By Alyssa Jones
"Icicles hanging on Grandma's roof, Christmas Eve dinner, and last year's summer in California; those go in the vacation pile. Aubrey's surgery goes here in the bodily injuries stack. What is this? It's so out of focus… Oh well, I'll put it in the random pile…"
My mom's voice interrupted: "Oh my, what on earth have you done to this room?" She added, "I just picked up in here; what are all these doing on the floor?"
I peered out over the mounds of loose photos, rolls of undeveloped film and empty albums. Mom stood in the doorway, her eyes glaring at the pictures that covered every inch of her freshly vacuumed family room.
"I'm…um, organizing," I said, suddenly realizing the magnitude of the mess I was making.
"Yeah. Right." she replied unenthusiastically. She knelt down beside the nearest stack of photos. "Well, you can start by throwing half of these out," she said, holding up a picture of my cousin's left pinky toe.
I watched as she left the room. Throw them out? I crawled over to the pile containing the toe picture my Mom had tossed as she exited. I knew exactly why this picture had been taken so many years ago. I still remembered accidentally snapping this shot at the beach one summer day. But my Mom wasn't there that day and to her it was just a picture of a hairy, teenaged toe.
It wasn't the toe itself, of course. As toes go, it was pretty ordinary. But this photo was yet another of my countless visual memories: each unique, and therefore treasured –not for any great beauty or other artistic merit, but simply for its own sake.
Among the scattered piles lay my photographic bible, "Through the Lens: National Geographic's Greatest Photographs," which was acting as a sturdy cup holder. I cleared the empty soda cans and candy wrappers off the Geisha that decorated the front cover and cracked open the book. I started scanning page after page of some of the most famous and glorious photographs taken since the invention of the camera.
Turning the pages, I was captivated by a picture of an old, dirty pile of shoes. I knew instantly what this picture was. I had seen shoes like those in the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. The picture was simple, yet profound. I could not help but feel an overwhelming sadness. The picture portrayed a timeless story, one which meant as much the day it was taken as it does today.
Looking at the next 300 pages of photographs was like flipping through a large and disjointed picture book. The pictures were so different, yet all of them told a unique and powerful story. Pictures of people, of lakes or sunsets, cities and villages, animals, food, old things, new things, the joyful contrasted by the deeply mournful and the simple with the complex; each photo worth more words than the article it was featured with.
I looked again at the picture of my cousin's toe and began to realize what my Mom did not see. My picture, to her, was just a reflection of what I had observed. It did not portray the meaning I saw behind it. A picture should not be a mere indication of what we see. A good picture tells a story on its own. The reason the toe was just a toe to my Mom was that picture told a story only to me. The photos in the National Geographic book were universally meaningful. That is what the picture of the toe lacked. But why couldn't I bring myself to throw it away?
Closing the book, I was again brought back to the endless stacks of photographs. Maybe they don't have universal significance, but there is still some meaning behind them. Like the pictures in the book, these told my story. The picture of the toe brought me back to that warm summer day on the beach when I accidentally took a picture while trying to change the flash setting, but more importantly, it reflected my mistakes. Likewise, the photo of the icicles on my Grandmother's roof, though a bit out of focus, illustrated my desire to capture something beautiful on film. And the picture of Aubrey's surgery… well that was a simple reminder never to kick a fish bowl.
Whether they are sitting behind a glass frame on the fireplace mantle or on the front page of The New York Times, pictures are a window to the past. Each photo is a captured moment, paused forever in time, offering insight to an instant we can never experience again.