Old photographs tease out fragments of a memory— a laugh, a sigh, a conversation the camera interrupts and then suspends across time. Looking at photographs and documents that came to me after my parents died, I’m struck not only by how much I’ve forgotten but really how much the past comes rushing back when called. Sometimes forgetting is simply being afraid to remember.
There were all kinds of reasons that I had been afraid to delve into my past because I knew nothing about my German father, and I was afraid, in a certain way, to ask my mother about him. It was clear that she didn’t want to talk about him, but I was afraid that he was the worst of the worst— that he had been a Nazi. Who knows what he did during the war? I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know all that.
Emily Dickinson had an expression in one of her poems, a great line:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The truth’s superb surprise.
The truth is one thing for one person and one thing for another. Neither of the people are lying, but their memory of an event is simply different. I’m sure if my three parents, my American step-father, my German father and my German mother were still alive, and they saw this project that I’ve done — which alas, they’ve never seen — they would have their own experience of how true it was to what actually happened.
"Time Like a River", Image © Brigitte Carnochan
All I’m trying to do with the project is to imagine what the truth might have been. Since I was born in ’41, at the age that I was in this period from 1941 to 1947, all I can do is imagine the truth. People often refer to this body of work as “Remembering Then,” but it’s very deliberately called Imagining Then — because then — because I can’t actually remember very much of those years. But that’s the power of the photographs that survived: Through looking at the photographs, I can begin to imagine around the edges how that life might have been and combine it with conversations that I remember in terms of the family and also with visits back to Germany over the years and talking to relatives about minor things— remembering stealing tomatoes out of my grandmother’s garden, for example.