The power of photographs versus memory and the mind’s eye

“Travel deep inside yourself
without the baggage of conditioning.
Be an explorer, have patience
and eventually your true nature will surface.
You will return from your journey with fresh skin
and you will approach each day
with a sense of wonder and bliss.”
– Marco R. Capristo

In Siwa I have been reminded again how important photos of family and friends are to me.

Most people here do not have many family photos, as cameras were previously expensive and are still prohibitively so for many people. Even though so many people have mobile phones, the phones that take photos and video are also not affordable for all. T. has pictures of his recent life since getting a camera and through others including tourists taking photos of him and the cafe, but has few pictures of his parents and of him and brothers and sisters when he was younger.

I have put some photos of my family, friends, and Australia on my mobile so when I am with the women here and we run out of shared language after a few sentances, I can show them my family. They love seeing my father, sister and her tall “children”, now grown young men, and my friends and their children.

Here everyone asks as soon as they meet you “Are you married?”, “Do you have children?” and then they demand “Why not?” From the men, this is usually followed by “but you are very beautiful woman, why you not have husband?”! even though I am a plain, increasingly wrinkly middle aged woman.

For a non-Egyptian these constant questions are confronting, but here they are not considered rude or prying at all. Only once in the many hundreds of times I have been asked these questions has a young man quickly added, “I am sorry, I do not mean to be personal”. Everyone else considered these enquiries a normal part of social interaction. I was weary and upset one day after an hour of these questions (when I went to the Tourist Police with the landlord to register renting the house), and T. simply responded “this is Egypt, this is normal”.

As I am female many Egyptians would not expect me to be working, so very few ask “What do you do?” Many of the Siwans still do not understand that I work to pay the rent and look after myself; their wives do not work or even do the shopping, so again I am the foreign woman with strange customs. Being able to show people photos of my family as they are now and of myself and my family in pictures from decades past doing things not so different to what they do with their families, makes me seem not so abnormal in their eyes – family is SO important here.

I sometimes feel sad, a sense of nostalgia in advance, that the Siwan women are not photographed from late childhood on and that some children and their parents do not want to be photographed at all. I respect their choice, but how sad would it be for most of us not to have photos of our families and friends to look back on or share with others, and to show to the next generation?

I treasure the few pictures I have of my grandparents which were taken in the decades when Australian life was not captured so frequently in photographs, when cameras were expensive and film rationed, unlike today where we are snap happy and may each have thousands of digital images. Some of those pictures date back to the early 1900s. I have only two photos of one great grandmother, pictured in 1960 with me as a newborn with my grandmother and my father. I love this photo showing four generations. I have no images of my other great grandparents, and have no idea what they looked like or how they lived, what similarities or differences they may have had to me in looks or lifetyle.

When we first met, T asked me why I had a calendar with pictures of Australia on my kitchen wall. I explained it was a gift from a friend before leaving Australia, and to remind me of there. He said he carries the image of his homeland (Alexandria, he considers himself an Alexandrian foremost) in his head, so he doesn’t need hard copy images.

He shows great pride when he does see pictures of his city or of the Egytians in the onging Revolution protests, or of Sharm where he is working now, but his comment did make me question whether maybe we treasure our photos too much. I would not want to be without mine, but there is something to be said for strength of memory and being able to call up the image of a favourite person or place in your mind’s eye. I wonder how many of us can do that?

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