The appeal of photographs is simple: life is always changing but a picture remains the same. The jolt of excitement that runs through a person urging them to take a photo is the same jolt that pushes us forward in life. We only feel the need to capture that which feels fleeting. It is the quickness of the moment that makes it heavy with importance: a baby’s first toothless grin, the flash of fear in a high school graduate’s eyes as they take their diploma. Maybe this is the moment that will reveal who we are. Maybe it will reveal how we came to be, or, more elusive yet, who we may become.
American author, Gail Goodwin once broke the world down into two types of people. The first group reaches their final self at some point in life, and even if that final form is quite lovely, you can expect no more surprises from it. The second group keeps learning, evolving and embarking on new adventures. “In my opinion,” Goodwin says, “they are the only people who are still alive.” I am inclined to agree with Goodwin, but I think there are more of us in the latter group than perhaps she accounts for, even if not by choice.
We are aware of life’s constant change. Sometimes we are intentionally causing it, sometimes we are simply riding the wave. We know we don’t stand a chance against change so we cling to our philosophies and our cameras, capturing what we can.
In my eighth grade time capsule, there is a photo of me around the age of twelve: chubby-cheeked grin, hot pink Baby G watch, thick eyebrows and round glasses. The back of the photo is signed “For Kesia. Always remember sixth grade science! <3 Mrs. Mitchell”. I do not remember sixth grade science but I do remember Mrs. Mitchell, one of the few teachers I had who looked like me, a Black girl.
Other things in the time capsule include notes from friends, mostly thanking me for being a troublemaker and keeping things interesting. There is a letter I wrote to myself. I ask about who I have become. Do I still live in the same ‘hood in DC? Do I still buy my Chinese slippers at the corner store? Do I still run my business? I had several stumbling starts into entrepreneurship, but I was most likely talking about selling candy at school, which I started in fourth grade. Finally, there is a survey, the last page of which I found the most interesting.
Q: What do you want to do after Upper School?
A: Go to college? Maybe write a book
Q: Where would you like to live?
A: Wash DC
Q: What would you like your job to be?
A: Not sure yet…
Q: Where would you like to travel?
Q: What is your biggest hope for the future?
A: I don’t know, to have fun and do well in high school
Since writing this letter in 2005, I have done well (enough) in high school. I have been to college, and managed to graduate. I’ve written a few books and even published some of them. I’ve traveled to South Africa, Italy and France. I’ve studied in Senegal, London and Barbados. I’m still not sure what I would like my job to be. I currently work as a substitute teacher and quite enjoy it. I’ve also become a mother, though that couldn’t have been further from my mind back in high school. The most important thing though, is that I have had fun.
In reading the letter back to myself, I am amused but also impressed that I highlighted fun as a priority. Here is my philosophy, then, which like my camera, I cling to: fun is freedom. If you are having fun, you are free. This is my philosophy even as a child of a formerly incarcerated woman; perhaps even because of that. We must find the pockets of freedom that we can, or else make them. If you can’t do that, then whether you’re locked behind bars, stuck at a dead-end job or chained to a deteriorating marriage, you have lost your taste for freedom.
We’re all asked the same question when we’re kids. You know the one. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I stumbled over it for years. “You’re smart. You’ve got time. You’ll figure it out,” was the patented response. Now at almost 30 years old, no one asks me what I would like to be anymore. People ask me what I am. The assumption is that the clock has run out and the time that was promised to me has come and gone.
Michel Foucault once said, “I don’t feel it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” The reality for me is that life is not over yet, so I am as much a human becoming as a newborn baby or a great-grandfather playing chess in the park.
Photographs capture moments we can never return to. But I believe that it is not the specific moment that holds value but the sentiment of that moment. The photo from my 6th grade science teacher shows a young girl who is excited about learning new things and trying to understand new concepts. It is the portrait of a girl who is still learning how to think for herself. She is still learning how to communicate and experience. I have changed in many ways since that photo was taken but the sentiment of the photo still lives within me. That girl is very much still a part of who I am.
No one asks me what I want to be when I grow up anymore. Such a shame, now that I have finally landed on the answer. When the dirt falls heavy on my casket or my ashes sail from shore to sea, I would like to have been a person who studied life thoroughly. I would like to have been a person who appreciated both the knowing and the not knowing. Most of all, when it’s all said and done, what I would most like to be is free.