A friend of mine recently confided in me the following story: Last Thanksgiving she and her family traveled to her parents’ home to celebrate the holiday together. While sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table my friend realized there were no photographs of her on the walls of her parents’ living room. She was taken aback by that realization, so she took the time and looked around her, paying more attention, to see if she missed something. There was a big wall portrait hanging of her sister and brother-in-law from their wedding day. There were other smaller wall portraits of her sister's children scattered all over the walls of the living room as well. And a couple of gift size portraits of her sister holding her children. There was only one photograph of my friend and her husband in that living room. It was a framed 4x6 placed on the accent table in the back of the living room – and it was surrounded by more 4x6 framed portraits of her sister’s children.
What surprised my friend the most is how much this discovery affected her. She is an adult woman with a full and wonderful life and she knows her parents love her.She could not believe how the fact that there were no wall portraits of her and her family on her parents’ living room walls rattled her. She could not believe how hurt she felt, how undervalued. How unloved.
But I could believe it. Although I am not a psychologist, as a professional photographer who specializes in family heirloom portraits and therapeutic photography coaching I understand the power a photograph can have – or the power of the lack of a photograph.
As a society, our family wall portraits are a reflection of us. When a child sees their portrait on the wall of their parents’ home, that child feels valued as a human being. That child feels Loved and cared for. And that child feels they are part of something - that they belong and therefore safe. As children discover the big world out there, beyond their family room walls, they can do so with a sense of security and protection because they are not alone – their loving family is always there - just as their family wall portrait reflects.
We think a photograph is just a photograph. But in my opinion, it is magical. The American Indians never liked being photographed because they said the photograph captures their soul. I think that is exactly what a photograph does. And when it comes to family portraits – it reflects the soul of the family unit back to the world.
As a child,I used to LOVE looking through my parents’ wedding album. Every Saturday morning I would pull out their wedding album from the drawer it was hidden in, I would cuddle up in a cozy chair and blanket and flip through the album. I remember enjoying seeing my beautiful mother in her wedding day glow and cute little white dress. I could sense my handsome father’s excitement and nervousness through these wedding photos. I examined the photographs of the wedding guests, enjoying seeing familiar faces I recognized and curiously excited to “meet” the people in the photos I didn’t know. When I got to the page of my grandparents walking my parents down the aisle to the chuppah, a warm feeling came over me. It felt like I was receiving a loving hug from my grandparents through these photographs.
My parents’wedding album put me in a state of bliss every Saturday morning. The reason their wedding album was hidden away in a drawer was because they divorced just a few years after the wedding. I was four years old at the time. I have no childhood memories of us as a family. I spent a lifetime missing my father in every photograph taken, feeling like I didn’t fully belong anywhere – not even with the new family my mother created which gave me a truly loving father figure in my life – the man who became my stepfather. And I can tell you now, looking back at my childhood and teenage years – that sense of not feeling like I truly belonged anywhere reflected in my behavior and life choices – which many times were not great choices.
Last year my mother surprised me when she gave me a handful of old photographs I have never seen before. These were photos of my mother, my father and me. I was holding these photos in disbelief, staring at my missing memories. There I was, 2 year old Rinat held by my father, a photograph taken from behind so all you can see is our backs, and my father showing me the ocean and I take it all in as only a two year old can - mesmerized by the big blue wonders. I flipped through the photographs, and here is 3 year old Rinat, my mother brushing my hair (that’s before she learned you do not brush curls) as my father stands behind us next to our car (our car??? We had a car??? My mother never owned a car again after their divorce, we got everywhere by public transportation) watching over his little family in a way that gave me that sense of love and protection I never felt growing up.
The next photograph was of my mother and father sitting smiling to the camera. That photo was a little out of focus and strangely tilted. I asked my mother about it, and she told me they gave me the camera and asked me to take their photograph. This was back in 1975. I was 3 years old. It was a real film camera. And a joyful sensation came over me as I realized I am holding in my hands the first photograph I ever took. Many, many years before I would even consider making photography my profession.
This pile of old photographs gave me the closure and peace I was yearning for. That sense of belonging I always searched for and could never find. Yes, photographs are magic. And this specific process I went through with these childhood photos is called Therapeutic Photography, and one of the services I offer in my studio,because I do believe photographs have the power to heal our soul – that same soul a photograph captures in it.
As a portrait photographer I have the opportunity to visit many homes, and I love seeing some beautiful family portraits hanging on the walls. I think of my friend, who could not find one photograph of her on her parents’ living room wall and it saddens me to think how many families do not understand the true power of a photograph. The one good thing about what happened to my friend is that it helped her realize she wants to get a beautiful family portrait of her family taken and hang it on her living room wall - large and empowering.For her children to always feel they are valued. And wherever they go in the world when they grow up – that there is a place where they will always belong.