Photographs: Kevin Tosh
In our old family home (and probably yours, too) there’s a cabinet that’s filled with photo albums. We’d look at them once in a while on our own, but when they really came out was when we had visitors. After lunch, or during tea, guests would receive a stack of photo books whose height was directly proportional to how long it had been since they’d last visited us. First time visitors got the whole tour: spanning pre-baby photos to present day reality, more common guests only got only the more recent ones. People who visited all of the time usually would get nothing. The ritual was reciprocated when we visited other people as someone played the narrator, giving us context as we pored over volumes of family memories on our laps.
Nowadays, with phones and Ipads and laptops and with WhatsApp and Facebook and Instagram, sometimes it seems like the days of the good old photo album are nearing obsolescence. What’s the use of a bulky book when you can broadcast life events in real time to hundreds and thousands of people at one go, or hold on to them in digital form on a device small enough to fit in your pocket? But I think there’s still something a little special about physical albums that digital copies of images can never match. Like how physical books trump e-books, though perhaps with a little less nostalgia. Tosh thinks it’s because you can claim ownership to them in ways that you can’t with digital images– to prove this, he constantly prints out copies of images that he particularly likes and gifts them to friends and loved ones.
I think it could be something as basic as their not needing Wi-Fi or a charged device; if the world were to be taken over by a zombie apocalypse and all the electric plants had to be shut down– don’t judge me if my zombie apocalypse logic is off, I’m a little rusty on my Walking Dead trivia. But anyway. Even if this happened and you couldn’t get Wi-Fi, your baby photos would remain safe beneath that polythene cover.* But I wonder if we just feel this strongly because much of our childhood is chronicled in photo albums. Maybe children born in a more digital era couldn’t care less for albums. Just as I often wonder whether we won’t one day completely turn to e-books and that wonderful smell of physical books will be a thing of the past (gaaasp!! noo)
Looking into old photo albums is a strange exercise of gazing at yourself in distorted mirrors. You are never the same now as you were at any particular time in the past. I feel like these other versions of me are strangers in some ways. Who did toddler Wanjiku like the most at this moment in time? What was the most exciting thing happening in her life? What worried her the most? Kept her up at night? Toddler Wanjiku, I need you to break the time-space continuum and give me a running tour of your life, explaining what was happening when this photo was taken.
Do you ever find yourself looking at old photo albums and wondering about who you were at that point in time? This could even be for more recent photographs; as someone told me: “sometimes it’s possible to change more in a year than you thought was possible.”
*As a side, “polythene” is underlined with that red squiggly line and I’m not sure why– is it not in the American dictionary or am I just spelling it wrong?