The Tangibility of Memories: Exploring Life, Loss and Family Through Photography

The Tangibility of Memories: Exploring Life, Loss and Family Through Photography

This Mother’s Day marks ten years without my mom. I was 19, a sophomore in college trying desperately to become a respected adult when she died. Predictably, caring for and losing a parent is one way to really accelerate that process.

Over the last decade, I’ve struggled to process not only the loss of my mother but also the loss of our future together. I don’t know what she would have thought of my writing or interior decorating. I don’t know what trips we might have taken or how she would have reacted to the challenges of the pandemic. I don’t know, and that is one of the nastiest things grief does.

As I’ve navigated my heartache with sympathetic friends and a lot of therapy, photography has also proven to be a trusted tool through which I explore my grief. It’s allowed me to come to understand my mom better. Seeing photos from before I was born — her in diapers, her first marriage, as a college student in the 70s, that awkward teenage phase and questionable haircuts — alleviates some of the despair. Uncovering images and stories about her life, even the parts that include me and my brother or dad, has had a powerful effect on reducing my fear around a future without her. Instead of doubling down on my sadness, photos whisper clues as to what she might have thought and felt about my unknowns.

Some photos carry more mysteries than others, and I so enjoy the process of exploring all of the possibilities. What was so special about this moment? Are there any clues as to what year that was taken? Is that guy sitting next to her a friend or former boyfriend? Does it even really matter?

In a world where some of my photos push 50MB apiece and we all contemplate the best cloud storage solutions for our terabytes of personal data, there’s something very humbling about the 4×6” family photo collection stowed away in a shoebox or folder inside of a dusty cabinet. Often featuring poor composition and displaying an aggressive use of flash and/or forced smiles, they are a far cry from the “phone eats first” and facetuned society we now live in. Kids are asking for iPhones in elementary school and Instagram accounts for their birthdays. What ever happened to the original filter: the lowly disposable camera?

Physical printed photos remind me of how deliberate photography once was. You had only so many rolls of film. Your batteries were going to run out  (not to mention they weren’t rechargeable via USB). Organizing a professional photo shoot necessitates planning and intention. At times, like in the case of a family photo in a studio, a new artificial story is being told. The idea that each of the four members of my family independently decided to all wear turtlenecks on the same day? Think again.

Broadly speaking, photography is about storytelling. It’s an effective narrative tool, sure, but it’s also an important form of proof. Proof that my mom wasn’t always sick. Proof that her legs were way too long and skinny as a kid. Proof that when she was really laughing and happy she’d throw her head back. Proof that we once had the same haircut at the same time. And proof that I look like her now.

Each photographer has their own very personal story as to why they chose this medium. For me, it just feels like a natural extension of how I see the world. I look for quiet moments, light, patterns and textures everywhere I go, and it’s only through photography that I’m able to offer the world slivers of my brain. There is great power in creating memories and freezing moments in time that satisfy something within me. 

Like old friends of hers I’ve connected with, I will also always be grateful to photography for its ability to teach me about my mom after her death. Without the images in my shoebox, I would surely have forgotten just how her hands looked and what watch she wore. I would have a hard time visualizing her smile, but I have the proof.

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This article was written by

Caitlyn Edwards is the Senior Customer Marketing Manager at PhotoShelter. Passionate about visual storytelling and ethics, she covers photo news, events and offers educational tips.

There are 8 comments for this article
  1. David Goldman at 3:52 pm

    Beautiful story. As someone that just lost my mum after a 7 week one-sided battle with cancer, I can relate very much to this. I was lucky to have her in my life as long as I did and to use my iPhone to record her sharing chicken soup and brisket recipes. Audio VM are gold. I’m sorry you don’t have those but like you I have the box of old photos from first marriages and beyond. It’s those very photos that I used to look at as a kid that still informs how and what I shoot to this day.

    Thank you.


    • Caitlyn Edwards Author at 4:21 pm

      Thank you for the kind words David! I’m sorry to hear about your mother but I am so glad to hear you have those voicemails (and recipes). It’s amazing the gifts people leave behind. <3

  2. Constance Halporn at 5:08 pm

    My mother was a Thanatologist, and I spent many many years making photos for her company The Center for Thanatology in Brooklyn. Among other exhibitions we did Black burial customs, Jewish burial customs and Chinese burial customs. We also did a exhibition on Public memorials which ended up being images from 911. All this to say that having been involved with my mother’s work, her passing was much easier for me. Our society keeps death at bay–and we need to make it part of our lives instead of being fearful.

    • Caitlyn Edwards Author at 5:30 pm

      It’s so beautiful to have been involved with her work. I’m sure there are many sweet memories from that time, Constance!

  3. Eddy Furlong at 5:10 pm

    Beautifully written account of your experience, Caitlyn. I can feel your emotional connectedness through the photographs. The proof is visceral I mean, even as I look at the photographs of your mum, the emotions they evoke awake an experience much more than visual. Thank you.

  4. Andrew Fingerman at 9:41 am

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully written exploration with our community Caitlyn. I totally agree that the tangible photos, especially of our loved ones, help strengthen our memories and help us figure out the holes in stories while our own understanding (and maturity of POV) evolves. The photos you selected were also perfect… it was a joy to learn about your relationship with your mom, and how it continues to change over time. Very grateful for your willingness to share it here.

  5. Michael Hodos at 7:35 pm

    This is a wonderful story and thank you for telling it.

    My parents, both still alive, have about 10,000 slides in a closet from their meeting in 1966-7 until the mid 80s. These are all the photos of them as a young married couple, through my arrival and then the arrival of my two sisters and brother. There very few pictures of any of us as children that aren’t on those slides. I have begged them for years to let me digitize them so we can go through them and know who is who, before none of us remember. My mother was always too nervous to let the slides out of the house, despite them not being looked at and surely starting to mold or decay.

    They recently have agreed to have them scanned and I am so excited to be able to see them. I am 52 years old, and the last “slide” show we had at my parents house was probably in the early 80s.

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