How to Look at an Old Photo

© Copyright 2018 Christine Chua, Ryerson University

At first, an old photo is nothing but glossy paper. It’s a remnant of the not-so-long-ago age of film and negatives that seems almost archaic compared to the sleek phone, camera and computer weighing down my pocket.

Christine Chua. Untitled Photograph featuring Benedict’s Birthday by Tino Parial (1994). February 9, 2018. ©Christine Chua

Upon closer inspection, time starts to fill in the blanks. I scan over each face until my brain finds familiarity in the thicker and darker hair, and in the smiles that would eventually form the laugh lines I’m more accustomed to. I know each person well. There are my parents, minus roughly 20 years, and there’s my older brother as a drooling baby. And yet, I feel like an outsider.

The way I see this photo, which was taken before I was born, is drastically different from how my parents or grandparents must see it. I see people that I know, but versions of them that I don’t. This is the life my family had before me.

A true outsider – one with no real link to anyone in this photo, like yourself – might see nothing more than a family gathering. Perhaps you notice the hairstyles, broad shoulders and brightly coloured clothes, and know instinctively that this must be the ‘90s. You might be able to pick out certain facial features and guess which people are related, or maybe try to guess the occasion.

The photo is of my cousin’s first birthday in 1994 and, no matter who you are, your eyes are drawn to the people first. When I look, I see my family all happily clumped together, an assembly of new immigrants celebrating new life. In a detached sort of way, my gaze wanders through the room they’re sitting in and I know this must be my parents’ place. That long black coffee table is still in our basement, and that couch everyone is sitting on has followed my parents through every single home they’ve ever owned in Canada.

When I show this photo to the people that are in it, however, they see something beyond the details you and I see. Echoes of their smiles in the photo bloom onto their present-day cheeks. They can see the memories that accompany the details. Where I see versions of them I’m not familiar with, they see versions of themselves lost to the past. Maybe they even hear 24-year-old reprises of the Happy Birthday they sang to my cousin.

Photos were made to freeze a moment of the past and bring it along into the future. But for whom? Was this moment captured in time specifically to feel that surge of nostalgia 20 years later? Perhaps, it was taken to send to our relatives back home, to bridge the distance between our family. Or was it so that people like me – not far away in physical distance, but in time – could be a part of this moment too? It’s a tall order for one small, rectangular sheet of glossy photo paper, but whether the photographer had the foresight to think so or not, it achieves all of those things at once.

Works Cited

Chua, Christine. Untitled photograph (Tino Parial, Benedict’s Birthday). 9 Feb 2018. Private collection.

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.