A 35MM camera can hold about 36 photos. Pictures are worth 1,000 words. This means a roll of film has the potential to hold 36,000 words. That’s like a chapter in a book. Or a chapter in a life. But what if that roll of film isn’t yours, and it’s supposed to be a chapter in someone else's life?
I used to wonder how many photos I had been in where I didn't belong. How many times have I been captured in someone else’s moments?
You figure that you have inadvertently ended up in the backdrop of someone else’s life at least a few dozen times. It’s a curious thought, maybe a meaningless one. What does it matter that I’m in another person’s photo when I’m not a part of their life?
Most of us will probably never be faced with the answers to these questions, because there’s about a 99.99% chance you’ll never see one stranger’s photo that you are in. But that’s the thing about odds, they are created under the assumption that there’s always a chance. One day you may come across an old roll of film in the attic of a childhood home, that somehow got lost and buried in the rubble of someone else’s life. And it may just allow you to get a glimpse of your life through someone else’s lens.
I lived in a neighborhood like any other. You couldn’t pick it apart from any small town in any other place in America. I hate to be that person, but when I was a kid, the minute you could ride a bike, freedom was yours. You ran the streets, the alleyways, and anywhere your two feet or two wheels could take you. As long as you were home by the time the streetlights were on, no one made a fuss. But again, this chapter isn’t about me.
This camera’s story was intended for the kids across the street. For the longest time I always referred to them as that. I was too afraid to learn their names, too afraid to really know them. Too afraid for them to really know me. That’s what most of these photos were about. The kids across the street, doing what any quintessential child in small town America does, and the photographer was there to capture that freedom.
Isn’t that a funny concept, capture freedom. Two words that shouldn’t go together.
The photos were blurs of them trying to be free, playing on the street and riding bikes, the photographer a constant impediment to that freedom, as they forced them to look at the camera. Smile. Stop playing so that we can take a picture of you playing. Nothing demonstrates the carefree nature of a child like trying to get them to slow down and compose themselves.
They truly fit into that life. The photos were simply pushing pause on a reel that was meant to play. I fit into it like I fit into those photos, a person in the background never meant to be there.
But I understand this captured freedom.
I think that’s why we lived there, in that small town American neighborhood you couldn’t pick a part from any other. We wanted to feel this same sense of liberty. We didn’t want to be picked apart from anyone else. That’s the other odd thing about freedom, you often feel the most free when you’re just like everyone else.
When I used to look back in my mind, I thought we had succeeded. I thought we had done a good job hiding in the open. But looking back in the photos, I see we were never fully disguised. We, too, had been captured. And just like a posed picture, freedom can be an illusion.
These photos aren’t mine, and they tell a chapter in someone else’s story, but behind the scenes they are also a snapshot of another kid across the street, me.
There is a photo of a car, my dad’s, half parked on the lawn and half parked in the driveway.
This is from when he drunk drove home and couldn’t manage to park the car straight.
There’s a photo where I can see the broken window on our front door.
It was like that for months. My dad smashed it in a rage.
There’s a photo of our dog running loose, digging a hole in the neighbor’s yard.
My dad forgot we had a dog after letting him outside to pee. The neighbors eventually called and complained.
Then it gets personal.
There is a photo where I can see myself clinging to my mother on our doorstep, as she tries to leave the house.
I didn’t want to be left alone with him.
And there I am again, watching the kids across the street. They’re all playing together in the front yard. It’s one of their birthdays.
I remember wishing I had birthdays like theirs. I watched several of them throughout the years with this same face. It’s a little scrunched, like I’m trying to look into the sun, but that’s not why it’s shaped that way. It’s scrunched in confusion, concentration, jealousy, sadness. It is so mixed in how it feels that it’s squished into multiple faces, appearing as one contorted blob.
I didn’t need a camera to see these images. They were ones that lived in my head. I just never knew that anyone could see them too.
When I look at the photos, where they were actually focused, I see what the girl across the street sees. What I saw. We pretended to be like the family in the foreground. But life can be as posed as a photograph, as free as a captured image.
I think you get the picture. And this is not that story. That one is captured over time, over many rolls of film. This is the story that answers the question about how meaningful it is to be caught in someone else’s moment.
When this roll of film was found and developed, I saw it differently than the kids across the street. We both saw our childhoods in these photos. They reminisce about forgotten memories, while I see memories I want to forget.
I would watch these kids across the street from what seemed like afar, but I was right there the whole time. I was trying to seize their childhood, like that camera. I wanted these images from their posed life, but mine was just interposing in on it.
On a larger scale, it doesn’t matter when you end up in someone else’s moment. It has no effect on your life, or the owner of the photo’s, whether you’re in that picture or not. It does not change its meaning to them, and it doesn’t mean anything to you. You don’t even know you’re there. Until one day you come across a roll of film and you realize you were. You see yourself through someone else’s eye. It is the ultimate candid shot, and we all know how unflattering most of those are.
At this point, you’re probably wondering how I even got my hands on these photos, why this matters at all.
The short story…
The only thing you truly need to understand is that, just because you appear to be in the background of someone else's life, doesn’t mean that’s the reality. One day, you may just find that the moments you thought you were invisible, you had really been seen the whole time.
A longer story…
Strangers don’t necessarily stay strangers forever. Sometimes a kid across the street can become a friend. It only takes a moment. Some day, you may even become more than that. That takes time. And eventually, you’re no longer a person in the background of the photo, but someone who is meant to be there.
That story, well, that would take another roll of film, a full chapter of 36,000 words. Then another. And then so many more. Because the sum of a life cannot be derived from a snapshot, or 36,000 words. It’s many rolls of film found and developed over a lifetime. Be in as many as you can. Don’t let freedom be posed. Capture a life, not a snapshot.