The publishing contract says I need 12 photographs.
12 photographs. It doesn’t seem like a lot.
My agent says Do you have any photos from the commune? No? What about the cult?
I laugh. They weren’t taking pictures kind of places.
Not taking pictures kind of places, not taking pictures kind of times. It never was, not even when we were just an ordinary family. My mother says I can think of at least a few photos from when you were little and she’s right. They’re a series, taken in a single weekend perhaps. I’m 2 or 3 years old. I’ve got a scab on my forehead. My grandparents took them. I’m not sure my parents even owned a camera. Film was expensive. In a way, because we moved so much, memory itself was expensive. There are a few photos in Hawaii where we lived and where my grandparents also visited. I’m 4 then. A portrait of me when I’m 6 or 7, taken by a family friend. There’s a few when I’m 10, another grandparent visit. A play where I’m dressed as a munchkin, maybe I’m 11. The only class photo at 12, a Christmas photo with my dad’s girlfriend’s family. Some camera booth photos in my teens. Nothing from 16 to 19, the years I spend thinking I’m changing the world. What did I look like in my teenage Bolshevik years? I remember being tired a lot. Did I look tired?
Sometimes I’ll read an article like this one about the family who takes a photo a year for 22 years and it will make me feel lonely in a way that catches me off guard.
So this is one of the things I want to know about you, This is one of the many ways I sort people out in my mind. People with photo albums and baby books, and people without. In that question is a whole subset of other questions: how loved, documented, privileged and unscarred was your childhood? And what’s left of that story? Did your photos get lost or burned or left behind? Whether we meet at work or at a party, whether you are are a professor at a university or a refugee from Sierra Leone, this is one of things I am curious about. What did you look like when you were young? Do you know?