Pics or it didn’t happen

The ubiquity of digital and cell phone photography has translated into the accumulation of thousands of photographs by individual people, many shared through some form of social media, the bulk stored on the devices themselves or on terabyte size hard drives. There is no risk in continually pressing the button. Mistakes, blurriness and bad angles are easily deleted. The special moments, the everyday, the mundane; nothing goes unrecorded, such that proof of the event or activity or the person attending and participating is demanded for verification: pics or it didn’t happen.

Those of us from a particular vintage recall the days of film with a very limited set of pictures, 24 or 36 image rolls, curled up inside a camera where a little motor purrs automatically to advance to the next frame, or you would manually drag the lever across the back with your thumb to prepare for another shot. Without a preview, and no opportunity to redo, you spent time framing and focusing, holding your hands steady, ready to depress the button at the precise moment, hoping the resulting photograph was usable. After picking up the developed role from specialized shops, you flipped through the prints, disappointed in half, surprised at the rest.

Many fuzzy pictures were saved, occupying a space in the photo binders stacked on the shelves, kept in spite of the quality. Photographs were treasured, retained regardless of condition, folded or damaged, because it was the last one of a relative, or a scene, or a memory. They were carried in breast pockets, close to the heart; wallet sized copies were produced to be ported and shared in company – “let me show you a picture of my wife, my kids, my boyfriend, my family”. Albums were to be gifted in preservation of the family history.

I was reminded of the change in photography practice recently while reviewing our expansive digital collection in an attempt to corral its proliferation of disparate files scattered across iphones and androids, old and new laptops, usb sticks and portable hard drives, copies and originals and retouched versions. Amongst the morass was our 2007 visit to the Netherlands accompanied by Dad for his first return back since my mother died two years earlier. We made a short trip into Belgium to visit Bruges and Ghent and various World War I memorials including Vimy Ridge. Dad’s primary reason, however, was to visit family, his own and Mom’s, those who still remained. One important stop was an afternoon with Dad’s endearing, older sister, my aunt, Tante Toos.

Tante Toos opening the tabernacle to offer a drink, including her favourite: sherry.

A lively conversation ensued, conducted in Dutch because Tante Toos and Oom Gert (who chauffeured us to her home in the community care facility) possessed very little grasp of English. I understand colloquial Dutch but dared not speak it; Olga knew only a word or two (definitely more than my Ukrainian). I simultaneously translated the banter, whispering my understanding to her; Dad conveyed our contribution to his siblings. Hand gestures, pantomime, smiles and laughter completed the rest. Eventually their thoughts shifted to the family tree.

“Even eens wacht jonges. Ik wil wat foto’s laten zien.”

Tante Toos sifting through her archive of family photographs.

From inside the book cabinet, top shelf, Tante Toos pulled out a cardboard box. She slowly lowered herself back onto the chair, settled the container on her lap. Hunched over the makeshift vault, my aunt carefully removed the lid and began digging into the archives. With deliberate motion, she lifted one photo at a time, selecting special ones with the other hand before splaying them on the coffee table.

“Ah Piet, onthoud deze. Het was op de bruiloft van Jo en Kees. Je moet het bewaren.”

It was a picture of Tante Toos and Dad, as young adults, smiling proudly, brother and sister standing side by side, having just witnessed the marriage of another sibling, Tante Jo.

“Kijk naar deze. Mijn grootouders, jullie overgrootouders.”

Tante Toos handed over several photos, worn at the edges, slightly yellowed. Small squares of thick paper, portraits of my great grandparents, photos I had never seen before. She dug deeper, contemplating each new revelation, removing one more for her audience.

“Hier is er een met je vader op de schoot van zijn grootvader.”

Another black and white, evidence of a corner fold, spotted lightly, taken in the back of the rowhouse in Tilburg. Dad was a child, approximately two, dirty, perched on the lap of his grandfather, his own father standing behind, smiling at the scene. It was the only copy still in existence.

Tante Toos then recalled stumbling upon old photos of people and families in flea markets, sold as antiques and decoration. She feared ending up on some dusty table, sold to passing customers. Better to be rid of all the pictures than to be scattered to the walls of strangers as some form of curiosity. She wanted to be spared that indignity.

Tante Toos gathered up the photographs and the box was closed. We posed for a few pictures and hugged our goodbyes for the last time. It was a precious moment, captured digitally, resurfaced for this post, stored in my memory bank until age erodes the story.

The last photo with Tante Toos, August 2007.

Tante Toos passed away in 2009. She instructed the executor of her will to destroy all her pictures. They disappeared, as if their subject matter never happened. I cannot imagine what she would think of her pictures displayed here, on the internet, potentially to live on forever in some file, her pixels possibly sold and monetized, floating in a cloud until it bursts.

I understand Oom Gert hung on to a handful of photos but abided by her wishes and discarded the bulk of them. I hope one day to search through what he deemed necessary to retain, maybe copying them for myself. I think about what will become of them when Oom Gert passes on and if this chain of family history will be buried forever.

We have pictures of Tante Toos in our possession, mostly when she visited Canada, stored in binders of my parents. There is an album of photos when she visited Uncle Kees in Uganda, the two perpetually connected. Many have found a new home in another box, tucked in the corner of the basement. We cherish our own pictures of her, captured digitally, uncovered on occasion. None, however, bear witness to the essence of Tante Toos’s life, her service to others. No pictures of living at home with aging parents after the rest of the family moved on. No pictures of nursing my grandmother paralyzed by a stroke. No pictures of working in a home for mentally challenged youth so they have some semblance of independence. The loving sibling, the doting aunt, the devoted daughter, giving and sharing with the extended de Cock family happened even if many of the pics no longer exist.

2 thoughts on “Pics or it didn’t happen

  1. You touch on a very important point here – what to do with family photographs, as well as how important they really are. I retrieved some of my mother’s albums of black-and-white photographs after she died – but many of the people and places within are now forever nameless! I recall paging through these albums from a young age, talking to my mother about her early life for, as you say in a way ‘pictures make it happen’. I have a collection of albums spanning the growing years of my own family, but neither they nor their children are at a point where these are of interest for they find the ones on their phones or computer more accessible, brighter, and more immediately relevant. It took my daughter a year to prise pictures from her siblings to put together a printed photo-book for my birthday. How I treasure that, for I can page through it at leisure. I wonder what the future is of digital photography in general: photos not burned, but deleted at the touch of a button!


    1. I digitized my parents photo collection, in part to share with my brothers. I thought someone else would hang on to them but no one else wants them. I do not have the heart to discard and wonder what our children will decide about them (or our own photos, for the that matter). The same question arises with small artifacts. For example, my Dad passed on two liqueur glasses from his parents. They are not unique in any way or made of crystal yet they were important to my father so I have kept them. Will my kids? Will it matter?
      Thank you for reading and all your thoughtful comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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