This article was printed in the Decade of Change issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop.
Cary Fagan, Aaron Schuman, Kalpesh Lathigra and others reflect on memories through image and text, as part of our ongoing series Picture This
What is your earliest memory? Does it change, or stay the same? Do they move, or are they still? Memory is subjective, a constant rewriting. It makes us who we are, keeping us grounded in the past while also allowing us to grow. To remember is not only the process of looking back, but the knowledge that there is something to look back to. There are memories that are individual and those collective. With storytelling, we can convert personal memories into a shared experience. Through the recollections of others, we are able to connect to places otherwise unknown. Memory can act in this universal way, while remaining deeply individual, a place to store a secret or a lie, a record of the people we once were. Those visions can become corrupted, with or without intention.
The self may exist in memory, but it’s not the same person present today. Memory is an evolutionary tool allowing us to not make the same mistakes again, it helps us move forward. But as we look towards a new year, and back at what has come before, what will we remember and what will we forget?
We asked six photographers to respond to the theme of vulnerability with image and text. Below, Aaron Schuman, Marton Perlaki, Cary Fagan, Tami Aftab, Kalpesh Lathigra, M’hammed Kilito present their responses.
When I was nine-years-old, I climbed halfway up a cliff on the coast of Maine, where I then froze with fear, clinging to the rock face while realizing that I had no idea how to get back down. Twenty minutes later, as the tide was coming in, I heard my father’s voice below me. “Are you alright?” he shouted above the waves. “I’m stuck,” I screamed. My voice was unexpectedly high-pitched and trembled in a way it never had before, which was strange, almost primal, and shocked me. My dad was no rock-climber; in fact, he was afraid of heights. But within seconds I felt him wrapped around me. If I fell, he fell. His hands firmly grabbed ahold of my skinny ankles – first left, then right, then left again, and so on – as step-by-step he guided my feet downwards, finding footholds below entirely invisible to me.
In late-October of last year, my father died. I’m no good at grief. I try to contain it; hold it in. But I kept dreaming of cliffs and crashing waves. I now live in England, and with no immediate way of getting back to America, I drove west; as close as I could get – at least for the time being – to somewhere between where I am, and where he once was. At low tide, I scrambled around on the cliffs, the waves creeping closer and crashing all around me. This time, almost instinctively, I made sure to know exactly how to get back down.
I’ve never felt so happy and so miserable than in my seven years living in New York. A city that is so vibrant and full of opportunities you can hardly remember that perhaps you could have other occupations in life then “making it”. Hundreds and thousands of people from around the world are flocking to this city that already seems so familiar to most of us from the movies.
On the top of the Empire State Building, people would have mistaken me for a tourist…with my camera in hand, snapping away. But I felt different. I was living there. A “New Yorker”….Then, as it happened, I had to leave it all for good.
But, the memory of the glacier pace G train, the scorching hot summer days, and the long shadows cutting through the streets of Midtown Manhattan gets sweeter every year.
Memories, you need memories. Shit, without memories, what’s there to reflect on? Life’s about making moments, and memories. You’ve got to have scars to these cuts and wounds. Can’t always cover them with band-aids. You gotta let them breathe. Witness them shape you, become the vessel of your memories. Feel their textures on your skin.
We are in the second lockdown now but at Tier 2, and I decide to go back to boxing at Peacock Gym in Canning Town, East London. I have been training here for 15 years with my coach Andre Olley.
When I first came to the gym in 2005 on a Saturday morning , the group of Amateurs there took me under their wing. I still remember Shyyan, Alex , Kofi , Chris, John and numerous others all making sure I was ok.
As Andre trained me over the years I found myself sparring with this group and more, on Saturday mornings, sometimes in the week. I grew older and new fighters came, I learnt to box, but more than that I had a place of solitude away from photography and day to day life.
The Peacock Gym is very special, it is a family. Most people know each other or at the very least acknowledge each other’s presence when you become a regular. My kids grew up there, I would leave them in reception sometimes whilst I trained, the locals would watch over them. Sometimes I would sit and have breakfast, the wonderful Karen and Lynn would rustle up scrambled eggs on toast.
I have been marked physically and psychologically by this place, it is in my very being and has my heart. I am protective of it. I cherish the memory of the friendships that have endured here, the smell as you walk in sets off those memories from years past. I am at peace.
The gym is no more, within a year it may not even exist physically in its location. There is but a shell now – the rings remain as do the punching bags and a few exercise machines. All else is gone.
“Everything dies baby that’s a fact, maybe everything that dies someday comes back………” Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen
This polaroid was an outtake from a long-term project, The Dog’s in the Car, a collaboration with my Dad, Tony, who suffers from short-term memory loss after an accident that occurred mid-operation for his hydrocephalus.
The text in landscape images in the work derives from many post-it notes that my family use as a communication tool around the house, to support my Dad in his forgetfulness. I found that these notes felt so temporary, hidden behind closed doors, in a way that almost furthered the hushed tones around illness and memory loss that we wanted to challenge.
Therefore, we decided to enlarge them and take them out from the four walls they’re usually enclosed within. We hung them in contextualised areas around my childhood home – for example, ‘Turn the Oven Off’ is outside our house to aid as a reminder before Dad closes the front door. These phrases have been constants in my life, however they gained a refreshed sense of agency within image-making.
After Dad and I hung the text, and took a step back, this image was taken as a keepsake. To me it represents a full circle – from the small material of a scribbled post-it note, to the bold language of placing them outside, back down to an intimate physical object that feels archival and a memory to hold on to.
To many, a grandmother is an old woman with some stories, who knew how to cook tasty meals. To me, my grandmother was the world. She was the one who saw the invisible me, she heard my unspoken, she believed in the best possible person I could be and she lit up when she saw me.
My relationship with her was unique, I loved her more than anything else in the world, and so did she. I was born in the Soviet Union and at the age of six months my parents took me to Morocco and left me with my grandmother until my mum graduated. It wasn’t until I was seven years old that I started living with my parents.
Mmi Saadia, how I used to call her, was a brilliant woman, modern and open minded, a pillar to many, and a silent woman who touched many lives. I was always afraid that she would die while I was living abroad. I remember very well that last summer when I went to visit her on my way to the airport to say goodbye. There was my father and uncle sitting in front of me. We all knew it was the last time I would see her, I wanted to have one last intimate moment with her and I did not dare ask for it. She died in 2012 while I was living in Canada and I never mourned her until today.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.