It started with a photo. There wasn’t anything significant about the image. The photograph wasn’t even high quality. But the memory I associated with the moment it was taken captured me. It compelled me to ask:How do I choose the images that are important to me?
My personal discovery was chronicled in a four-part series. The first article, Treasuring My Dad Through a Photo I Hate was published in October. As I wrote it, I realized that photographs, even ones we despise, can become sentimental artifacts over time because of their imperfections. Some of the most personal images act like Hermann Rorschach Inkblot Tests. I see something different with every glance. The Reality of a Candid Photo, which highlighted my grandparents decades before they taught me how to tie my shoes, begged the question of what it is we really see in a photograph.
Can a photo capture who we are inherently as opposed to the best self we present to the world?
And lastly, Rediscovering My Childhood in the Background of a Photo took me deeper into a photograph. I realized that it’s not always what’s in the foreground of a picture that is the heart of an image.
For my final piece in the series, I thought it was natural to present my top five favorite photographs of 2013 to illustrate what I learned and put it into focus.
#5. The Birds
I treated myself to a trip to San Francisco for my 39th birthday to visit one of my best friends and her husband. They took me to Bodega Bay for a weekend at the beach. While walking through the small main street that sits inland from the coastal harbor wharf, we visited a small church.
The chapel appeared in the film “The Birds,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
It was difficult to capture the whole chapel. The church stands atop a hill along a steep slope. The patch of grass that spreads beyond the steps was easily crowded by the other tourists photobombing my shot. I managed to capture a sliver of what I saw that day.
My travel photos rarely work out, so this one is special. The architecture of this piece with the brilliant blue sky feels fake, like a movie set. But nothing was staged. It was literally just a moment.
#4. Sympathy Card
My father died last year from cancer.
Scarlett was his constant companion for 15 years, a stray that wandered into his workplace at Hubbard Construction. She was his “shop dog” for six years before he brought her home to live in the house with us.
When my dad fell ill, Scarlett would stay in his room or in the hallway just outside.
My six year old niece was worried about Scarlett when my dad died. Like me, she loves animals. When my brother brought his kids to Jacksonville for the funeral, Kate gave Scarlett a handmade sympathy card. It was decorated with grass, trees and Scarlett’s name in her child scrawl. Kate placed the card in front of Scarlett so she could read it.
#3. Up on the Roof
I went to New York with a tour group of about sixty travelers from Raleigh.
Our hotel was in Times Square, called The Muse hotel. The view from my room caught my eye because of the architecture, the way the buildings connected together, and the different shapes and textures they create.
More than rooftops and shingles, there was what wasn’t so obvious. If you look very closely at the church roof you can see a small, angry looking, owl. It took me a good hour to realize it isn’t real — it’s there to keep the pigeons away.
In addition to my administrative duties, I serve as the advisor to the incoming undergraduate freshmen class at a private college in Raleigh, NC. As they adjust to their first year in college they realize what it means to leave home. They miss their families and childhood pets.
I took this photo during final rehearsals for Cornhuskin’; a student event like Homecoming at other universities. I brought Dinah, a two-year old rescue from an animal shelter. I dressed her as an angel on this particular night.
Dinah is the happiest dog I’ve ever known. She wags her tail in her sleep. She has a gift for making people feel at ease. Photos of her end up looking like a blurred mess. But in this candid photo, she’s calm. She’s bringing joy to a complete stranger.
We can’t be the photographer for every moment in our lives. Sometimes we need others to capture what we can’t or don’t see. My sister-in-law sent this one to me.
I’ve printed it several times. It’s our first family photo without my dad, taken after the funeral. My mother hates having her picture taken. She kept making faces or moving. It took 12 attempts to get this shot, which is why we’re all laughing.
I’m so grateful to my sister-in-law for getting this moment.
The images in this article demonstrate what I’ve learned about the photograph. They make me remember and treasure the simple moments, staged or stolen. When I look at a snapshot in time, I feel joy because of the context and the imperfections in the print. The sum of the emotion, candidness, and characters in the shot give the photo meaning. That meaning changes, evolves, and matures as I age. And when they’re a physical print, they become something more permanent in my life. Something tangible, everlasting, and powerful.