While rummaging through the drawer in my relative’s house, I came across the photograph of a little boy at a garden. It is an old photograph. It was bright and sunny, and flowers bloomed in the foreground and back. I presume it was spring. He held onto his aunt with one tiny hand while the other cupped and pressed against his right temple, his eyes gazing away from the photographer. That boy, clad in T-shirt and red shorts with a red baseball cap, is me. I have zero memory of the events that unfolded that day in the garden. I do not recall why that boy had his hand pressed against his temple. In fact, I am not even certain if I was pressing against my temple or merely trying to shield myself from the sun.
That is the problem with photographs. While we willingly or unwillingly let ourselves be frozen into stillness, hoping to retain its memories – childbirth, birthdays, graduations, marriage, even deaths –and emotions, you realised that you retain a little of it, sometimes none at all. I do not despise it, neither am I fond of it.
But there is something worth capturing. Something that makes even the timidest man venture into unchartered grounds or foreign territories to capture the unspeakable and unthinkable. Otherwise, I imagine photography to be a dying trade.
I find it amusing that the boy in the picture is me. But how much of him is retained in my bloodstream? It has been more than 10 years since that picture was taken. I have completed 12 years of compulsory education. I am about to complete National Service. My physique, my voice, my train of thoughts, my linguistic capabilities, and my preferences have changed. I am unable to comprehend his decisions and his actions. Likewise, he would be eluded by the choices I will make or the hobbies I have. In so many different ways, we are unalike. Yet that child, in T-shirt and red shorts with a red baseball cap, is me.
I yearn to peek into his mind. To see his train of thoughts when he took his first solo elevator ride, his first solo bus ride, his first durian tasting … I wonder if he had paced back and forth at the lobby, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves before taking a step through the hole in the wall. I wonder if he had anxiously looked out of the window as the bus halted and the commuters alighted and boarded, or had he merely followed the crowd. I wonder if his face creased in disgust as he inhaled the pungent odour of the spiky fruit his father had pried open, or had he simply dismissed the smell and tore apart the flesh of the tropical fruit with his milk teeth.
Had he decided to take a different route home from school, would he still be me today? Had he decided to be vegetarian, would he still be me today? Had he arrived late at the hospital with a burning fever when he was four, would I still exist today? He – that is I- had gone through many dramas, many of which I yearned to have prescience of.
Regardless, the photograph, taken on that long forgotten day, still remains foreign.
This is the problem with that photograph: that little boy in it reminded myself of who I used to be and who I no longer am.
“What I can see is what I am not.” – Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project.
*Disclaimer: This post is greatly inspired by a passage on personal identity from “Betraying Spinoza” written by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I write with the hopes of improving my writing, feedback appreciated.