Lockdown living: Family and friends’ photos keep me company

There are embarrassing photos, childhood images, and pictures of past loves

How do we decide what’s worth the space in our homes and the emotions they conjure up, good and bad?

With all this time in the house, the things we have surrounded ourselves with seem all the more important. What comes into focus the most is the framed photos of people or times worth remembering. Will we frame the photos that we take in these weeks? How do we decide what’s worth the space in our homes and the emotions they conjure up, good and bad? I wonder how we will feel about the photos we take in these weeks and months.

There are photos that make me feel embarrassed, like the one of me taken in a back alley studio in Hanoi in 1998 – an experience gift from a Vietnamese friend who wanted me to get involved in the then popular activity of getting a professional photo taken of oneself dressed up as a fully blown bride. It was six hours of unadulterated humiliation.

I managed to politely decline having my eyebrows shaved off with a raw blade, “too diagonal!”. I tittered nervously when a hot glue gun was used to stick fake pearls into my hair, “too frizzy!”.

The photographer pointed at the tiny white wedding dress on the costume rack, then looked at me, puffed out his cheeks and exclaimed “too fat!” before dressing me in traditional Vietnamese groom’s wear and giving me a large vase to hug.


Those photos do make me laugh, but the indignity my 16-year-old self faced is still too intense for daily remembrance so they are in a box in the attic.

But even the ones I have displayed, I question. The one on the mantlepiece is a sepia photo of two women with faces like bloodhounds and outfits like Mary Poppins sitting on a bench in a big, dark room. It looks like they are immigrants waiting to be processed in Ellis Island in the early 1900s but it's actually my sister-in-law and I at the end-of-tour gift shop of the New York landmark in 2010.

She protested at first at taking up the friendly photographer’s offer of personalised memorabilia but I knew she had gotten into it when she told me to change my smile into a frown for authenticity, and we laughed the whole ferry ride home.

The photo does make me sad because he's out there in the world and I don't know what he thinks about everything; I used to know

On the shelf in the dining room there is a gold-framed picture of my friend and I in 2008. Another friend gave it to me when she was moving house and said, “Do you want this or will it make you sad?” God, my 26-year-old skin is bouncing in it. I can feel his jacket still under my chin as I leaned over his shoulder that night, me beaming playfully, his eyes serious but happy, I think.

The photo does make me sad because he’s out there in the world and I don’t know what he thinks about everything; I used to know. The last message went unanswered. I give up, I thought, as I always do when there is no response, until I think of him again.

How can I celebrate the past without missing it? My lineless face and those endless hours debating Metallica’s integrity are gone.

It’s over a month now that we have been confined to the house with these photos keeping me company in a way that video calls do not, maybe because they capture “real” moments that are not beamed through cables and satellites.

I am trying to take it a day at a time, trying not to worry about everyone whom I love. I see that my brother is outside, dropping something off. I have been worrying about him the most. I rush out and to see him in the flesh makes my heart jump.

I’m sad that we cannot hug, as we always hug, but we can stand far apart and shoot the breeze for a few short moments and it is infinitely better than any screen or frame could ever be.

I go back inside to all the photos, each with something important to remind me of. There are two photos side by side of my siblings and I in 1986. The first is of the four of us standing on a high wall on a beach holding hands. Beside it is one of us jumping off. We are dropping through the air with eyes and mouths open wide with fear, having let go of each other’s hands and falling alone, but together.