*“Братка, пусть это мертвое изображение сохранит живую память обо мне.”
Even before reading Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida and his careful, almost poetic way of describing and considering his love for specific photographs, there has always been one photograph that caught my eye and my love. Reading his thoughts on how photographs work, I have constantly thought about his ideas and how they relate to my photograph.
The photograph I am writing about shows my mother around the same age I am now. She must have been around 25, being heavily pregnant with me. She fell asleep on the floor, wearing a striped bathrobe. The sleeves are rolled up, revealing the skin of her arm. Her body is covered in a thin linen blanket and her hair is beautifully arranged on the mattress. It seems as if my father was standing on the floor and photographed her from above. It is a beautiful black-and-white photograph of a beautiful woman, which even nowadays could easily be printed in a magazine. Somehow there is no trace of time. No indicator the image has been taken 25 years ago. I have seen many pictures of my mother growing up in Kazakhstan: pictures of her taking piano lessons, rehearsing a play in school, dancing, dressing up or working. Like my father, she studied architecture and finished her diploma with the highest grade. My father always tells me I have inherited her ambition.
In this photograph, though, I do not see any of her ambition. The way she is looking at my father catches my breath. What I see in her gaze is a flash of insecurity and fragility. For me the photograph captures the moment when she realizes that the man who is taking her picture will become the father of her children. Every goal she had set before only required study to achieve, whether it was learning French, getting accepted at a ballet school, learning the piano or finishing her diploma par excellence.
What I see in her gaze is an insecurity about becoming a mother and about what will happen to her body. It is a change that she will not be able to study for, a surrender of power and control. I know everything that happened to her after this image was taken, but I do not know anything that will happen to me. The fact that I am now as old as she was when the image was taken, makes me feel that we come together beyond time and face the same insecurity and surrender of control. For a long time I have thought that this is what appeals to me. But now I realize it is something else, something that is not visible in the picture. It is something about the absence of the present. It changes the reading of the photograph and even the protagonist. It is the physical position of my father. As I have pointed out before, he seems to stand on the floor and my mother is lying between his legs.
Even nowadays superstition is a great part of Russian culture. I remember many sayings and proverbs my father believed in and that were part of my upbringing. One of them was that I was never allowed to step over somebody (usually my brother), who was lying on the ground, because this would cause the person to stop growing. Standing in this position over my mother, my father seems to try not only to freeze her in a photograph but also in reality. Is the photograph an excuse for this action, to make this saying come true? I am no longer looking at my mother, but at my father and how he is looking at her. I am looking at his attempt to save her beauty, her love and even her gaze.
I remember my father showing me a photograph he had inherited from his uncle that shows the portrait of my grandmother as a student. It is a small image, maybe 3″× 2″ with a full-length fold. My grandmother had a couple of siblings. During WWII she gave this photograph to her favorite brother with an inscription on the back: “From your sister Sasha. Brother, may this inanimate image save a lively memory about me. Photograph of the student year 1944.” Her brother died on the last day of war, getting out of a tank. He had this image in his breast pocket and when he got shot, he fell on the edge of the tank, leaving this fold and a few blood stains on the image. Over the course of time, the image began to lose contrast, but the few blood stains still seem as vivid as if he had just been shot recently. In the hands of my father the words of my grandmother gain a whole new meaning and truth. In a mysterious way her wish not to be forgotten came true.
* “From your sister Sasha. Brother, may this inanimate image save a lively memory about me.
Photograph of the student year 1944.”