photographs as memory

It’s funny how our memories work. We remember little details of things from our upbringing, like the way the carpet felt when you were playing board games in your childhood home or the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or what it felt like in the basement — away from prying eyes, cold, damp, wrapped in your favorite afghan and with a musty smell.

A photograph of Roland C. White while serving in the Air Force in the 1950s. Him and his military buddies took a lot of photographs during their service, though did not continue the hobby later on in life.I think most of our memories — the ones inside our brain that get dredged up when something triggers it, like a smell or a feeling or a detail — aren’t visual. They’re about a sensation. But photographs and video can trick our brains into thinking they’re memories, especially from times in our very early years where we can’t recall anything.

We say things like, “Oh, I remember that birthday party,” when really, maybe we just remember photographs of a cake and pictures of how terrible that haircut was. And so your memory is actually based on you remembering photographs of that day, capturing a slice of life in a moment in time.

Pearl and Whitey on their 50th wedding anniversary party in the Black Hills.As a photographer, I think a lot about photographs and perception. We have to think about this a lot in photojournalism because we’re showcasing communities and subcultures that some people don’t know about. Our photographs serve as representations of people and places, broadcast to people who don’t know about them and may never meet them. It’s kind of scary, because, in a way, you control someone’s reputation as a photographer. And that’s a job that must be taken seriously and thoughtfully.

Me with my Grandpa Whitey, Grandpa Pearl and sister Annie.I’ve been thinking about this a lot because, for the last three months, I’ve been working on a book for my grandfather, Roland White, for his 80th birthday. Sadly, he passed away last week, a month before his birthday, and I traveled to Iowa to remember him and celebrate his life, bringing what I had finished of the book with me to print for his funeral.

My grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and lived with that diagnosis for at least 15 years. I am only 23, so I really have no recollection of him without Alzheimer’s. Growing up with him, I mostly recall his silly nature and his jokes, the ones that would be told over and over, and his affinity for candy. I also remember some of the sadder things that were brought on by his disease, like when he would try to fix something, good intentions and all, even if the object wasn’t broken, but would wind up messing something up — like the time he put motor oil in my mother’s washer because he thought it was too squeaky.

Caption on back reads, "The party begins (to Dubuque!)" November 1958As I worked on this book for my grandfather, I collected photographs from all the members of my family that I could. I scanned photographs of his childhood, from his service in the Air Force and the Korean War, pictures of his extensive world travels with my grandmother, and images of my mother and aunt and uncle growing up in northern Iowa, terrible clothing and all. And then I put my own images in — the ones I had taken during family holidays and weddings and my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

Pearl and Whitey's weddingAnd it was my job to take almost 80 years of photographs of one man and whittle it down to his essence — to tell the story of who my grandfather was, from my perspective, but also the perspective of my family. It was no easy task.

What resulted, not only from the book but also from his eulogy and service and the stories people told at his visitation, was how we will all remember him — whether we called him Grandpa, or Whitey, or Checkbook Charley or Roland C. White.

Grandpa's birthday with me, Annie Currid, Josie and Jadee White.I like to think that I will remember him from my own memories, not from photographs of him — how it felt to play dominoes with my cousins in the dining room while he did the dishes from Thanksgiving dinner, or his silly laugh when we would take group photos, or those darn jokes that I’ve heard over and over and over.

Roland White dances during the wedding of his niece, Julia Tebben, in Brookings, S.D. in the summer of 2012.But I know that when my memories begin to get fuzzy, or even when I die, there will be photographs of him to remember him by. Photographs that say, “This is Roland and this is who he was.” And I hope the collection that remains will tell the story of his life, of the kind of man he was — as photographs often do.