When I was five we moved an hour up the road to the house I would live in for the remainder of my childhood. I remember standing in the bathroom on our first night. The sun was setting and the sky was glowing pink and orange out of the kitchen window but in the bathroom it was dark and warm and there was this smell – lino, hot from another long summer day, and warm water that had been resting in old pipes. That’s the memory I have. Just that one.
Our minds want to remember transitions and moments of great change; the big deal, pivotal moments, the ones that shape who we are and act as crossroads in this crazy life. They want to remember, but they struggle. Over time things get hazy and then bits and pieces fall away altogether, so we’re left with fragments, snippets – mere sound bites, impossible to reproduce.
This is why photographs are so very important. They hold our memories, help us remember the moments we treasure. They become the archives of our personal history.
My little family recently moved interstate. I knew the move would be stressful. Change is hard, and the unknown with a toddler and newborn in tow was always going to be some variation of an adventure. Still, picking up the camera has always given me purpose and I knew I needed a record of the trip, even though I wouldn’t feel like making it at the time. So while I was at home and in my cosy comfort zone I made a pact. I would force myself to take out my camera during the journey. Why? Because I believe in the importance and necessity of documenting our lives.
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My father took photographs but never when life was stressful or hectic. To him, the camera was a mighty and precious thing. Getting it out from its styrofoam lined case was a ceremony. He’d use a squeezy gadget to puff air on everything and wipe at the glass with a special cloth before every use. Lenses were changed quickly and with bated breath in a still and dustless place, away from little fingers and movement. Taking photographs was an activity, something that happened on Saturday mornings when life was good and days were slow and the environment could be completely controlled.
So there was never going to be photographs of the move we made as kids, nor the days that followed. There were never photographs of us just living our lives. Nothing that was messy or ordinary was apparently worth the great effort it took to get out the camera, or the risk of something going wrong.
I’ve grown to become the exact opposite of that kind of photographer. I keep my camera handy. It’s been splashed in the bathroom, had tomato sauce dripped on the dials, and countless two year olds have touched my lenses when I’m all up in their space.
So I wasn’t afraid to photograph our recent move. Even though I knew it would be stressful. Even though it would be hectic and I’d be overwhelmed and probably a little crazy. Because I knew when all was said and done, I’d regret it if I didn’t. I’d regret that a piece of our family history was left to mere memory.
My daughter is two and my son is just a baby, but one day they may want to know about this time, this momentous move that will change the course of their lives. I want to have the photographs to show them. I want the visual cues that will allow me to recall with complete clarity the old house, the journey, the first days and weeks in a new place – that magical time while we’re discovering how we’ll live and make a home in this strange, new space.
So during our move, I took out my camera. In the hotel, exhausted from a day of packing our old house, I took it out. On the plane, a wriggling toddler stretched out across my legs, I took it out. In the airport with a baby strapped to my chest and weighed down by baggage, I still took it out.
As the years passed, we slowly renovated my childhood home. These days I forget the original floor plan. The shapes, patterns, textures of the home we moved into all those years ago are lost to me.
The bathroom I stood in on my first night in that house was eventually converted into a pantry with shelves lining the walls where the old green bathtub used to be. Yet if I went into that room in the heart of summer, just as the sun was setting, I could sometimes catch the memory of that first night in our new house. For just an instant, I could stand on the cool new tiles in the dark and breathe in the phantom smell of lino and old bathroom fittings, before it flitted away.
That moment, that almost remembrance, will always act as my reminder.
Always, always take the picture.
Guest post writing and images are from photographer, Michelle McKay.
Michelle McKay is a documentary photographer based in Geelong, Victoria. She is a former English teacher and an eternal writer and poet who was drawn to photography after the birth of her daughter. Website // Instagram // Facebook