Find me a good old photo, on pain of death

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It may sound like a morbid conundrum to have, but it can be quite annoying when you can’t find the perfect photograph to remember your dearly departed by.

Your beloved grandparent will forever have that merry glint in their eyes... provided the camera flash is kind.

My father’s photo, adorned with a touch of kumkum and sandalwood paste, is a new addition to our living room’s wall cabinet. Dad looks at least ten years younger in that picture than when he passed away recently at the age of 77. It was originally a passport photo — the studio deepened the barely-there grey-blue background to a royal blue, which sets off his clear eyes and white shirt to advantage. It evoked much wistful appreciation, and some felt his eyes were looking at them directly. However, I felt it didn’t do his genial personality any justice and am on the quest to find a good picture that will, from among the several electronic and physical folders I store my photos in.

This is a phenomenon many will be familiar with — and increasingly so: Despite having several recent pictures of him on our phones, we did not have prints or suitable high-resolution images for the obituary in the newspaper. A friend mentions that her grandmother hated being photographed, always covering her face when the cameras came out, leaving their family with just some four pictures of her. Another friend says they too had to settle for a 10-year-old picture of her 70-year-old grandfather when he passed away. They did not find one that represented him for the fun-loving person he was, till a friend of theirs gifted them with a photo of his from his album about two weeks later. Her grandfather, a celebrated doctor, was informally dressed in the photo, in a veshti and a banian, but it was clear that he was pulling someone’s leg and revelling in it. To the family, it was quintessentially him.



Over 25 years ago, a cousin came bearing a camera on one of her visits, and began snapping pictures of my grandmother. “Why?” we asked, as we didn’t know her to be a shutterbug. “I always take pictures of old people,” she said, with a smile so bright and honest that any offence we might have taken at her very unvarnished insinuation withered before it took root. It was great foresight. When my grandmother departed soon after, that cousin’s picture of her — sitting in an armchair, in a rather creased brown and red-border sari, she sported a gap-toothed grin, her clasped hands showing off the psoriatic spots on her knuckles, wisps of silver hair coming loose — was framed/ laminated and distributed to the rest of the family. It was a photo of the original photo, we had an alternative in a handsome black-and-white studio picture of her in her prime, but it didn’t matter. This latest one was her, through and through. It was how she looked every evening, her diabetes, her heart and the heat taking their toll on her, but amused by something or the other, which could be related to family, politics, cinema or a recipe that made it to the pages of a magazine claiming novelty.

An Ohio State University (OSU) study in 2009 of obituary photos between 1967 and 1997 revealed a growing bias against ageing faces. Keith Anderson, co-author of the study and a professor of social work at OSU, said this suggested that people were less accepting of advancing age in the ’90s. It was understandable that the family wanted to pick a photo they felt portrayed their spouse or parent at his or her best, Anderson said, “but what is remarkable is how we as a society define these peak years, and how that definition has changed over time.”

Naturally, everyone would want to look their best regardless of the occasion, but is this true to what they really are? Would they like to look good or look like themselves? The answers could vary. Not always can a single picture capture the many facets of one’s personality — only thing to do is to choose one that illuminates those you remember them the most by.

When my father’s father passed away in 2002, my family faced the same problem of not finding a suitable photo of his soon enough. The ones that we had of him were too old, unclear or deemed unsuitable for some reason or the other. Someone e-mailed a passable option, and we settled for that. When the family congregated for a lunch held in his memory, Dad, an avid photographer, went around taking pictures of his uncles and aunts gathered there, “for future use”, much to the hilarity of the others gathered there. I don’t know where those photos are, I know some of them have not been called upon yet, but if they are needed and I do find them, I hope they serve as a fine representation of the people in them.

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