Amy Datsko
The Ritual of Family Photography, p. 3

Looking at the photo now, I see my sunken cheeks and bony fingers and realize that maybe I should not have been there. But the ritual was still carried out -- and in the photo I look as happy and comfortable with my cousins as I had every other year. There is something to be said for a liminal mood so distinct from the everyday that it lifted me from the time of greatest desperation in my life. At a time I consider to be the most "not me," there is here a transcendence of chronology, even as the details of the photograph record precisely that history from which the ritual seemed to offer an escape.

In the 1996 ritual, I was not self-conscious of my status as an anorexic, nor was I so wrapped up in my feelings of isolation that I was unable to experience the energy of my cousins in the ritual. As in the prior photos, I experienced the ritual mood of ease, comfort and warmth that had been the trademark of every other year. One might suppose that this was a delusion, that the ritual offered merely an escape from reality. Yet having the photo from this year to look back on, I realize that the "1996 me" is not really so different from the "1984 me" or the "1999 me." There is a truth to the ritual's denial of change, its assertion of stability in the face of flux.

In a twentieth century context, in which my cousins and I rarely saw each other, and were connected solely by genealogy, the family photograph is constitutive, not merely representational. It was part of what made our family what it was, beyond bloodlines. As Barbara Myerhoff emphasized, by looking carefully at our rituals, we find a reflection of ourselves-we see a glimpse of what is true and essential. Although there is an aspect of duplicity in family photographs (fake smiles which, years on, look real), and though there is the ever-present doubling and distancing of photography in general, there is also an aspect of the numinous, a glimpse of the sacred. The photograph as ritual transcends the obvious even as it includes it; they show us what matters, only for a moment. They do not deny temporality so much as include it in a larger context of significance; 1996 is neither "not me" nor all of me. There is something in me that transcends illness and a permanence that only became known to me when the supposedly real world was, for a moment, cast aside in the ritual act of the photograph. Seven years on, I wonder: which is more real-the part of me left behind in the ritual, or the part of me that was reached?

[1]       [2]       3
Image: The family photo, 1996

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