I love looking through old family photos, especially ones on my mum's side, because the aunties and uncles, cousins and grandparents are always so mysterious looking, even as children. The photo's even smell old, like your grandma's fur coat, warm and musky. And the eyes that stare back at you seem to tell so many half told stories. At family gatherings the mutterings of older cousins do little to lift the sepia toned muddle of fact and immigrant aspiration. And so eventually you begin to lose interest in the meaning behind the photo, the story or the facts. The mystery behind the eyes of those children is only mystery to you, and no one else. To your mates, its just one ugly looking old baby, not the baker or the butcher, gambler or mafioso. Those old photos are so stilted, so far withdrawn from their reality they look strange to us now, in the age of the camera phone and the web cam, where every moment is a photo opportunity. They are so carefully arranged, with a stiffness, and rarely display any backdrop other than that of the photographers studio.
We are so submerged and bombarded with images of ourselves and our surroundings that we begin to create a sense of celebrity within ourselves. I recently watched a documentary on how Football has changed since the 1950's. They did this by specifically comparing two matches, an FA Cup final from the 1950's, and the FA Cup final from two years ago. When a player scored a goal in the present day his reaction was a well rehearsed act, so aware of the hundreds of cameras pointed in his direction. In contrast the goal scorer of the 1950's leapt and bounded with complete inhibited joy, like an eleven year old schoolgirl playing netball. His internal sense of his own captured image was zero, despite being a famous footballer of the time.
We all do it. At Christmas or birthdays when your dad or your girlfriend whips out the camera for a quick snap. We immediately, and a lot less subtly than we lead ourselves to believe, switch into model mode. We all remember that one photo of ourselves where everyone told you they reckoned you looked like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and bam! you're tilting you're head at just the angle to set off that slight eyebrow arch, and when the pictures come back from Boots you look like you'd spent the whole night auditioning for a Bollywood movie.
And so it was to my great amusement that I recently unearthed this ridiculous picture of myself as a toddler. I stared and stared at it, thinking who's house is this? My rapper pout towards the camera, the tricycle, the zebra print, the woman behind me lifting the baby, the greenness of the trees through the open window. This was a photo taken without preparation or rehearsal. There was no "everybody say cheese..". Yet some how it looks completely unreal, so stilted and strange. I looked at myself in that photo and saw the same look in my face I'd seen in those old pictures of my family, that sense of mystery in my eyes. I realised later that the woman behind me was my babysitter, a friend of my parents, and a bit of an 80's lesbian. So perhaps the face I pull in photos now is in fact not me trying to look like James Dean. Perhaps its just the face of a child that says "listen, the tricycle is cool but if the lesbian tries throwing me out of the window too I won't be pleased".