The Boy in the Picture


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.

5 thoughts on “The Boy in the Picture

  1. Really insightful article that got me thinking as well, the photos of myself and yet I truly have no memories from any of those events but can only assume that I was happy in those photos. Reflecting on what you wrote, I truly wonder as well, what would happen if I meant my old self, would I even recognise myself?
    As always, great article LJ.

    1. Hey YanHern,

      Thank you for taking time to read this, and of course thank you for your warm encouraging words.

      I have always wondered why we commemorate photos, and after reading that short excerpt from Goldstein, I figured we all would somehow struggled with some form of self-identity crisis – who are we? is that me? what did i do?

      Truth is, finding those words are hard. I still try to write as best as I could, I took her example as a solid base (with no intention of plagiarising also) and poured my heart to it.

      I wish you could take something away from this, and of course I hope you think about the significance of behind every photograph you take.

      Good luck with your ambition!

      Once again, thank you.
      Ler Jun

  2. “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 agree with this. Yet, as much as it captures the least of the essence or even none, you can also say that it captures the entirety of the moment. Why? Had you not seen this photograph, you wouldn’t even be reminded of the existence of the moment. The moment could’ve been a dream that’s washed away by time. With this photograph however, you knew that it was a reality frozen in eternity. Albeit having little to no memories of the event, the emergence of the event is something worth to rejoice about.

    1. Hi Frank,

      I admit I had not thought of that. (Shame on me for that :p) I wrote the article in the heat of the moment.

      It’s fascinating how a photograph can capture the entirety of the moment. It is a power tool.

      But you know there are times, I dislike it. It irks me how when a random photo appears and you get carried away by the pangs of emotions. You remember everything that happened then – the good, the bad, the mundane- and you begin to relish, regret and blah blah. Then you realised it was a foolish act and you had just simply forget to live in the moment.

  3. Really a good read and it left me thinking for quite a while.Sometimes looking back at photographs it really makes me feel sad that I have so little memory of what had happen. However, I strongly believe that the “past me” will always be the “now me” even though I might not have memory of what happended. Every single moment is a learning experience, we learn from the “bad” moments and improve from the “good” moments. All these moments shape “now me”.

    Photographs not just capture moments of our life but also serve as a reminder to the now us. As we grow older,we tend to limit ourselves to “within the box”, “social norms” and “ourselves”. Photographs of us trying new things remind us to be curious, daring, not afraid to fail. Photographs of us being silly remind us to be true to our own emotions and not care about what other thinks. Photographs just like the one you post could possibly remind you of someone who cares about you, reminding you. to appreciate the love and be thankful for the care. Photographs of the younger you reminds you of the simplicity of life, being appreciative for everything little things you have. All these will also then be a new learning experience which will shape the future you.

    Ps.pardon me for my language skill.

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