Persistent memories.

Times Square.
Photo © Steven Gray 2012

Do we choose everything that we retain?  I wonder about this sometimes, because some memories seem to choose us as much or more as we choose them.  Somethings are obviously more significant than other, and we remember more about them.  But sometimes our brains only have the briefest of moments in which to collect the information which forms our memories.  Sometimes these memories from brief moments contain such staggering levels of detail based on such brief sightings, that I wonder if certain memories choose us as much or more as we choose them.

I have a good memory.  For some things.  Even before I took up photography, my capacity to remember visuals and conversations was downright startling to my parents.  But it was always on the condition that I was interested in whatever subject I had to recall.  If it was something I found intriguing, I never failed to recall the most minute of details.  However, if I didn’t find the subject engaging, I dismissed it entirely and had to be refreshed if it came up again.

That man in the Indian art shop.
Photo © Steven Gray 2012

This continues into the present day.  When people repeat the same stories or the same “news” in conversations, I often have to smile, nod, and pretend that I haven’t heard it before.  To betray my recollection of details from conversations weeks or months prior, when it’s still fresh news to the teller, might give me the reputation of a stalker.  People are funny these days.

I say all that to say this, I have a good memory for things which I find interesting.  But my brain still surprises even me with the images which it has retained in full photographic detail.  I don’t mean the simple reconstruction of an event, I’m talking about internally revisiting events and seeing them in glorious Technicolor and a high-definition level of fidelity.

Now that I am out of school for the summer and have the time, I decided to share a couple of the more meaningful recollections which persist in my brain.

The Girl at the Fort

We were in the same homeschool group; I think we were both ten or eleven at the time.  This memory is notable for its place as a landmark in my personal development; I had grown out of the “girls are yucky” stage into the “girls are annoying” stage, and this day in particular saw me move forward into the “girls are interesting” stage.

We were on a field trip to one of Pensacola’s local forts, Fort Barrancas at the naval base.  Barrancas, at that time, was notorious for sometimes being open, sometimes not.  Unless you called ahead, you had to park the car and walk a few hundred yards up a hill to see if the drawbridge was up or down.  If it was down, the fort was open to the public.  This being a somewhat impromptu visit for our group, we trekked en masse up the hill to see if we could go inside.

Being an enterprising young fellow, far more extroverted then than now, I charged ahead to be the first to see the bridge, and consequently be the one to inform the rest of the group whether or not it was open or closed.  Like most “charge-aheads,” this one was poorly planned and did not begin soon enough for me to be the first to see the bridge.  Flanked by a few friends, (my fellow charge-aheaders), we turned and I began to call back “It’s closed!”  And that’s when I saw her.

I had seen this girl every week at church for years.  Our families knew each other well.  Not best friends, but still far from being just “acquaintances.”  But that day, it was like seeing her for the first time.  I remember seeing her come over the top of the hill and down the path in such vivid detail.  She wore a dark tshirt and shorts.  Her eyes and face were turned down slightly as she picked her way over the cracked and uneven walking path.  Her mahogany hair was blowing in the stiff breeze of the hilltop and crossed her face slightly.  She was talking with friends, and honestly couldn’t care less about the fort’s being open or closed.

That brief moment of a few seconds, seeing her come over the hilltop, has been with me for almost twelve years.  For seven of those years, she was the only girl to capture my attention.  I don’t know if it makes me a hopeless romantic or an irredeemable sad sack, but I never made my feelings clear to her.  I mean, I should have, shouldn’t I?  But I didn’t.

I’m past those feelings now; I actually ended up photographing this girl’s engagement portraits several years ago, and, strangely enough, it didn’t feel awkward.  Is there still a tinge of regret in there somewhere?  Yes, deep down.  But it has more to do at with the underlying principles beneath this memory–namely my bizarre penchant for keeping my strongest feelings internalized.  I don’t know what I might be afraid of; I have nothing to lose if I tell people how I really feel, but I still don’t communicate the way that I know I should.

My relationship with women remains oddly quixotic.  I idealize one here or there, but I speak to them as little as possible, because to know the human being would destroy the ideal.  Such a mindset is, probably, very unhealthy.  But sometimes the comfort of an ideal is worth preserving in a world filled with all-too-harsh realities.

The Child in the Ruins

I was reminded of another standout moment this morning, while looking through a photo editorial about Sierra Leone.  I saw a photo of a young boy standing in the ruins of a house which was destroyed in the country’s civil war a decade ago.  It brought back another memory of a girl, albeit a much more different one.  I can pin this one down to a date.  It was January 2nd of this year, and I was in India.

I was on a crowded bus, but I didn’t mind, because I loved the people with whom I traveled.  Some of them were dear friends whom I’ve known for a while, others were people I had only met that week.  But I love them all dearly; they are a second family to me.

We were rolling through the dusty countryside of Northwestern India.  Pakistan wasn’t far away, and the tropical zone was arid and continental in the winter dryness.  The city was far behind us and we carved a dusty swath through the mountain foothills on our way to visit a school.  We descended into a fertile valley for time, then emerged to climb another set of hills to a dry plain.  Houses were few and far between at this point.

We passed a house that was no longer a house.  The roof and supporting timbers were gone and it was little more than a foundation and some freestanding walls.  What walls that were left were made of dusty stone which blended in with the surrounding landscape, contrasted only by the dark and gnarled tree which stubbornly clung to life behind and to the left of the desolate structure.

Sitting alone in what was left of this house was a small girl.  Children’s ages are sometimes hard to gauge in India, where many children are forced by circumstances to mature far too quickly, but I would place this girl between eight and nine years of age.  She was crouched in the squat position which is how most people repose in India: heels on the ground, body and legs so closely compacted that one can never tell if their buttocks are actually touching the ground.

The sight of any child in such an environment is stirring, but this girl was dressed in pink.  This was not a simple, faded pink scarf, but a bright, spotlessly clean and radioactively pink sari.  In the midst of an dry and dust-colored landscape, this little girl peered out at us with eyes full of query and suspicion.  I only saw her for a second or two–from a moving bus at a distance of a hundred paces at that–but every detail of the scene was committed to memory.

Upon seeing her, I was instantly struck with a question, a regret and a realization.  My first thought was why is she there?  There were no other houses for a half-mile in either direction, and nothing in between.  Had this house been hers?  Was she the lone holdout of an old homestead?  Was she simply catching refuge from the sun in the shade of these tattered walls while en route to somewhere else?  This will nag me until my dying day.

My second thought was a regret.  I didn’t capture a photograph.  In all honesty and objectivity, a photograph of this girl in that old house would have been award material.  National Geographic could do no better with a veteran cover photographer, a case of gear and a local fixer.  An image of that child, in that environment would be pure gold for any photographer.

In the space of a moment, possibilities flooded my mind: a framed print with a large ribbon on the corner, a certificate of merit, cash prizes and magazine attention–these delusions struck me so hard and so suddenly that I completely forgot why I was in India at all.

This selfish thought was instantly followed by a realization: I was a hypocrite.

Despite all my noble intentions of going to India and helping children through our Christmas in a Backpack project, despite the enduring question of just why the girl was there in the first place, I fell prey to unadulterated selfishness.  We were less than an hour from our destination village.  Our bus was loaded up with backpacks to fill with supplies and living materials for a group of impoverished children.  I already had several dozen gigabytes of superb photographs and video footage documenting this country and its people stowed away in my gear bag.  And at that moment I sat in my seat, suddenly fuming because I couldn’t jump out, snap a few photos of this lonely child, and then continue on.

And I remembered.  My first duty to this child was not to capture her likeness.  It was to help her.  To offer her food, a backpack full of clothes, a ride, whatever she needed.  Not to put an enormous camera in her face, snap off a couple of photographs and rush back to the bus, congratulating myself.

When you confine your joys to just a few things in life, realizations like this can be hard.  I enjoy good friends, good food, good books and the visual arts.  Those are the things which I seek out; all other good things in life, to me, are gravy and pleasant surprises.  Participating in a creative process helps me stay sane, and I believe firmly that what I do is a positive pursuit.  But when I allow that, however benign it is, to totally distract me from what is really important, I have to reel it in.

Those are a few of my memories.  I hope you enjoyed them, and if you want to share some of your own, I invite you to use the comment box or write an entry of your own.

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