I awoke on my stomach, quietly; arms and legs sprawled out, occupying half of the space on my mother’s bed. Today was my fifth birthday. “A whole hand,” I remember thinking—the first realization of my own growth. “Five years old.” Shortly after, my first tooth was loose.
I slept in her bed off and on after my father died, from when I was nine months until I was ten years old. It was then that we downsized into a two-bedroom house; my nineteen-year-old sister took one room for herself, and my mom and I became roommates for a few years.
Even as a child I was always very aware of death. I wasn’t slowly transitioned into independence, but rather was a partial caretaker of my mom for so long that the idea of innocence now seems incredible. Maybe it is the awareness of mortality that represents a loss of innocence. My interest in photographing children comes from a desire to hold on to my own innocence—if I ever had it.
A handful of days before Christmas 2002, my mom became weak and ill. She was admitted to the hospital, and words like “dehydration,” “low blood sugar,” “diabetes,” and “kidney function” were thrown around. Somewhere along the way, it was mentioned that her diabetes developed during her pregnancy with me. I wasn’t a planned baby. My parents had been told they weren’t able to biologically have children. Somehow I came, but maybe I wasn’t supposed to. Maybe I ruined my mom’s body. I felt the guilt of existing.
“Is this me?” “No, it’s your sister,” she would say after I showed her a snapshot of a baby. It was always my sister. I would run back to the kitchen table and place the photograph under the sticky plastic cover inside the photo album after labeling the back “Hannah.” “She has more pictures than me!” I have some, but there’s an extensive number of snapshots of my sister. This probably isn’t unusual for a firstborn, but I realize now that my mom must have been sad and grieving for most of my early childhood. When I turned five, my father had only been gone for four years—her partner, her love for twenty-one years. He died of a heart attack on our front lawn at age forty. She died from various things, complications from diabetes, at age sixty-six. I have her dimples, but I have his anxiety. Maybe I’ll die in my fifties.
Can babies grieve? My nine-month-old self would call for him from my crib. That eventually faded, along with my memory of him. Now, after a long day, I find myself feeling inclined to call her, my mom. And then reality comes, and I’m jerked back like a dog trying to extend its leash. Will that inclination also fade, along with my memory of her? I fear it will.
While our personal life experiences vary, we share the familiar path of growing into our bodies, delighting in innocence, and grappling with loss. Children are in the midst of their foundational years, learning and making choices that shape the kind of adults they will become. The inevitability of adulthood looms over them in the discomfort of transition. But, like any transition, childhood is temporary.
The photographs of my niece and nephews reflect the formation of identity, and the relationship the children have to one another, to their environment, to their bodies, and to me. They live in a rural, predominantly white area of the Ozarks. In this series, they are often seen in quiet spaces, isolated and surrounded by darkness. Their internal lives emerge through subtle gesture and expression. Their home seems a safe space as identities and relationships are built and nurtured within a domestic, womb-like environment. Children often physically and emotionally mature beyond those boundaries. Time extends while pushing us forward, upward, and out.
Emma, Ethan, and William are familiar with being in front of the camera, and my role as their aunt is partly defined by the action of photographing their lives. The images serve as a coming-of-age story, a visual narrative created through their personal experiences and shaped by my struggle with my own purpose and themes of guilt and loneliness. We are expected to achieve things or decide things at different ages throughout our life. But isn’t life anti-climactic and a disappointment most of the time? I realize this is a cynical outlook, but it is even more surprising that a child may have these thoughts. I often get the comment that the children in the photographs look sad, and I think more than anything they’re thoughtful—and maybe a little bored.
I spent my childhood believing it was abnormal to have two parents. My friend’s fathers scared me. They were tall and their voices were deep. They always seemed grumpy. I didn’t picture my own dad this way as I would sift through photographs of him and photographs he took. He was a photographer, too. It’s obvious to me that I chose this path because of everything I learned about him. I feel connected to him whenever I photograph and feel his camera strap on the back of my neck—like a pat on the back saying, “I’m here. I’ve got you.”