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The pictures that tell a story

Photos play a big part in Susan Reuben's life - in fact, for all of us looking back at old pictures can change how we remember events

    My family is completely obsessed with photography. Every holiday and family gathering gets documented in meticulous detail. I have one brother who has proper talent, and the rest of us just tag along trying our best.

    My husband, Anthony, isn’t as appreciative of this state of affairs as he might be. He complains that we all sit round the table discussing, in his words, “How many sodding megapixels our cameras have”.

    He also mentioned in passing the other day that he doesn’t particularly like having his picture taken.

    “I didn’t know that!” I said. “Yes,” he replied… “It’s made the last 20 years rather stressful.”

    Photography has been especially on my mind this month because my nine-year-old daughter, Emily — who could win a medal for fussy eating — is doing a sponsored food tasting (in aid of Shelter).

    She has to try a different new food every day in March, and I’m sharing on her online fundraising page a daily picture of her trying each one.

    “The variety of costumes is the most entertaining part of this set of photos,” said my friend Natalie. “Purim, ballet… It makes her life look extremely interesting.”

    I realised that the images do, indeed, make a kind of photo diary charting the pattern of Emily’s week. There she is in school uniform and bunches (screwing up her face at lentils), then in a ballet tunic with hair in a bun (trying to swallow pasta with cheese), and so on…

    It’s often the case, in fact, that photos and video end up telling a richer story than they were intended to when they were created.

    From the age of six (when I bought my brother’s old Instamatic camera from him for one pound), I would fill up rolls of film and diligently send them off to be processed. It was amazingly exciting to get the thick envelope back containing its 24 or 36 prints.

    I would carefully pick out the best ones and stick them in a photo album… not the type with sticky plastic sleeves that dulled the colour of the images, but one with card pages, interspersed with gossamer-thin sheets of tissue paper whose main purpose appeared to be to get aggravatingly creased or torn when you didn’t turn the page carefully enough.

    Having completed the job, I’d then put the rejected photos back in the envelope they came in and shove them in a drawer.

    But here’s the curious thing. I’ve pored over those albums again and again, year after year, until the photos have become so familiar that they’re almost invisible — like a song that you listen to so much that you can no longer fully appreciate it.

    It’s the rejected photos — the ones gathering dust in the drawer — that I find the most potent now. The distracted look or the silly face in the “not ready yet” shots can be far more evocative than the fixed smile of the final version. The camera, pointing in not-quite-the-right direction, can pick up on long forgotten details… a much-worn item of clothing, or a piece of furniture that brings with it a flood of associations.

    In the photos that I took when I was six or seven, I frequently struggled to get my subject fully in the frame. So there are lots of people sliced vertically in half, bleeding off the edge of the picture.

    When I look now at those early attempts, what’s interesting is not so much the image of whichever hapless person I happen to have cut in half, but the fact that I can immediately feel what it was like to be a small girl with her first camera.

    Videos, too, can tell unexpected stories. We have a tape of my cousin’s wedding in 1990. In it, you can see my brother dancing in a circle, while among the crowd, watching and clapping along, there is his now-wife. Round and round goes my brother, passing her again and again.

    They didn’t meet each other that day, though. It was only about five years later that they spoke for the first time. (In shul, in fact — every Jewish parent’s dream of the ideal place to meet your spouse.) They’ve just celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary.

    The Jewish world is tiny, of course, and so this kind of coincidence takes place all the time. In fact, Anthony and I have discovered that we were at the same Jewish Youth Study Group weekend in Newcastle in 1988. We certainly didn’t speak to each other there. I, at age 14, wouldn’t even have considered being brave enough to talk to a boy.

    Anthony claims that if I had met him at that age, we probably wouldn’t be married now. I expect he’s right… but I bet there’s a photo somewhere that happens to have the two of us in it. If you have one, please let me know!

     

    @susanreuben

     

    To support Emily’s fundraiser, click here.

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