The Tangibility of Memories: Exploring Life, Loss and Family Through Photography

This past Mother’s Day marked ten years without my mom. I was 19, a sophomore in college trying desperately to become a respected adult when she died. Predictably, caring for and losing a parent is one way to really accelerate that process.

Over the last decade, I’ve struggled to process not only the loss of my mother but also the loss of our future together. I don’t know what she would have thought of my writing or interior decorating. I don’t know what trips we might have taken or how she would have reacted to the challenges of the pandemic. I don’t know, and that is one of the nastiest things grief does.

As I’ve navigated my heartache with sympathetic friends and a lot of therapy, photography has also proven to be a trusted tool through which I explore my grief. It’s allowed me to come to understand my mom better. Seeing photos from before I was born — her in diapers, her first marriage, as a college student in the 70s, that awkward teenage phase and questionable haircuts — alleviates some of the despair. Uncovering images and stories about her life, even the parts that include me and my brother or dad, has had a powerful effect on reducing my fear around a future without her. Instead of doubling down on my sadness, photos whisper clues as to what she might have thought and felt about my unknowns.

Some photos carry more mysteries than others, and I so enjoy the process of exploring all of the possibilities. What was so special about this moment? Are there any clues as to what year that was taken? Is that guy sitting next to her a friend or former boyfriend? Does it even really matter?

In a world where some of my photos push 50MB apiece and we all contemplate the best cloud storage solutions for our terabytes of personal data, there’s something very humbling about the 4×6” family photo collection stowed away in a shoebox or folder inside of a dusty cabinet. Often featuring poor composition and displaying an aggressive use of flash and/or forced smiles, they are a far cry from the “phone eats first” and facetuned society we now live in. Kids are asking for iPhones in elementary school and Instagram accounts for their birthdays. What ever happened to the original filter: the lowly disposable camera?

Physical printed photos remind me of how deliberate photography once was. You had only so many rolls of film. Your batteries were going to run out (not to mention they weren’t rechargeable via USB). Organizing a professional photo shoot necessitates planning and intention. At times, like in the case of a family photo in a studio, a new artificial story is being told. The idea that each of the four members of my family independently decided to all wear turtlenecks on the same day? Think again.

Broadly speaking, photography is about storytelling. It’s an effective narrative tool, sure, but it’s also an important form of proof. Proof that my mom wasn’t always sick. Proof that her legs were way too long and skinny as a kid. Proof that when she was really laughing and happy she’d throw her head back. Proof that we once had the same haircut at the same time. And proof that I look like her now.

Each photographer has their own very personal story as to why they chose this medium. For me, it just feels like a natural extension of how I see the world. I look for quiet moments, light, patterns and textures everywhere I go, and it’s only through photography that I’m able to offer the world slivers of my brain. There is great power in creating memories and freezing moments in time that satisfy something within me.

Like old friends of hers I’ve connected with, I will also always be grateful to photography for its ability to teach me about my mom after her death. Without the images in my shoebox, I would surely have forgotten just how her hands looked and what watch she wore. I would have a hard time visualizing her smile, but I have the proof.

About the author: Caitlyn Edwards is the Community Marketing Manager at PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Edwards has a degree in Peace & Conflict Resolution and is religious about black coffee and great wine (but never together). This article was also published here.