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 remembered 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 when I was nine months until ten years. It was then that we downsized into a two-bedroom house, my nineteen-year-old sister took one for her own while my mom and I became roommates. I didn’t sleep alone in my own space until I was nearly fifteen. It all changed at fifteen.
Even as a child I was always very aware of death. Maybe it is the awareness of mortality that represents loss of innocence. My interest in photographing children comes from a desire to hold on to my own innocence – if I have ever had it. I have been a partial caretaker of my own parent for so long that I want to act as the child. I want guidance, but often reject it when it is given. Although I am almost thirty, I often act like a mature fifteen-year-old.
I wasn’t slowly transitioned into independence. Being independent is exclusively associated with adulthood, and when it is used to describe a child, it is a child that is deemed hard to control. Does that mean growing up is about gaining control?
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 the diabetes developed during her pregnancy with me. I wasn’t a planned baby. My parents were 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 are an extensive amount of snapshots of my sister. This probably isn’t unusual for a firstborn, but I realize now that my mom was probably sad and grieving for most of my early childhood. When I turned five, he 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 as complications from diabetes at age sixty-six. I have her dimples, but I have his anxiety. Maybe I’ll die in my fifties.
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.
Can babies grieve? My nine-month-old self would call for him from my crib. That eventually faded, along with my memory of him. My mom has been gone for almost two months. After a long day, I find myself feeling inclined to call her. And then reality comes, jerking me back like a dog trying to extend its leash. Will that inclination fade also, along with my memory of her? I fear it will.
Throughout the last five years, I have concentrated on photographing my niece and nephews with these ideas in mind. These photographs reflect the formation of identity as well as the relationship the children have to one another, to their environment, to their own bodies, and to me. They are familiar and comfortable with being in front of the camera, and my role as their aunt is partly defined by the action of photographing their lives.
My sister is nine years older than me, and had an impact similar to that of a parent while I was growing up. Responsibility was thrust on her at an early age as well.
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, ones of him and the ones he took. He was a photographer, too. It’s glaringly obvious to me that I chose this path because of everything I learned of 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.” I haven’t made any children of my own to continue his legacy, but I have made photographs.
from in the Midst of Things, January 2017