guess disturbing things mixed in with the birthday parties and the picnics and parades. More than one person with a gun in their mouth. A dead dog laid out on a kitchen table with a flower in its teeth. This one guy we called the Sign Man, who would take photographs of himself holding hand-lettered signs that said things like, "Tammi, I am not a part of your experiment anymore," or "I am sick and tired of being taken apart by robots." Unsurprisingly, the Sign Man eventually turned in a roll of film with a photo of himself with a gun in his mouth.

I have seen so many babies being born that it is no longer even mysterious or interesting to me. I have seen a hundred families or more standing in front of Mount Rushmore or shaking Mickey Mouse's hand. Young couples in formal wear, of course, getting ready to go to a dance or get married. Little children crouched next to their beds with folded hands, saying their prayers. People in coffins and carnival rides and tombstones. Christmas trees, obviously, and kids sitting on Santa's lap. Lots of people in Halloween costumes. One I do remember in particular was a picture of a cross-eyed little kid with a snail creeping up his tongue. 

People also take a lot of pictures of food, color photos of turkeys and hams and Jello. You see everything, really, pretty much anything you could imagine.

Personally, I like the stuff in the margins, the mistakes and unintentional shots that show what goes on outside the world of what people think of as a picture. I like to study the people who are just standing in the background, looking puzzled and unaware. I couldn't tell you, really, what staring into those pictures makes me feel. Captured, I suppose, the way I feel when I stand far enough outside myself sometimes that I can see how small I am.

I always thought of photos as little trigger-finger wishes, I guess. You know, people press that button and they hope that something will come out that looks like how they want to remember the world and the time they spent living in it and trying to create moments that looked like pictures. Something they can look at and say, "See, here it was. What a grand life we had." Or maybe even, in some of the sadder cases, they want evidence that the nightmares and heartaches they endured were demonstrably real.

So often when people pick up their photographs they can't wait to see if they got what they wanted, and they'll stand right there at the counter and shuffle through them. I'm prepared to swear that the vast majority of these people look clearly disappointed. I've concluded that it must be hard to take a true picture, or at least a picture that captures what you thought --and hoped-- you'd seen, experienced, felt, or looked like or at in that one paralyzed instant. I suppose that's one reason why I've never felt inclined to even try. I'll think I'm seeing the world sometimes, and fear that a photograph would only confirm that I have never done anything but look at the wrong things or in the wrong places.

It's sad when people wish, my mother always said. She'd say, You pray that when you get to a ripe old age you can look back and count the number of really sad days on one hand. Maybe that's why she didn't like photos around, because they were like reminders of all the things that never quite managed to turn out the way she had hoped or planned.


  1. I remember searching through boxes of photographs the parents of my best friend left behind. I was hoping to find the story of her childhood in pictures. All I saw were pictures of the land they grew up on. No people, no houses or buildings, few animals. Just the flat landscape I could see looking out the kitchen or car windows. There was an occasional image of wildlife or a long gone pet but only a handful of my friend or her 3 siblings. No baby, birthday, school, holiday, vacation, graduation, or wedding photographs to be found. I couldn't understand it at the time. Box after endless box - containing thousands upon thousand of pictures of what could be easily seen. Yet not even one envelope or album of those fleeting moments that are gone in an instant. I understand it even less now. It baffled and bewildered me. It broke my heart. It still does. I don't even know if I can articulate why this troubles me so - I only know it does.

  2. Thanks for this. It's sad and troubling and beautiful.

  3. It baffled and bewildered me...it broke my heart..what happened to your friend if it is o.k. to ask?The farm life is love your land or someone else will..family and friends come and go..eh?

  4. My friend is fine. I seemed much more disturbed by this lack of photographic evidence of her childhood than she did. I do understand that farmers love their land fiercely. Her father walked, drove, and worked the family land his entire life. Her mother was by his side for over 40 years. He never lived anywhere else. He knew that land like the back of his hand. It was in his DNA. He lived and breathed his land daily. He rarely wandered more than 60 miles away from it. It hasn't changed much, if at all, over all these many years. Some years are wetter or greener than others, but no invading suburbs or anything like that to drastically alter the landscape. I guess I just don't understand why he needed so very many photographs of what he knew so well - what was so close - what wasn't changing or going anywhere - what was always at hand. And yet he needed or wanted so few photographs of what was constantly changing - what would be leaving. Both were right before his eyes - the transient and the permanent - why choose one over the other, why not photograph both? I think I'd want more images of the temporary and less of the lasting. I can't imagine anything being more precious than children and am unable to comprehend why he rarely shot any pictures of his family. I can't help but think these missing photographs show he may have felt otherwise. Did he not see them? Did he not know they were there? Was he too busy looking elsewhere to notice? I've struggled to understand what I'm missing here. There is a lesson to be learned or message to be heard. It is precisely because "family and friends come and go" that I would want more photographs of them and need less images of what remains. But I'm not him and he's not me. Perhaps it's just as Brad wrote: "Maybe that's why she didn't like photos around, because they were like reminders of all the things that never quite managed to turn out the way she had hoped or planned."

    Thank you, Brad. Thank you for writing these wonderful stories that bring up such powerful memories and thoughts and feelings and emotions. For transporting us so beautifully to all these places we need to go and for asking these questions we need to answer. It matters and it means a lot.

  5. Dear Brad,
    This story about pictures and photographs shows me many things about life.
    1. Life can be full of mistakes.
    2. Life is full of Adventure.
    3. Life is Life.
    And there are many more things you and this story have taught me. But I think that those are the most important ones.
    You remind of The Great Man Of Wisdom... Or something like that.

  6. Thank you again for your lovely comment, storyigrrl123. Your grandmother took the liberty of showing me your photobook of Paris, and I think it is astonishing, and proves that you know a great deal about the power of pictures to tell stories.