Photographs and Memories and Everything in Between

Body: The body of the camera contains all its internal components. It frequently does not include a lens.  

I do not remember a camera being a prominent part of family trips, but I do remember the visit to the photo store after we got home. The film would be handed over in canisters and my mother would fill out information on the back of a white envelope. The man behind the counter would place the film in it, seal it, tear off a sliver of paper along the perforations, and hand it to my mother telling her to come back in 1-2 weeks to pick it up. I would invariably forget about the photos until the day we went back to the store. The technician would look through the stacks of thick white envelopes to match the ticket number and hand over one or two. My mother’s handwriting would have aged on the front, the trip we took already a distant memory. Before we got home, I would have pulled apart the seal, moved the slip holding the negatives to the back of the stack, and started looking through the photos, remembering again what I had already forgotten, and sometimes surprised to see what I did not remember at all. Images of me and my sister, of my mother, some of my father, taken on a safari, out with friends, or eating on a boat. My sister’s cheeky expression. My mom’s exhausted smile. My dad’s faraway look.

Zoom ring: This is a section on the lens that rotates to change its focal length. 

Don’t touch the photos with your fingertips. My dad taught us how to hold them around the edge. It was an important lesson, like counting coins in all their shapes and sizes, thumbing through money quickly and calculating the change you were owed back at a store, writing a postcard, or balancing a checkbook. Important life skills. I learned to treat photographs well at a young age.  

After they were developed, my mother would place the photographs carefully in leather-bound albums under the gloss of transparent sticky paper. She has a half dozen of these on her shelves, the corners worn from years of being taken down and thumbed through. Now, the American Library Association doesn’t recommend storing photos under the sticky paper of magic albums. The paper damages the photos as it ages. Sometimes even the best of our intentions do not turn out as we expect.

Lens: The lens is a tool used to bring light to a fixed focal point.  

The photo is yellowing. I want to pull at the sticky film but am afraid it will peel the image away from the paper. So, it sits frozen forever, slightly askew on the page. My dad is standing at the center, his kids around him. I am young, with long black hair, glasses too big for my face, and wearing a dress I don’t remember. He has a faraway look in his eyes and a camera on his shoulder. In the background, I am told, is the street he grew up on. The buildings are dusty, people dot the scene, the signs are in English and Swahili. We had traveled back to his home in Zanzibar. He had knocked on the door to ask if he could show his children where he had grown up. They had refused and closed the door on him. Perhaps, they were afraid that he had come to reclaim what was taken from him during the Revolution.  

Viewfinder: The viewfinder is the part of the camera that displays the image to be taken. It may be optical or digital. 

My father took a photograph of Mount Kilimanjaro, from the window of a plane on one of his many trips back home to Tanzania. He tried for years to get the perfect photograph. Before the era of digital photography, he probably had to wait weeks to see how it had turned out. The one he was happiest with hung in our home for many years, a faded light blue, the clouds sit low against the snow-capped peak. I took it recently to a lab to get the image re-scanned. I was afraid I would lose the image, that it wouldn’t stand the test of time. The photographer adjusted the image to correct the values and sent me the scanned copy to approve. I was sure there had been a mistake. The photograph was dark blue and grey. No, he said, those are the true colors. Warily, I allowed him to correct the values. The new image sits in my office.  I wonder how long I will look at it before this version imprints itself onto the grooves of my brain.   

Focus ring: This is a section of the lens that rotates allowing the photographer to focus the image. 

Alongside the photo albums on my mother’s shelves are boxes of unorganized photographs and negatives. I wonder sometimes why some photographs didn’t make it into the albums. Why they sit separately from the others. Perhaps she ran out of time. Or ran out of albums. Or perhaps it was because, as a second wife, she carried the burden of storing everything important from my father’s life that existed before her but didn’t want it displayed in the world she created for her and her children. Perhaps it was a way of controlling a life she was not in control of.

Photographic film: This is a strip of film with light sensitive material on one side and paper backing on the other wound on a spool. 

We always took birthday photos in the same part of the home. A room that would now be called a formal dining room. My sister and I rarely played in it. It had a large and beautiful mahogany dining table and a cabinet of treasures collected by my parents over the years. When you ran past it, you could hear the shaking of the glass. For every birthday, my mother made a chocolate cake. It would rise too much then deflate in the center. We thought it was perfect. I have tried to replicate it, but it remains elusive.  She once tried to find the recipe, lost in our cross-continent moves, and we found something similar, but it didn’t taste the same. I imagine that cake belongs forever in the kitchen on those golden afternoon days when my sister and I raced across the garden to see her after school.

I am left with only a vague memory of my father’s 50th birthday. My mother would have made her chocolate cake, we would have stood in front of the cabinet, and sung Happy Birthday. Perhaps my sister and I fought to share blowing out the candles. I wonder if we used two candles in the shape of a 5 and a 0, or if my mother placed 50 candles on the cake. There are no photos of this day. The camera and photos, sitting in my father’s favorite coat, were stolen from a car window, left slightly open, one warm afternoon and alongside it, the memories disappeared. My father died at 52 and even today, I wish I could see those photos again.  

Film compartment: This is the area in the back of the camera that houses unused film held on a spool. 

Soon after my father died and, when what was left of my family was living in Bombay, my sister and I went with a school trip to Thailand on my mother’s urging. Money was tight but my mother wanted us to have the experience. My sister and I took lots of photographs to document everything we did and saw, instead of spending money on souvenirs. We went through about a roll a day. One day, we were on a less-than-exciting safari. It was warm and we were in a school bus with all the other kids. I was at the end of a roll of film when the camera jammed. I didn’t know what to do. Someone trying to be helpful said they could pull the film out but the photos would be lost. I acquiesced and the film was ruined. I should have waited. We should have taken it to a camera store. There was one on practically every corner. I don’t miss the photos because I don’t remember what was on them, but I’ll never forget that moment. The heat, the smell of animals, the bus full of children, and how unexpectedly empty and helpless I felt when the roll of film was pulled out of my camera.  

Shutter curtain: the shutter curtains sit just behind the lens, and open to let light in when the shutter release button is pressed.  

I pulled out the photos from Thailand recently. I have fond memories of that trip, and as a parent now, I marvel at how brave my mother was to let us go. I had always struggled with separation anxiety, and it exploded after my father’s death. My sister stood with me as I cried in the bathroom during dinner that first night wanting to go home. We stayed at each other’s side. We fought in whispers and held hands. There is a photo of my sister as she is getting into a glass-bottomed boat, and then one of me doing the same thing. We took turns taking photos of each other. All I see, now, is how devastatingly thin we were. As if the grief had eaten us up from the inside.  

Grip: The grip, usually placed on the right side, makes it more comfortable to hold the camera. 

My first point-and-shoot digital camera was acquired before a trip for a wedding.  The cameras were portable, and the photos were correctable. I loved the ease of taking photos. Was the photo good? Did everyone make it into the frame? Was the subject backlit? Were someone’s eyes closed? Shoot. Review. Re-take. My sister and I mastered the form of taking a selfie before it was called a selfie. We have taken the same photo of ourselves with so many different backgrounds, at different ages, and with different hairstyles. This was also the time that my hold on photographs started to slip. While I could take more photos, re-take them, and make them perfect. They seemed to get stuck in the digital world. Their existence became ephemeral. Did they exist because there was data on a computer that coded an image? Or did they not exist, because I could not hold them, at the edges, with care.  

Reflex mirror: the reflex mirror reflects light from the lens to the pentaprism and to the focusing screen.  

In college, I enrolled in a black and white film photography course. Standing in a darkened closet, I learned to use my fingers to turn a roll of film over a plastic spool. I got better when I closed my eyes, when they weren’t searching for something to focus on. Time in the developer solution, number of shakes, rinse. The instructions followed precisely. Then, I held a sheet of paper under the magnifier. Listened to minutes tick by. Changed the length of the exposure, made darker areas light, made lighter areas dark. Sometimes, it was out of focus, but I wouldn’t know until I had finished. Sometimes, the blur was so slight, I had to look away and look again, before realizing I had to start over. I had to learn to trust the process. I watched the image appear just under the surface of the solution. I placed my fingers in the tray to pull the photo out and created ripples that made the image feel evanescent. Every time I walked in with a new roll of film to develop, I wasn’t sure it would work. I’d walk out hours later, and the summer light from the Georgia sun would seem too bright. The world rushing back to view after hours in silence and darkness with only a dull red glow to illuminate space. 

Film take-up reel: This is an empty spool on a film camera that takes up film after being exposed to light. 

After I graduated from college, my sister and I took a trip to Europe before I went to medical school. We traveled by train from one city to the next and walked every day until our legs ached. We went to so many museums and historic sites that even today we cringe a little at the thought of walking into one. I carried two cameras, a digital camera and my Canon single-lens reflex (SLR) with black and white film. Before the end of the summer, I rushed to develop the negatives from that trip. I stood in the dark room and worked the rolls in batches. I went in before work and after work, waiting impatiently for each step of the process. I wasn’t sure I would ever have access to a dark room again. My hands constantly smelled of developer solution. I placed all the negatives carefully in sleeves and into a three-ring binder. Almost two decades later, my mother was cleaning out her storage closet and found the binder with the negatives from that trip. I never developed the negatives into film. I could say it was because I became busy, but the truth is I’m not sure I need to see them. Perhaps, they are a present waiting to be opened.

Sensor: The sensor captures light from the lens to create an image. 

I graduated to a digital SLR after college. I spent money left over after paying for medical school applications, the interview process, and the first year of medical school. I used it for about twelve years before upgrading it, and slowly accumulated lenses as my interest grew. The first photos taken with the camera were framed and put up in my apartment: an image of the Washington monument in Baltimore by which our shuttle to and from school departed, a single high heeled woman’s shoe found on a wall on a Saturday morning walk, daffodils growing on a windowsill. They are memories of my life then in all its simplicity and solitude. They speak of a person trying to figure out what she should be looking for.

Shutter release button: This button releases the mechanical controls to open the shutter curtains to allow light into the camera. 

My husband bought me a black paper photo album from his travel to Egypt when we were dating. For months, I didn’t know what to fill it with until I started printing anything that caught my attention. Memories of our younger selves and friends filled the pages. Photos of our first months together exploring the neighborhoods in Maryland, of friends’ birthdays, of the celebrations at the end of our first year. I stopped after a vacation to Costa Rica. He rented a telephoto lens for me, and I took hundreds of photos of the changing landscapes in the different regions we traveled to, of the scales on the back of an iguana, of the blur of the hummingbirds’ wings, of the way monkeys ate mangos sitting in the tops of trees. I was overwhelmed by what I could capture through the lens and what the world had to offer. And yet, I couldn’t print a single photo because there were too many to choose from. The album still sits, partially completed, as though time stopped before that trip.  

Mode dial: This is a small cogwheel that when rotated allows the photographer to switch between different camera modes.  

I rotated through clinical autopsy as part of a medical school elective. The first thing you do is X-ray the body after identification. It is performed to look for foreign particles in the body, to document injuries to bones, or to find existing metal fragments. It is to help you see before you look. Later during the autopsy, we photographed all the pertinent findings, bullet tracks, damage to the liver, cancerous tissues. Every organ was weighed and photographed. This documentation was consistent for every autopsy we performed. All of these photographs became part of the file and the analysis that would be summarized in the death certificate. Sometimes special studies had to be performed on tissues. It could take six weeks to issue a death certificate.  Six weeks of waiting for closure.

Pentaprism: The pentaprism redirects the reflected light from the reflex mirror toward the viewfinder 

When we got married, we purchased single-use cameras for each table at our wedding. We didn’t anticipate the low light conditions of the venue so when I finally got around to developing them five years later, the photos were filled with blurs and shadows, like ghosts moving through the frame.

Hundreds of photos were taken that day by friends, family, and a wedding photographer. I didn’t take a single photo. The photos are of me and my family, me and my husband, us and our families. My in-laws remember the day with fondness. It rained like an Indian monsoon and the tent in my mother’s backyard flooded. Everyone’s shoes were covered with red Georgia clay. The bride and groom’s side had to sit together to avoid the creeping water in the tent and my clothes and feet were soaked by the end of the ceremony. The dancing went on till late into the night. It was one of the best days of my life. There were people at that wedding who are not alive today, though our lives intersected briefly. We will celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary this year and though we don’t have a wedding album yet, the memories grow stronger with each passing year. I lived the day, with all its heartache, drama, and joy, as is inherent in all unions. I didn’t partake in attempting to document in, and in not doing so, I freed myself to be.

Lens release button: This button unlocks the mechanical connection between the camera’s lens mount and the lens so that the photographer can dismount it. 

Before my girls were born, I took about 30 photos a month. After they were born, I took 600 photos a month. They arrived earlier than anticipated and spent their first month in an incubator under harsh NICU lights. I could not hold them except to pass a finger through the clear box they were in, to touch their skin, and let them know I was there. I was afraid I would forgot how papery thin their nails were or how wrinkled their skin was. So, I took photos. I didn’t get to hold them first, feed them first, give them their first bath, or choose if they got a pacifier. So instead, I took photos of the fine lanugo that covered their bodies, of their impossibly small fingers and toes, of their expressions, and of their fluttering eyelashes.  

Signal contacts: These are small metal parts used to communicate between the camera and the lens. 

Years later, I tried to cull the photos living on my computer. To bring the 37,000 photos I now owned down to a reasonable number. I was caught in a never-ending game of spot the difference between photos. I spent hours trying to find slight dissimilarities to determine which was the “better” version.  When I made decisions, the computer ominously reminded me that the deleted photos would not be retrievable. I have held my breath many times as I press the delete button. I wonder what makes a photo worth keeping. If the hard drive failed and every photo disappeared, would the memories flit away as well?

Baseplate receiver: This is a thread found on the bottom of the camera that allows the photographer to mount the camera on a tripod. 

When we left the neonatal ICU, the hospital reached out to us, and offered to pay for a photographer to stop by and take some photos of our not-yet-term-twins. The photographer came out to our apartment in Los Angeles one day, and so we have some documentation of how we survived the first few months of their lives. The room is strewn with bottles and diapers. Different forms of baby mats cover the floor for tummy time, and all sorts of gadgets entice them to look and play. Two different baby bouncers sit in the room. And within all the chaos, there are two of them and two of us. We look exhausted and joyful.  I do not have clear memories of their early days. I remember the piercing sounds of their cries, and the way panic rose in my chest in response. I remember how the nights turned into days, and the days turned into nights. I remember endless amounts of laundry to be done and bottles to be cleaned with all their different parts. I remember the smell of their heads and the feel of the feeding pillow. I remember their weight in my arms and their grunting noises. I remember how quiet the world was in comparison to the incessant beeping of the monitors at the hospital. These photos are precious to me, however, because they show us together. My husband once took a time lapse video of his 6 am routine with the girls. I thought he was crazy at the time, with the effort he put into setting up the iPhone just so. And now, when I watch the hour-long footage that has been condensed into a neat 40 second package, I remember just how much the video aligns with my memories. Everything moving too quickly and yet not fast enough.

Flange: The flange is the distance between the lens mount and the sensor in the camera. 

I am an ophthalmologist. I spend my days using a lens to look inside people’s eyes. The image my brain sees is flipped horizontally and vertically. I do the work of adjusting the image when I document what I find. Early on in training, this documentation took effort. I would draw the details of one quadrant at a time. Looking. Remembering. Then transcribing it to a written form that could be understood by my peers. Now, this transition from seeing to transcription is second nature. However, recently we moved to a new electronic medical record system. I cannot draw the image of the retina by hand anymore. I am forced to use a computer program that reminds me of an early version of Microsoft Paint. I find I cannot use it. I miss the colored pencils. Now I click different colors on the screen and try to draw with a cursor and the images I create do not look anything like what I see. My drawing is not useful. I own books of ophthalmic drawings done with painstaking details. These books taught my profession what disease looked like because words were never enough. I wonder what it means now that my drawings mean nothing. 

Frame counter: This is readout of the number of exposures that have been taken on a camera. It needs to be reset with every new roll of film.  

Two years ago, I purchased a medium format film camera, second hand off eBay, with a standard lens. There is no zoom. It has an internal battery that I assume will need to be replaced one day. There is no flash. It weighs 3.5 pounds and feels substantial. Each roll allows me 16 opportunities. I depress the shutter. I never re-take the photo. I wasn’t sure I could trust a camera where I couldn’t preview the image. It turns out I couldn’t ruin these photos if I tried. Light comes in and exposes the film, and what I end up with after the film is developed and the images are printed, is exactly what I was looking for the moment I took the photo. The way the camera captures light is natural and breathtaking. The movement of a blossom in the breeze, the white snow against my daughter’s nose.  So, I take one image at a time and trust the process. 

Focusing screen: This is a flat translucent material found in a camera that allows the photographer to preview the image in the viewfinder. 

The camera obscura also produced an image that was flipped horizontally and vertically. One photo was taken at a time. The subjects were chosen carefully or commissioned by a family for a specific event. Perhaps they were taken when the family was complete, or at a birth or marriage.  The ceremony of taking the photo was as important as the photo that lived on.  

Pressure plate: Directly under the back cover of a camera is a thin plate, the purpose of which is to tighten the film as it arrives in the exposure area, and ensure it does not move.  

I don’t use a dark room anymore. Maybe I will someday. A photo lab develops the film and sends me scanned digital versions of the images I choose to take. I print them all with their flaws. They are moments frozen in time. I print them for my children who stick them on the walls of their bedroom with green painter’s tape. I print them for myself in any size I like. Medium size prints go up along the staircase and large ones adorn the living room. I change them as I please. After every trip, I print a softcover photobook that the girls can look through however dirty their hands might be. I send a copy to family. Our walls and shelves are filling up with memories of our life. I used to be worried about creating archival prints so that images would last forever. Now, I recognize all the ways I might stand in the way of the photo ever existing in the world; from the moment I decide to take a photo to printing it out. I have faux-leather albums on my shelf now. The photos sit there under sticky paper. They say the film will not degrade the photos, but even if it does, I won’t be bothered, as long as they bring joy to our lives today.   

Aperture: The aperture determines how open the lens is and allows light to pass through. 

We go out for family walks on lazy weekend mornings, and I do not take photos as often as I used to. My kids point out a tree branch that curves over on itself, the sun shining through it. Sometimes I want to stop these moments, to capture them with the camera on my phone. But I don’t let the camera intrude in our time together. The slant of the light on the wall, the smile on one daughter’s face, the scowl on the other’s. Now, I leave my phone in my pocket, and hold their hands instead. I have confidence that the more I am present, the more I will remember. I let these memories enter my subconscious, where I notice them, and let them pass. One image at a time.  

Ghazala Datoo O'Keefe

Ghazala Datoo O'Keefe is an immigrant, physician, and mother. Born in India, she grew up in London and Mumbai, and currently lives in Atlanta in the United States with her husband and twin girls. Her work has been previously published in Isele Magazine. She is currently working on an essay collection on the themes of identity, immigration, and belonging.