An assessment of the folder on my computer labeled “Photos” reveals this statistic: roughly 75 percent of the photographs I've taken are of my cat, and of the remaining 25 percent, maybe 5 percent of those feature myself.
Why are there so few photos of me? It probably has something to do with the fact that when I hear the words "Say cheese,” my knee-jerk reaction is to turn away or step out of range. When I'm coerced into standing for a photo, I pose stiffly and force my lips into a small, tight-lipped smile, like I'm trying to be the blond version of the Mona Lisa. But, unlike the Mona Lisa, there is no debate over the meaning behind my smile, because it's pretty clear I'm thinking something along the lines of "Get that thing out of my face" or maybe "Will I get food for this?" (Incidentally, I suspect this is probably also what my cat is thinking in most of the pictures of him.)
There are several reasons why I do not like being in photos, the main one being thus: I don't see the point of them, at least in their relation to me. Photographs are like the light of a star, which, by the time it reaches Earth, has traveled “billions and billions” of light years to become visible to us. Any of the stars that shine in the sky tonight may already be dead, but the light we see remains for a while, a celestial ghost. Likewise, every photograph of me is nothing but a fossilized relic of someone who doesn't exist anymore.
They grow fainter with age, these relics. My sophomore class photo, taken just a year ago: I can remember positioning my feet on the white tape X on the floor, tilting my head to the side at the photographer’s command. A photo of me walking home from school after my 8th grade graduation, flanked by two friends I haven't seen in years, brings back a slight tug of recollection: the sense of elation at being free of middle school, and the sense of loss, because I knew I would be moving away at the end of summer. From there the connection between me and the person in the photos grows vaguer, until I am staring at images of a round-cheeked little girl crowned with an inch of tufted blond hair.
She clutches stuffed animals with pudgy fingers and spoons mashed potatoes into her mouth, and all over her face. Her eyes, bluer than mine, gaze out at me from behind plastic sleeves and I have to remind myself that she cannot see me, and if she could she would not recognize me. I wouldn't know that she was me if not for the fact that she is cradled by my mother and thumbs through books that now sit on the shelf next to me as I write this. I used to say I came from outer space, and the child in the photos was not me, but an empty shell the person I call myself came slowly to inhabit. I know now that as we grow older the neurons in our brains grow and connect, forming memories, emotions, personality. Is that really so different from my theory? I am not the same person I was, nor do I want to be.
The pieces of paper I value are not the smooth, colorful rectangles of photo paper that lie trapped between album pages like crystallized butterfly wings. They are the crinkled, smeared scraps of notebook paper I have accumulated since I was able to hold a pencil and had enough brainpower to realize that, with proper application of the pointed end, I could tear through the page and into universes that had before lain unmapped and unrecorded. I am a writer by nature and by practice, and it seems that the only time I can relate to the me of years ago is not when I look into her eyes but when I look into her words. A single sheet of paper reveals more of who I was than the entire preserved innards of an ancient Kodak.
I do not want to dwell over these images, cooing and reminiscing like the stereotypical grandmother, sitting in her rocking chair with her knit shawl over her shoulders and spending hours within the pages of musty photo albums. For I know that just as photographs can be feathers, enveloping us in the soft embrace of happy memories, so too can they be jagged shards of glass that cut us and draw blood. Even an image where all present are smiling can hurt when you're looking back at it with the knowledge that this person will soon be gone, that the love the holds these people together will, over the years, mellow and twist into dislike, or worse, indifference.
The purpose of photographs is to remember. "Re" is a prefix that means "again": to experience those moments again, to feel those feelings again. If this is what it is to remember, then it follows that to “member” should be to experience for the first time, to feel for the first time. I don't want to spend my days remembering when I have so much ahead of me to “member”. The photographs that fill my hard drive will fade, but I think this memoir will last longer. Because in this piece is not just what I mean to say, but what I do not yet know that I am saying. Maybe someday I will understand the preconscious threads that tie these words together. But I hope that if I ever do, I will not spend too much time dwelling on it, but will instead go out there and “member” some more.