By Daniel Hubbard | February 9, 2014
A remark in a recent program on PBS caught my attention. A woman who was born into an Amish community showed a picture of herself as a child. It should not exist. In her community you were not supposed to be photographed but she went to a school with non Amish students and so the school was visited by a school photographer. She wasn’t supposed to have an individual picture taken but she was a rebellious little girl and sat for the photographer and gave a big smile, proudly showing off the big gap from a missing tooth.
From the way she told the story, it was clear that she had not always possessed the photo. It was something that she received years later after leaving the Amish. She did not grow up with the photo, or any photo of herself as a child. She had only memories to tell her how she had looked many years before. When she received that photograph, she almost didn’t recognize herself. Her memory did not match the photograph. That is not an experience that many people can ever have. People born after photography became common generally grow up looking at pictures of how they once appeared and if they didn’t grow up that way it is probably because there were none taken. It must be extremely rare to grow up without any photographs to shape and preserve memories of one’s self and then suddenly, as an adult, receive a photograph of an eight-year-old that one doesn’t really recognize and know “that’s me.”
If I think about my own memories of myself as a child, I certainly remember episodes. I can tell stories about my childhood. What if I try to remember how I looked or how I dressed? I don’t remember looking into a mirror and seeing my face. I have some vague memories of what might have been hanging in my closet. What I remember are photographs that I have seen over the years, photographs that I have in albums and can pull out whenever I want. Those are my memories of my appearance. They are memories of photographs. Memories that have been added to, corrected and reenforced years later. I assume that most people’s memories of themselves in the age of photography rest on a similar foundation. Without that documentation that we take for granted, her memories were weaker. Only memories of mirrors were there to tell her how she once had looked and those memories had been drifting free of photographic moorings for decades.
Self is a more powerful concept than ancestry and yet when an ancestry suddenly unfolds, it is, in a way, a similar experience. People often have a strong sense of their roots even if they don’t know the details. We might know something of our ethnicity or we might have heard a few family stories that we half remember. We might know nothing at all, not even the names of our biological parents. Even so, people sense that those unknown roots are important. Even without ever having seen a childhood photograph there is a sense of an earlier self. Even without knowing one’s ancestral past there is the sense that it exists and that it is important to who we are. When we uncover ancestors, find their documents and reconstruct their lives, we may not recognize them in ourselves and yet have that sense that they are part of what we have become. Our personal past has started to gain memory’s moorings.Twitter It!