A Picture of Oneself

There is a picture in my cellphone of me as a child. The wood-paneled walls in the background say it was taken sometime between 1993 and 1995, which means I’m ten to twelve years old, in the living room of our home in Coventry Village—a complex of townhouses where my family lived during those years. In the picture, I’m wearing Washington Redskins sweatpants, that familiar burgundy background and gold lettering, and shirtless, showcasing with a smile my preadolescent chubby stomach and breasts, flexing what I thought to be muscles with my arms curled downward like a pair of open handcuffs. My mother recently texted me this memory—her manicured fingernail is framed in the foreground of the cellphone picture of a picture—and more recently, I rediscovered it while looking aimlessly through my saved images. I detest this picture. I detest it in not only the way I detest many childhood pictures of myself, but also with the hatred one holds for the embodiment of something deeper, for the object that represents an idea.

“[The] Photograph is the advent of myself as other,” writes Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida, “a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity.”[1] The experience of looking at a picture of yourself—or better yet, of observing someone look at a picture of himself—affirms this notion. Through the picture the understood I becomes the alienated you or it: photography’s implied pretension of faithfully capturing the thing as it was necessarily begs the question what the thing is. And a childhood picture intensifies the dynamic of turning “subject into object,”[2] exposing the degree to which how we relate to ourselves, and our supposed past selves, can be a relatively unexplored country for everyone[3]—unexplored perhaps in the same sense that Columbus didn’t discover a new land, rather the limits of his existence.

Barthes argues that a photograph “can be the object of three practices … to do, to undergo, to look,” which correspond to the relationships one has to the photo: the Operator, or the photographer; the Spectator, viewers of the image; and the Spectrum, that is, the object photographed.[4] ce dead.”[5] To look one’s childhood doppelganger in the eyes is to have questions asked of yourself that cannot be fully reasoned or returned in kind—the most perplexing of which is typically some variant of “Who is this person?”, inquisitor and interviewee undetermined. An answer, i.e., a description of phenomenon, also runs headlong into the limitations of description itself: of the photograph’s ability to capture or, more accurately, produce a fully comprehensible representation of experience on the one hand; and on the other, the possibility that language can thoroughly describe the phenomenon of perceiving the photo. Viewing then must inevitably be crosscurrents of recognition and misrecognition, of oneself and the relationship to oneself, crissing and crossing such that what the thing is can feel unlocatable, possibly even a fiction.

I do not remember the day this picture was taken. I do, however, remember the times. Fifth grade was Graceland Elementary School and Mrs. Diana Bell—a tall and large black woman who pinched my cheeks with a vigor that revealed she did not know her own strength, and who doled out my only experience with corporal punishment (she also moonlighted at a Kroger near the home of my paternal aunt where we occasionally saw her). Sixth grade was Graves Elementary School and Mrs. Peggy Jones—a white lady, smaller and older than Mrs. Bell, who I recall once saying she feared having emphysema. I and my family—mother, father, and one-year-younger sister—must have moved into that townhouse shortly before the start of or shortly after the beginning of my fifth-grade year. A related memory from this time is updating my address with Mrs. Bell sometime during the school year and having to acknowledge that, gulp, I no longer lived in the appropriate school district, which would have meant transferring midyear to another school (this was luckily and inexplicably avoided). I high-stepped through that living room with my father’s old, mostly lace-less football, wearing a bandana on my head in imitation of Deion Sanders. Our breaths were exhaled into the dank and polluted air of broken vows. In this living room, too, I first contemplated suicide. It was a blue ink pen I thought of placing into a vein of my left arm, allowing, I imagined, the liquid to poison me to death (the writer can now appreciate the tender poetry of the pen as a tool of erasure). And in this living room I also revealed my musing on self-immolation to my parents: they believed it a transient and generally not concerning notion. There were friends—Brent, originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and my best friend, Joseph; [6] and apparently requited crushes—Katrina, whose full lips, big nose, and glasses I see as clearly as though I were a boy again and trying to daydream her into reality; and Abigail, bespectacled, chubby, and oval-faced Abigail, who I last recall seeing in a department store wearing matching dark blue sweatpants and sweatshirt, and whose resemblance to my paternal aunt is now keen.

I recall sitting in a real estate agency’s office with a forced smile on my face when it was announced that we had gotten the house while my parents and sister and real estate agent cheered (now a moment of false expression resonates from a decade and a half later, like a church bell’s echo—another story for another time). We left for a three-bedroom house in August or September of 1995. I changed schools a month into my seventh-grade year. And it, whatever it was or is, was not the same thereafter. Those were some of the better days of my life.

That the photograph produces a re-acquaintance is irrefutable. Where a poem or song, for instance, may call forth a memory or memories, each shaped by the palimpsest relationship of memories to memories, the photo evidences the lived instant in an apparently objective manner. Mistruth of this perception aside, the dynamics underpinning how one experiences a photograph, and the accompanying “return,” are obvious. Though the repulsion I feel is not a product of Barthes’s “return of the dead”—inasmuch as “the dead” must in some way, shape, or form be a matter of conclusion. Moreover, for me, death is a nonexistent category—there is only memory and loss[7]—because in remembrance everything and everyone is quite alive. Death as finality, death, at the risk of glibness, as irreversible so long as people populate Earth, is a debunked myth in the continually retrievable past. The photograph’s, my photograph’s, intensity and poignancy reside in its ability to reintroduce one to the thing that is not gone—it is the return of that which is believed to be overcome. When I look at this picture, and think of this picture, I encounter all that I falsely tell myself was left behind. I am reacquainted with the repressed.

Freud, to whom all roads consciously and unconsciously seem to lead, writes in his essay, “The ‘Uncanny,’”:

[If] psycho-analytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; and it must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect.[8]

I mobilize the language and ideas of Freud here somewhat literarily, as a means of contextualizing my relationship to this picture, because I’ve encountered no other way to understand my reaction. Considering that younger self—the smile, the baby afro, the pose, the time and place—I see the unseen and hear the unsaid, I experience the uncanny. In this picture is an incomplete truth. Beneath the surface of the image it creates is someone who sometimes wished to escape, in some instances by any means necessary, from home, from himself. Freud, in his essay, recounts a walk through an Italian town during which he arrives in an area he wants to leave. But after two attempts via different paths, he finds himself in the same quarter of town and experiencing something that “I can only describe as uncanny.”[9] Searching for some way to conclude this essay, I found myself wondering if the uncanny can be eliminated, if there could be some day when I see this picture, or any other of myself, and not feel this aversion. In the past five years, I’ve moved from my hometown and lived in four apartments. Yet, none of it is enough. All these years later something fundamental has not changed and perhaps never will: I am the object from which there is no escape.

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 12.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] An irrepressible step in the same temporal direction would also have us ponder the images that imply our lives, but in which we are nonexistent. Consider those freeze-frames and talkies in which your parents are carefree, happy, and you-less. “Don’t do it! It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you,” yells the unnamed narrator of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz’s wonderful 1937 short story. In a dream, the narrator sees his parents’ courtship play on a movie screen (different phenomenologically but thematically apropos). And shortly after his mother accepts his father’s marriage proposal, he stands and yells: “Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” Pity Mrs. O’Leary and Pandora and all those who bring ruin to heaven!

[4] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 9.

[5] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 9.

[6] Joseph and I met in fifth grade, and though we rarely lived in the same neighborhood (and never within walking distance), we remained friends, through his family’s increasing peripateticism and periods when we were not in contact, into our late teens or early twenties. As a kid, he was smart, funny, and charming. Girls liked him. I admired him. He would eventually serve time for murder. We haven’t spoken in probably a decade.

[7] Loss, as I define it, is the unbridgeable gap between the lifelike dream state of memory and the un-replicable state of lived reality.

[8] Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955), 241.

[9] Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” 237.

A Picture of Oneself was originally published in The Blackstone Review in December 2016.