As part of the GlobalGRACE annual PCE — taking place online — we are exploring ways of encouraging writing together, apart. Here is my response to a Creative Writing Prompt set by my colleague J. Neil C. Garcia: ‘Take out an old family photo and address the people in it or have them speak. Write about what’s not in the frame. What happened before or after this picture was taken? What does the writer know now that the people in the photograph did not know then? Or try comparing two photographs–one past, one present. Consider what happened in the time between the two.’
I have three photographs at home, in my flat in London. I’ve moved often throughout my adult life and not carried many hardcopy memories with me on the way. In my lifetime, we’ve shifted from mechanical to digital creations and storage of photographs as the norm. So I should say: I have three printed photographs, but countless Gigabits more in potential, waiting in wires and silicone for nostalgia and wallspace to emerge and offer them a fuller material existence.
One of the three is a miniature polaroid, tucked into the frame of a stylized tube map that hangs in my bedroom – an act of convenience that has apt resonance. I’m forever dancing with my partner, dressed for winter, on the outskirts of London. The other two are exceptions to my habits; photos I have taken with me from place to place, kept flat in books or filed away in a draw. I don’t know where to put them, but I always know where they are. I took them out this week
In one, I’m posing with two friends, all of us 18, celebrating our last high school class. The other, printed over a decade prior but in the same standard dimensions and with the same matt hue, shows four children: my sister, two of our friends – themselves sisters – and me. We are sitting on the edge of a bed, lined up neatly. Our expressions betray the likely sternness of an instruction to sit still. I am four years old, give or take, at the far left of the group. Micky and Minnie smile out from my t-shirt while I sit straight-lipped, impatient to play. At the far right, my friend Victoria half-sits, half-stands, looking similarly disimpassioned. She’s holding a small, very brightly coloured plastic telephone up to her ear, looking into the camera as if irked that the photographer is interrupting her call.
As the coronavirus spread through Europe in early March, I sent Victoria a message on my own grey plastic and glass phone. My old friend, now a doctor in Madrid, inescapably on my mind. We shared family updates and expressions of hope and love amidst the grim backdrop of graph lines steadily rising, as if chasing each other to an as-yet unmarked summit. A battle to cope – infrastructurally, personally – raging on hospital and all care work front lines. Heavily pregnant, Victo was isolating at home under strict instruction, but her thoughts were with friends and colleagues working through the crisis. On May Day, a new message – this time with a photo. Mother and baby, both doing well. A face mask in shot the only clue that these are not usual times. I feel elated for the first time in weeks, mainly because I know she is, too.
We do not speak often, or necessarily say very much when we do. We have always lived in different countries and grew up, at first, communicating across a language divide. We sent each other letters in our teens, and continue sharing time together when we can, every few years, as our lives play out along their own paths. But we carry each other with us, as digital contacts, photos, text messages, and memories; snapshots and sentiments and intangible threads that connect us, even in the midst of isolation.